Saturday, May 31, 2008

Glass Frog...

Animals are very good at not letting us see what's going on inside of them. So, to show them we mean business, we've genetically engineered some see-through frogs. We may not know what your're thinking animals, but at least we can see what you had for lunch. Hah!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jack on His Deathbed...

"Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Court of Naples from 1764 to 1800, had a pet named Jack, an intelligent, mischievous monkey who liked to play tricks on humans. Hamilton was also an avid collector of classical antiquities and an expert on volcanoes who led tourists on expeditions to the rim of Mount Vesuvius. As Ford depicts, Vesuvius was erupting as Jack lay dying."

Wall label text from "Tigers of Wrath" exhibition.

("Jack on His Deathbed" by Walton Ford)

Bear necessities...

"In April near Big Bear Lake east of Los Angeles a man died when he was attacked by a grizzly bear, an animal not seen in the wild in California since 1922. Grizzlies that are here now exist solely to service Hollywood. This particular animal, a 700-pound Ursus horribilus named Rocky, was a trained movie-bear, the kind you would have seen Grizzly Adams wrestle, only now it is Will Ferrell."

Continue reading Chris Childs' piece here.

Then there's this.

(Photo from "Bear Studies" by Carlee Fernandez)

Enough killing for Madonna...

File under Meat is Murder:

"She's seen off bad-boy actors, the nation's harshest film critics and generations of young pop pretenders - but now Madonna has admitted that even she was no match for the sight of a dying pheasant. The Queen of Pop has revealed that she has given up game bird shooting after witnessing the dying moments of a bird she blasted out of the sky on her Wiltshire estate. The Material Girl admitted she was a big fan of the hobby a couple of years ago, and loved bagging pheasants at her Ashcombe Estate on the Wiltshire-Dorset border. But she killed one too many, and the moment a bird she shot died in front of her prompted the about-turn."

Again, I'm not an animal rights activist, and I think people should eat meat if they want to. I do. But I feel very strongly that people should understand exactly what meat-eating (and as a subset, hunting) means. Denial is no excuse. There's blood in every Big Mac and it's running down your chin.

(From a 2005 article found here.)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Say what?

Scientists have found that Killer whales off the US West Coast have significantly lengthened their calls to one another in the past few years. Why might that be? Because of all the noise generated by the engines of whale watching boats hounding them in a near constant flotilla.

Similarly, male nightingale's mating songs have spiked 14 decibels making them louder than a chainsaw. Why? to compete with the sounds of the city of course.

Animals are autoplastic. They adapt to our ways. Do they judge us? Are they offended by our audacity? Do they even begin to understand? Who knows? In general, I think we can say that animals are pretty cool customers - they roll with us without complaint.

(facts from Discovery Magazine Sept 2004 issue, image by Tim Flach)

Pig Kisser...

Hold it right there Dr. Freud, humanity's attraction to animals is not sexual. For those for whom it is, well, good luck...

You could say our attraction is based on fear, or more specifically, self-doubt. You could say we are made uneasy by the frustratingly ambiguous gaze of animals upon us as we flex our entitlement to the planet, and use it as a forum for mastering and multiplying something we call Civilization.

You could also say that a child, not yet indoctrinated to the ways of humanity, senses no ambiguity in the animal's gaze. Only curiosity, and perhaps, something we call Love.

You could also say that the taste for bacon is acquired at an early age.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

(Never) work with animals...

W.C. Fields famously proclaimed that, "One should never work with children or animals." Presumably he was talking about the film business, which is an industry dedicated, at leas in part, to an individual's desire to make things happen exactly as they want them to. So yes, children and animals, being uncontrollable to an extent, might derive some pleasure in seeing the cinematic control freak not get what he or she wants.

