Contemporary art, animals and ethics: Pierre Huyghe’s interspecies worlds

The French artist Pierre Huyghe uses animals in his art. Bees, dogs, and fawns are often seen in the elaborate worlds that he creates at exhibition and gallery sites. He transforms them into places “in between” nature and culture.

Huyghe’s first solo show in Australia is currently on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. The gallery space is crawling with spiders and an ant colony.

Huyghe is often accompanied by a dog with a pink leg, known as a Human. Human is featured in the eerie A Way in Untilled 2012 film, but she does not appear in Huyghe’s dOCUMENTA13 installation Untilled 2013.

The film does capture some of the elements of the work. Human: the animal appears with another dog, turtles, beehives containing the heads of nude statues, and a variety of insects, algae, and other non-human forms of life.

Huyghe was not the first to create this. Jannis Kohnellis introduced horses and birds into galleries in the late 1960s. Joseph Beuys lived with a coyote at a New York Gallery in 1974. Since then, goldfish, snail asses, pigs, and fleas all play a part in contemporary art.

You might wonder: How is it that the art world, which has traditionally been a place of wildlife, has now become a menagerie? At the same time, a consensus has developed regarding the ethics surrounding animals in other artistic or entertainment contexts.

Animal circuses are only found in the summer holiday camps at the edges of cities. The anthropomorphized animal circus, like the tutu-wearing elephants featured in the 1940s “human/animal dance spectacle Ballet of the Elephants and described in Peta Tait’s Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals Emotions and Circuses, is now out of the question.

Tait traces the complex empathy that these interspecies circuses created between non-human animals and humans, possibly providing a hint as to why animal appearances are tolerated in art.

Huyghe’s eco-worlds are not about empathy but rather an uncanny indifference. In an Art in America interview, he expressed his desire for the museum visitor to witness the chance happenings of nature.

Huyghe’s animals do not perform but seem to go about their daily activities. They may be making a hive or nest, or in the case of the ants, they might just be wandering around the walls of a museum. A human gnaws a bone in Untilled and drinks water from a puddle.

Victoria Daly argues in a Review of Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, 2014, that the lack of concern for the use of animals by Huyghe is due to the fact that they don’t seem to suffer.

Human had her very own website at the LACMA exhibit. Human was a rescue dog and a talented performer who appeared in France and Germany. She had also been examined by animal protection organizations and had a permit for her inclusion in this exhibition.

Human may not have consented, but the world of contemporary arts has provided her with a much better life than what she would otherwise be facing. All that is required of humans is for Them to exist, even if it is within the confines of the white cube museum.

Some interspecies projects are driven by the desire to improve animal welfare. A collaboration between Utrecht School of Arts in the Netherlands and Wageningen University produced Pig Chase, a videogame in which a ball of moving light appeared on a touch-screen in a pig stall and was remotely controlled by a human playmate. The pig can nudge the ball to set off colored sparks. The pig and human team up and score points for synchronized movements between the snout of the light ball and the touch screen.

Seth Dunipace is an animal welfare scientist who observed that while Pig Chase may offer a farm animal a much-needed distraction, as boredom can be a serious problem for animals confined to pens, it also makes the pig feel like a pet. This domestication of the pig misrepresents its ultimate fate.

Who cares for the animal? The reactions to live animals in art today are probably influenced by the discursive environment where “freedom’ is with the artist, and both the audience and animal participate in an artistic experiment.

Even if an experiment is conducted in a university or other research institution, the artist and the animal welfare scientist are still required to adhere to strict ethical processes. However, the presentation of a project that is motivated by artistic inquiry can be very different from one that is directed at animal welfare – even though the experience of the animals may not differ.

Cast on a steel armature, with live bee colony and plastic. Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13), with support from Coleccion CIAC AC in Mexico, Fondation Louis Vuitton Pour la Création, Paris, and the Ishikawa Collection in Okayama, Japan. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and Paris, Esther Schipper in Berlin.

Artists working in institutions as researchers face stricter restrictions on ethical compliance. Curators can face similar restrictions, as they are committed to both the integrity of an artist and the institution that is exhibiting the work. Spiders and ants rarely inspire empathy, but I wonder how the audience would have reacted if Humans had inhabited TarraWarra’s museum and grounds during the Pierre Huyghe exhibit.

Trust Me, I’m an Artist is a project funded by the Office of Research Ethics and Integrity at the University of Melbourne.

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