Animal Art Takes Over at Turner Contemporary Margate: Review | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Animal Art Takes Over at Turner Contemporary Margate: Review

Candida Höfer, Zoologischer Garten Paris II 1997
(Via Turner Contemporary)

“Animals & Us” at the Turner Contemporary in the seaside town of Margate 75 miles from London aims to celebrate man’s eternal fascination with other species. But there is a problem: there isn’t a great deal new to celebrate. As the show reminds us, we have portrayed our fellow creatures since the earliest cave paintings. Over the millennia, despite living and working with a wide variety of creatures including dogs, horses, elephants and raptors, this relationship has on the whole been asymmetrical. Animals provide protection, companionship, warmth, joy and food, and in return they are exploited, tortured and killed. It’s fair to say therefore that this celebration is muted.

Nevertheless, the quality and variety of the artworks on show is cause for celebration in itself, bringing together some of the finest animal-related art produced over the millennia. From ancient Chinese dog figurines to Andy Warhol’s cats and dogs, “Animals & Us” reflects our need to connect to our fellow creatures: to love them and be loved in return, albeit with caveats.

Artists whose work is on display include Warhol, Rego and Lucian Freud, as well as younger contemporaries such as Stephanie Quayle, whose troupe of chimpanzee statues in clay are among the most enjoyable and immediate works on display at this magnificent space, 75 miles east of London on the Kent coast.

Margate is enjoying a cultural renaissance having endured tough times over recent years. The opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2001 played its part, and today Margate is home to dozens of galleries, artists and studios attracted by relatively cheap real estate, beaches, convenience for London and the continent - and its artistic heritage. William Turner was a frequent visitor to the town, attracted by its light and the ever-changing sea set out like a moving mural just beyond the gallery windows. Several Turners are on display here, including watercolors depicting cows pulling plows and donkeys in fields. Two of Turner’s themes, animals and the sea, are brought together in his dramatic “A Harpooned Whale” (pencil and watercolor, 1845).

From ancient Egyptians to modern-day YouTubers, man has long been fascinated with cats, those domesticated creatures we love yet remind us of nature’s untameable quality: alluring, threatening. Turner drew inspiration from his cat, and “Study of a Sleeping Cat” (about 1796-7) is one of his more affectionate works. Cats are also a recurring theme for Margate native Tracy Emin, who uses her pet Docket as inspiration, model and soulmate. Emin’s miniatures remind us she may remain a provocateur but is also an artist of dexterity.

Emin also contributes a video installation about an urban fox which appears in her garden, symbolising lost love; along with wolves, coyotes and jackals they seem almost to prowl the gallery space, untamed, untameable. There is also Mark Dion’s “Mobile Wilderness Unit – Wolf” (2006), featuring a stuffed wolf standing in an open utility trailer to which foliage has also been added, as if nature itself has been compartmentalized, adapted for human needs.

Another striking installation is Michal Rovner’s “Ofel (Deep Darkness),” an animated study of wild jackals on the Israel-Palestine border, in which the beasts suddenly turn and stare at the viewer.

If some installations appear self-indulgent, no such criticism can be aimed at the thought-provoking “I like America and America likes me,” the 1974 work by Joseph Beuys in which, swathed in felt, he locked himself in a New York room with a coyote for three days in protest at the perceived hegemony of American art, and to symbolise divisions over Vietnam.

The forms on show are as varied as nature: paint, pencil, video, audio, and sculpture, of which one of the most skillful is Stephen Melton’s “Displaced Ecologies II” (2013), a snake of lacquered bronze both terrifying and confined, a theme that runs through the course of the show.

Other highlights include Raqib Shaw’s “Monkey King Boudoir II” (2012), acrylic, glitter, enamel and rhinestones on paper; Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s twin paintings from 1829, “Low Life” and “High Life,” showing that class extends to the animal kingdom; and Alice Neel’s “Richard with Dog” (1954), in which we see the resentment in the eyes of the artist’s son as he poses with pet for his negligent mother.

One of the most dramatic works is Ford’s “A King’s Appetite (the Giraffe)” (2017), a life-size sculpture of a giraffe clad in Georgian finery. It seems a fun, playful work, but the story behind the work is anything but fun: the giraffe, one of two presented to England’s George IV by the Pasha of Egypt, had a short, miserable life at court, dying in 1829, a few months before the King.

If animals in the wild have long fascinated man, their capture, captivity and treatment at man’s hands has long troubled the artist. As our knowledge of the inner lives and intelligence of animals increases, it becomes harder to justify their internment within even the most humane of zoos, aviaries, marinas or parks. This unease is demonstrated in Candida Hofer’s “Zoologischer Garten” (1991), featuring giraffes standing in enclosures on which images of the savanna from where they were taken have been painted. Hofer’s works tell us something worrying about ourselves. Who are we to judge the apparent cruelty of the natural world when we, who have self-determination, behave so appallingly towards other creatures and one another?

There is a trigger warning at the entrance to the final chamber, the “Museum of Non-Humanity,” and includes “A Natural History of Nest Building” (2017), by artist Andy Holden and his ornithologist father Peter Holden, inviting the observer to muse on whether such structures can only be seen in terms of functionality when they are so aesthetically pleasing.

The later section also includes the now infamous image, “The Selfie,” created when David Slater left a camera in the jungle of Indonesia and a macaque monkey called Naruto took a “selfie.” Animal rights organisation PETA unsuccessfully took Slater to court on behalf of Naruto, claiming it had copyright over the image.

As you leave via the stairs you can hear Marguerite Humeau’s “Homo Sapiens 2016,” a sound installation on a continuous loop, simulating the development of human speech since we first began to use language some 100,000 years ago. We sound like animals: we are animals, as cruel and wild as any other, but possessing the ability to make, and appreciate, fine art.

“Animals & Us” runs through September 30 at Turner Contemporary
Rendezvous, Margate, Kent CT9 1HG UK. Information: + 44 (0) 1843 233000 and https://www.turnercontemporary.org/

 

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