I was taken by a presentation at the Academy last night about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The great Dan Richter, aka Moonwatcher, was in the audience, and he was frequently called upon by MC Tom Hanks and special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull to shed light upon working with Stanley Kubrick in the opening Dawn of Man sequence. It was pointed out that the film was not nominated for costume design, possibly because crusty old Academy members failed to realize that those were people inside monkey suits! Yes that's right, Stanley, truly, by anyone's yardstick, the ultimate control freak, trained a group of apes to drive to the studio, hit their marks, and tell a story about a strange space monolith that whispers the secrets of evolution in their ears. Not. Actually there are real animals in the sequence. Grazing tapirs. Grasseaters are containable as long as there's grass.

With Moonwatcher in the audience, it was pointed out that Kubrick made many films of various apes, shot walking and moving about at different camera speeds. He would make Richter and his co-apes watch these films over and over. For months and months these people lived as apes, sadistically goaded by Kubrick to unlearn their natural behavior patterns and recondition themselves to act as the ape amalgams he imagined: chimps on top, gibbons on the bottom, with a dash of brutish gorilla thrown in for dramatic flair.

The un-directability and unpredictability of animals does pose some problems for traditional control freak filmmaking. Knowing this, you really must hand it to Noel Marshall for casting more than 100 giant flesh-eating cats in the lead of his demented epic Roar. To this end, and with no disrespect to Richter's amazing performance, I am somewhat dismayed by the fact that Yann Martel's book The Life of Pi is being made into a movie. Not because it will be bad, but because it has already been confirmed that they will be using a computer generated tiger. I know the animal rights folks will be happy about this, but I am a champion for the real experience of living animals. It crushes me to think of all the lost nuances and triggers, and obvious human substitutions that will occur in the "making" of this tiger.

This post could go on and on, but I'll make my point: Work with animals. Work with them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Another direct hit Sir...

If dragons, then dragonslayers.
If agrarian society, then colonizers.
If civilization, then evolving definition of nature.

("Inopportune 2" by Cai Guo-Qiang)

Devils in Peril...

Little Sarcophilus harrisii cannot be mistaken for any other marsupial. Its spine-chilling screeches, black color, and reputed bad-temper, led the early European settlers to call it the Tasmanian Devil. Although only the size of a small dog, it can sound and look incredibly fierce. They have the biting power of a dog about three times their own weight. Sadly the devils are threatened by the bizarre and distressing Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which appears to be a contagious viral cancer - only one of three such cancers known. Tumours grow around the animals' faces, making it impossible for them feed; they starve to death.

Circus comes to town...

Vividly colored pelts and coats flashing by in a cacaphonous procession. Now we find momentary footings among the chaos and make these both home and laboratory. It is a celebration of skewered meats and crackling fires, striped tents and peeling paint. Yes, a persistent dizziness that borders on nausea, but one as sweetly innocent as horse shit. Also, the religious mounting and breaking down of a show, being on the road, the dappled sun, the quiet hours getting from here to there, slightly oval wheels rocking a haycart between two towns. Aching muscles and spectacular thrills that transform over and over into ecstatic waking dreams of Modern Animals.

("Mappa della Nonsforza" - "Map of What is Effortless" by Francesco Clemente)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iron Zoo...

While we're looking at metal animals, let's take a moment to view this surreal "Iron Zoo" off I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona. Here you go...

Not enough metal for you? The seemingly wooden wonders of Deborah Butterfield are mostly bronze.

Bronzed life...

Steve Worthington's bronze animals are really nice. The rabbits and the turtle tossing monkeys, and of course the mice are particularly lifelike. And here's how he does it. Quite a procedure!

David Lynch on Sparky...

Q: Do you have any pets of your own? Because you always seem to have a nice animal in your films.

DL: I used to have a dog named Sparky. A Jack Russell Terrier.

Q: He passed away?

DL: He was in “Blue Velvet.”

Q: That was the dog…

DL: …biting the water.

Q: He was a trouper.

DL: Take one.

Q: Just one take?

DL: Yeah.

Q: One-take Sparky. But you haven’t had any animals to replace him.

DL: You know, everybody’s different. But I… don’t really like animals in the house. And then you kind of fall in love with animals and you sort of design your life around that animal. And I worry about the animals. And I don’t want to worry about an animal. I want to worry about getting something done.

