Why Look At Animals?
Curator: John Berger
February 3—March 31, 2007
So he turned with metronome and fife
To glorify other kinds of life
Be quiet please – for here begins
His salute to feathers, furs, and fins.
-Ogden Nash, Carnival of Animals
A salute indeed, a perfect place to start, to celebrate the animal world. But Ogden Nash only skims the surface of the fascination with animals. A deep interest in animals has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a result, I am always looking and trying to figure them out and often succumbing to the fact that it is a futile endeavor, though one that I will never give up. We are part of this animal world yet it also seems so distant from humans, we impose our traits upon animals but who is to say that they are not imposing their traits upon us. We will never truly know because they aren’t talking; yet somehow, whether it is human ego or a thirst for knowledge, we always feel the need to talk for them.
So while we start with Nash’s fife, these festivities soon wear off and we are left with the real question posed by John Berger in 1977: “Why Look at Animals?” Berger gets to the essence of vision when it comes to the connection between man and animal as he states, “He is always looking across ignorance and fear. And so, when he is ‘being seen’ by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him. His recognition of this is what makes the look of the animal familiar.” (Pg 5) Berger also writes about the changing relationship between man and animal as they “…first entered the imagination as messengers and promises” (pg 4) and now exist predominantly in zoos and as pets. So in the age of entertainment, of zoos, dog shows, and Animal Planet can we only now know animals as pets and attractions, and if so how has that relationship evolved from a time when we lived more symbiotically with them in the landscape?
How do we look at animals now? That is the mission of this exhibition. The artists on view, like me, are concerned with looking at animals. Sometimes we question why but mostly we just can’t help ourselves. However, a large part of this looking is to get at these questions posed by Berger to try to understand the relationship between us and them, and why we constantly seek out and never quite get at the answer.
I would like to end with another poet, a bookend to Nash. We opened with celebration and introspection about looking and being looked at, and that important yet unspoken connection that takes place when our eyes meet the animal’s gaze.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects – not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, The Eighth Elegy from the Duino Elegies