In the last decade, there has been a heightened awareness manifested by artists of the relationships between humans, other animals and the environment. Many artists are contributing to contemporary art museum bestiaries of live, dead, photographed and filmed animals, and reflecting on what our interspecies relationships reveal about us. These animals often function as metaphors or mirrors for our own animal nature.
A broad social recognition of the proximity of humans to other animals has arisen in light of popular reporting of scientific research – such as the human genome project’s confirmation at the turn of the millennium that 90 per cent of human cells derive from the same genetic material as the simplest forms of animal life. (It was in June 2000 that then United States president Bill Clinton announced that a first outline map of the human genome had been completed.) Significant changes have also occurred in the political and legal domains, notably in Spain, where in 2008 a resolution was passed in parliament in favour of granting large primates – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – rights in line with those accorded to humans.
Artists addressing this new thinking about animals are particularly questioning the anthropocentric separation of humans from other animals, and our historically instrumental and hierarchical relationships with other species. Non-human animals in art have come to signify both what is excluded by humanity and what it lacks. Animals offer a vehicle for artists to explore the limits to human recognition of ecological relationships and responsibilities, as well as the animal nature of human experience – including the experience of art. Paola Pivi’s photograph of white animals sourced from an advertising casting agency, One Love 2007, is seen in this space. She underlines the relationship between how animals are represented and human politics and identity:
I think man and art can’t be separated. These are white animals, not black or colored animals. I think it says something about our world . . . We are represented in the animals, too. Even if you know nothing about the history of animal domestication they say something about us.