(Interview and Blue Velvet photo found here)

Monday, May 19, 2008

The ol' Pigskin...

Here is Louise the pig, who sports (or sported - she's taxidermy now) Louis Vuitton tattoos all over her porcine body. How wrong or right is that? Well, to get an answer from the inker, you'll have to travel to Wim Delvoye's Art Farm in China (where authorities turn a blind eye to such goings on).

The next revolution...

All those cartoons. All those stuffed dolls. All those cute greeting cards. All those billboards. All those tapestries, totem poles, trinkets, and TV shows. Listen up Homo sapiens...

We the Animals of the Planet Earth, in Order to form a more Realistic Representation, establish Awareness, insure Tranquility, provide for the Common Good, promote the Collective Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Consciousness to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Animals of Earth.

(Dont Tread on Me/Gadsden Flag borrowed and altered from here)

Thinking in Animals...

"[T]he notion of a comfortable, utopian conception of nature in which humans have unmediated access to animals and live in some kind of unproblematic harmony with them does not look like a practical way forward, either in terms of how one thinks philosophically about animals, or in terms of how, on a practical level, one might work for the improvement of their living conditions."

- Steve Baker

("The Kingdom or Evolution" (detail) by Marion Coutts)

Roar: The Movie...

If you haven't experienced this mad feline orgy, please run to your Netflix cue at once. There's really nothing else like it in film history... I guess you could roughly say it's paper-thin, warm-hearted, 70's Disney-style family dross, crossed with the unhinged chaos of Dusan Makavejev's "free cinema."

Roar apparently took eleven grueling, accident-prone years to make. Everyone involved was scarred or mauled in some way, including the young Melanie Griffith, along for the ride with her mother Tippi Hedron, wife of the madman behind this inspired mayhem: Noel Marshall. Humans, lions, tigers, tigons, ligers, leopards, pumas, and jaguars were swept away by collapsing sets, raging rivers, and deadly diseases. Watching the film, you know that life behind the scenes was a massive experiment in human-animal relations and precisely how much blood one can loose before being rendered incapable of focusing a camera.

At some level, I am wildly attracted to visionary acts of focused madness. Toss in some dangerous animals, a dopey family exposed to the Will of Nature, a couple of movie cameras, and basically, I'm a flame thrower in a fireworks factory. Seriously, this is a crazy film. Noel Marshall, if you're still with us, please do drop me a line.

(Photo: A star of Roar at the Tippi Hedron household)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dog eat dog...

I've just discovered a fine young photographer - Isabella Rozendaal. Dutch. I really like her funny, unfussy approach - her animal subjects exude anthropomorphic charm as well as a world-weariness... "Yup, we live with the humans, we adapt, no big deal," they seem to say... You can read her academic thesis which goes into some detail on themes found here. It's in Dutch, but that shouldn't stop you, should it? Here's what she says about it:

"I've researched the way people perceive animals and the way we depict them in art, photography and pop culture. The research is as much visual as it is theoretical."

Read/browse it here.

OK Isabella, you can join the club.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Nature is Ancient...

It's bright in the middle
With a shell around it
It's called life
It goes wherever it wants to
Don't try to predict it
Then you'd offend it
It's meant to surprise
Nature is ancient
But surprises us all

- Bjork

(Photo by Thomas Barbèy)

Friends in low places...

The range of value we ascribe to various animals is astonishing. Consider the dove and the pigeon, twins separated by pigment and habitat, one exalted the other a pariah. Thank gods we don't do this to our own kind!

("Lost" by David Shrigley)

Tubular Turtles...

I used to see things in the cracks and paint drips on the wall near my bed as a child.
This clever site brought back some of those memories. These underground animals speak to a particular kind of visual anthropomorphism, the very same impulse that once inspired us to pick out constellations in the vault of the night sky.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Czar's Pangolin...

Yes, Peter the Great had a stuffed one. Back then, even a stuffed pangolin must have sent some imaginations spiraling. For that matter, how many of us today know anything about this walking pine cone. Many believe that just looking at one can be a therapeutic experience.

Where did Peter the Great get a stuffed pangolin? He had begun to purchase extensive natural history collections during his pre-Petersburgian travels in the West, with an eye to the development of science in Russia. Albertus Seba was a wealthy Dutch apothecary, merchant and traveler whose collection of natural history objects was the largest of its kind in his day. His collection would form the nucleus of the Russian national collections in St. Petersburg after purchase by Peter. Today the collection resides in the Kunstkammer Museum located on the banks of the Neva in the center of St.Petersburg.

Cheerful Cricket...

Get yer youngins in the swing of the retro athropomorphizing groove this summer right here.

The Postmodern Animal

There is a whole universe of animal related art to be found out there. Much of it could be lovingly categorized under the heading: "Weird as Hell!" What's going on? In these progressive circles, we encounter what academics refer to as the postmodern animal as the primary subject and muse. By and large, today's artists have moved beyond focusing on anthropomorphism, or even the mysteriousness of animal consciousness. Steve Baker, the founder of The Animal Studies Group and author of The Postmodern Animal, assesses the current state of the art: "There is no symbolism or metaphor involved, nothing to keep the animal-as-other at a safe and comfortable distance, but instead a sense of the artist embracing awkward, provisional, and rather unflattering identities — getting close to the animal without worrying too much about the consequences."

This blog was originally titled Anthropomo Zoo in a nod to the Post Modern (PoMo) animal. But I quickly decided that was incorrect. While I can appreciate the efforts of these envelope pushing artists, I personally remain deeply interested in the otherness of animals, their inscrutable inner lives, what they stand for, how we use them as metaphors, and how they adapt to our civilization. Does that mean I'm interested in Modern Animals instead of Postmodern ones? Could be. I'll let the artists and the academics decide the titles for now.

(Still from the installation "Cultural Animal" by Xu Bing )

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Baby Buoyant...

If this unborn horse weren't floating in amniotic fluid, it would fit in the palm of your hand, lanky legs flailing in a floppy practice trot. Land animals of extreme grace are often born awkward, slack-muscled and too flexible for their own good. Sea faring mammals, such as seals, are balletic from day one - they are never far from a weightless amniotic environment, a condition that serves them well in times of extreme drought. See for yourself.

(Photo by Tim Flach, Seal film by Per Maning)


Well, well, what have we here? It's a photograph of a goat stuck in a well. What else?

"Beginning now for your entertainment, a tragedy of all terrestrial animals, dire for many, but maybe not you! It is a tale of thirst and surviving imminent desiccation, set in a hole so deep, it is named well! This communal well, from time immemorial, grants powers and takes them away! Man and beast who drink its waters are domesticated! And those who don’t are banished!"

See "Fleece," the provocative movie by Andrew Johnson here.


This beautiful animal must kill to live. Is that a part of our attraction to it? What do you experience when you look at this image of a ferocious killing machine? Terror? What if it was really in front of you? What do the safety of pictures, or cage bars, or Land Rover windows do to our perceptions of extremely dangerous animals? Does the 'law of the jungle' still echo in our veins?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Pro-zoo camp...

Clearly, and to some extent understandably, there is a segment of the population that hates a zoo. I'm not in that clan. I think zoos offer an indispensable connection to animal life to an increasingly urban and desensitized public. This kind of contact is easily as important as art or music to a species as fundamentally creative as our own. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of autistic elephants, inbred tigers, or clinically depressed gorillas being shown off like Las Vegas showgirls. I think a lot could be done to improve the zoo experience for children, adults, and animals alike. The rules of confinement are always a slippery slope - I feel that no expense should be spared in making captive animals happy. I do, however, have some extremely controversial ideas about what that might entail. More on that to come...

Monkey Knife Fight...

Pitty the not-so-great apes, part man, part beast, never knowing when to be a gentleman or when to bite someone's face off...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Reading with lifeforms...

Reading next to an animal can offer better comprehension and feelings of well being.

TV Animals...

Wow, that's amazing! I've never seen a gorilla sell chocolate on TV before!

(Gorilla Ad, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk)

More modern animals...

Are these elephants willfully lugging Hermes bags across the plains of India? Did the photographer just luck upon this scene in the wild? Probably not. These elephants are being used as models. But unlike Kate Moss, these animals may not be reaping the full benefits of their work. That said, is it possible that they are enjoying the attention, the strange lights, the nice food, the funny, fussy people, and the sense of purpose that a being a model bestows? I'd say yes, it's possible. People can be in a rush to cry "cruelty!" when, in fact, the animals might just enjoy a little bit of human folly.

(Entire Hermes Elephant campaign here)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Animal Lego...

We look at animals and we empathize with their living-ness (or not). But there is something else in animals that draws our attention. They trigger something in us, something ancient and deeply creative. In many ways, artists and writers have inherited the shamanic tradition of adopting other creature’s characteristics, scrambling, and feeding off their mute muse-like qualities. Reinventing and layering our own desires onto other creatures is just something we do. At times it clouds our empathy with the living animal itself, which is something to be aware of. Still, art and anthropomorphization are an integral part of our human experience, so let's not discard those...

("Monkey Sphinx" from this incredible Worth 1000 gallery)

Perceiving Nature...

"Kinski always says nature is full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; I think they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder."

- Werner Herzog, on the Amazon jungle.

("Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo" by Henri Rousseau)

The Horus tip...

Horus, the hawk-headed deity, is a very interesting Egyptian god whose significance to our present day world order may be underestimated. If you're following the Zeitgeist that is...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The strangeness of Octopi...

The Blue-ringed Octopus is an especially hypnotic sea creature. Their mystery transcends abstract beauty and they also receive high marks in the danger column. They are one of the most venomous animals around - their bite can cause death to an adult human in minutes. There is no known antidote. When a passionate mood strikes this cephalopod, the male grabs the female by her mantle, obscuring her vision. He transfers sperm packets by inserting his hectocotylus into her mantle cavity over and over again. It goes on from there...

("Blue-ringed Octopus" by AdamAqua)

Tiny Animals...

Everybody wants to see them... so here you go.

Picnic in the park...

Families and tourists in a London park were left shocked when a pelican picked up and swallowed a pigeon. The unusual wildlife spectacle in St James's Park was caught on camera by photographer Cathal McNaughton. He said the Eastern White pelican had the unfortunate pigeon in its beak for more than 20 minutes before swallowing it whole. A park spokesman said: "It is almost unheard of for a pelican to eat a bird.

Here's the video of course.

- via The Church Millitant

Bubble Net Feeding...

Humpback whales are social eaters. Groups assemble off the coast of Alaska, and one is chosen as the bubble-netter. The responsibility of that whale is to produce a curtain of ascending bubbles that create a wall through which the school of fish will not pass. Confused? Read all about this fascinating behavior here...

("Bubblenet Feeding" by David McMaster)

Who's watching whom?

The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium holds 7,500-cubic meters of water and features the world's largest acrylic glass panel, measuring 8.2 meters by 22.5 meters. Three whale sharks are currently on exhibit.

Happy Mother's Day...

Behind every submerged hippopotamus is a mother nosing you towards the surface.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Modern Animals...

How are we doing? Are all us animals enjoying and adapting to this ultra-modernity? All the stuff that just one of our species created and thrust upon the rest? Golly, I hope so. You'll let us know if we're doing anything that gets on your nerves or anything. Right?

Friday, May 9, 2008

So... where do we go from here?

I do believe that this little "spot" drop-kicks our discussion of anthropomorphism into a brand new arena. Here we see the age old hawking of sugar water coupled with the latest frenzy of digital technology. Someone, who can't be faulted for their lack of imagination, has some rather unusual fantasies about how wild animals get jiggy. If CG technology invites the realization of all possible visions, this commercial celebrates the sheer horror of that potential, as if to say, "Finally, I can get a hypersexualized flamingo in a thong!" To me it's is beyond creepy - it's just plain anti-life to think that animals in nature would succumb to such glitzy vapidity and shallow eroticism.

Ode to Baikal...

Here we see the taxidermied remains of Baikal, one of Pavlov's dogs on display at the Pavlov Museum in Ryazan, Russia. Note the saliva catch container and tube surgically implanted in the dog's muzzle. In studying the way in which dogs responded to certain food-related stimulus, Pavlov discovered that certain animal behaviors or responses could be conditioned. His findings would later inform the foundations of Behavioral Psychology and the practice of Behavioral Modification.

Baikal and her canine associates were important players in the evolution of 20th Century psychology. Their widely publicized contributions led to some nice and not-so-nice developments in human conditioning. Unfortunately, the phrase "Pavlov's dog" is often used in a derogatory sense implying someone who simply reacts rather than thinks when confronted with new stimulus. Wouldn't it be better to imply someone who knew and appreciated when a good meal was on its way?

Reverse Anthropomorphism...

Frans de Waal speaks of anthropodenial: a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves. Surely this is a condition endured by the hunter, the politician, the whaler, the exterminator, the butcher, the fly swatter maker, the angry zoo keeper, the dog kicker... really anyone who disobeys the golden rule in dealing with animals.

De Waal emphatically states, "...what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that's why we like them so much, even though they're large carnivores."

There is a way of organizing the human psyche - "Chainism" I call it - whereupon man sits the top of a divine power pyramid (i.e. the food chain) and exerts his superiority over anything below him, in part, owing to the oppressive fear of what does or does not sit above him.

Murders of Crows...

The New York Times reports that the crows in Japan are taking over. "With wing spans up to a yard and intimidating black beaks and sharp claws, Japan’s crows are bigger, more aggressive and downright scarier than those usually seen in North America. Attacks, though rare, do happen. Hungry crows have bloodied the faces of children while trying to steal candy from their hands. Crows have even carried away baby prairie dogs and ducklings from Tokyo zoos, city officials said."

Get the full report here...

(Publicity still from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds")

Thursday, May 8, 2008

White Fox Wedding...

"When the sun is shining through the rain, the foxes have their weddings."

- Japanese proverb

What does it mean? Not much if you aren't up on your Japanese folklore.
But what does it trigger? An shower of hypnogogic imagery.

(Woodblock reproduction from Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford's "Tales of Old Japan")

Stygian escorts...

Throughout (art) history, animals have often been there to escort us along the passage from this life into the next. I would guess that this stems from the ghostly, "knowing," and otherworldly presence they exude as we charge forward with our life-o-centric, all-too-human activities.

("The Power of Death" by William Holbrook Beard)

Defining Anthropomorphism...

"The word comes from the Greek, meaning "human form," and it was the ancient Greeks who first gave the practice a bad reputation. The philosopher Xenophanes objected to Homer's poetry because it treated Zeus and the other gods as if they were people. How could we be so arrogant, Xenophanes asked, as to think that the gods should look like us? If horses could draw pictures, he suggested mockingly, they would no doubt make their gods look like horses."

- Frans de Waal

("Juliet Paints a Big One" found at Painting Horse)

Come again?

"If a lion could speak, we would not understand him."

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

("Lion Before Storm" by Nick Brandt)

Flirting with instinct...

Animals give us permission to explore, if not live by, our instincts. They are constant reminders that there is vibrant, productive life without human intellect or emotions.

Indeed, animals are "other" and separate from us, but there's no real need to overblow or romanticize that fact. Then again, overblowing and romanticizing animals' otherness is something we do very well. It speaks to some yearning in us and therefore has its own importance and should not be squelched. Humans go wild in your leopardskins! Chimps go sapien in your summer dresses!

("Bettie and Friend" photographer unknown)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Swarming, Shoaling, Flocking...

read all about it...

(Swarm photo uncredited)
(Shoal photo by Mila Zinkova)
(Flock photo by Fayez Nureldine)