For frieze d/e, Ana Teixeira Pinto writes a thinkpiece analyzing why contemporary artists have increasingly looked to animals to examine the post-human condition. Read an excerpt of the text below, or read the full piece here.
In the late 1940s, the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève visited the USA. For Kojève – arguably the most influential interpreter of Hegel in the 20th century, and one of the architects of the European Economic Community, a precursor to the EU – ‘history’ was predicated on political struggle. Like Hegel and Marx before him, Kojève believed that humanity would ultimately reach a consensus about its means of governance. This consensus (likely a mixed economy, or social democracy) would spell out the end-point of social evolution, what Hegel had called the ‘end of history’.
This trip to the US, however, led Kojève to feel that any prospective future had already transpired. Upon observing the ‘eternal present’ of American society, Kojève claimed that ‘man’ had already disappeared, giving way to a creature that, though looking exactly like him, shared nothing of the human. The human, he argued, is predicated on a historical process, whereas this new being was one devoid of historicity and, therefore, humanity. For Kojève, this ‘post-historical Man’ had returned to an animal state, albeit retaining his civilized mores. Post-historical Man builds his edifices and works of art as ‘birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs’ and performs ‘musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas.’
In 1959, Kojève took another trip, this time to Japan, where he underwent ‘a radical change of opinion’ on the subject of post-historical Man. He experienced how a society could live in a state of post-historical governance while retaining something of the human. Whilst the American lives in harmony with its inner animal, Japanese culture had given rise to mores that were fully formalized, where mannerisms and conventions override ‘content’ and are totally opposed to the ‘natural’ or the ‘animal’. The highly codified values of Japanese culture (for Kojève, a form of ‘snobbery’), the perfect expressions of which could be seen in Noh theatre or the traditions of tea ceremonies and Ikebana flower arrangement, had existed for centuries yet seemed strikingly postmodern.
Japan was also the location for Pierre Huyghe’s most recent video, Human Mask (2014). The film’s exterior shots, showing a deserted and derelict town, were captured inside the Fukushima exclusion zone by a camera affixed to a drone. Indoors, the camera focuses on a strange creature wearing a Noh mask whose demeanor and gestures are uncannily human. Seemingly absorbed in self-contemplation, it runs its clawed fingers though a lock of long dark hair and softly touches the plastic wrap around a flower bouquet. In an evolutionary timeline, humanity usually stands between the animal and the android. In this light Huyghe’s creature, half ape, half cyborg, might be seen as the perfect embodiment of the warped temporality Kojève ascribed to the ‘post-historical’ condition.
Animals, we are told, have no history. In Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) and I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), in which the artist shared a room with a coyote for eight hours a day, the animal appears as a heteronomous Other. Whereas humans never cease to reconfigure their societies and their identities within them, a coyote, it seems, is always a coyote. The animal is in this sense a limit, the outermost edge of the human, a figure problematized by Jacques Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am (2008) and Giorgio Agamben’s The Open (2004). But ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are flexible concepts, able to connote the social as well as the biological. In 2005 Mircea Cantor brought a wolf into a gallery, this time paired with a deer. Both wolf and deer seem ill at ease, and whereas Beuys managed to finally embrace his coyote, in Cantor’s Deeparture there is no climax: wolf and deer remain eager to avoid each other. In 2003 Anri Sala filmed an emaciated horse standing by the roadside (Time After Time), seeming to bear the symbolic brunt of the collapsing Albanian state. ‘Every animal is a female artist,’ was Rosemarie Trockel’s 1993 response to Beuys’ ‘every man is an artist.’ Together with Carsten Höller, in 1997 Trockel built Ein Haus fur Schweine und Menschen (A House for Pigs and People) for that year’s documenta X. But it wasn’t until dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012 that the animal fully emerged as a multivalent concept for artistic speculation, which – drawing on Donna Haraway’s writings – was made to thoroughly renegotiate the human. For his 2014 projects Companion Species and The Companion Species Manifesto (after a 2003 book of Haraway’s), exhibited at dépendance in Brussels and Deborah Schamoni, Munich, Henrik Olesen sketched out the continuity between animal microchipping and human biometric IDs illustrated by a series of photographic collages displaying inter-species affection. Julieta Aranda’s Tools for Infinite Monkeys (open machine) (2014) uses the monkey – with reference to the ‘Infinite Monkey Theorem’ in probability – as a metaphor for the twin blades of randomness and probability. At the end of May the Fotomuseum Winterthur will open Beastly curated by Duncan Forbes, Matthias Gabi, Daniela Janser, Mallika Leuzinger and Marco de Mutiis; a month prior, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin will feature Ape Culture, an exhibition curated by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg (also heavily indebted to Haraway’s thinking) which will cast primates as the porous border between animal and human.
But the flurry of interest in the animal and the revival of Haraway’s ‘post-human’ runs deeper than micro-trends in exhibition making. It seems to be motivated by the imbrication of political, economic and ecological crises of recent years and the awareness that these have failed to effect tangible political change. As Fredric Jameson put it in 2003, it is ‘easier to imagine the end of humanity than the end of capitalism’.2 The moment when nature is completely sublated into culture, what Hegel theorized as humankind’s destiny, has re-emerged under a more ominous heading, the Anthropocene, a geological epoch denoting the period from 1945, the year of the first nuclear detonation, and roughly coinciding with Kojève’s ‘end of history.’ Though political disaffection seems widespread, the theories that have emerged in recent years – speculative realism, Accelerationism and the notion of a ‘Post-Internet’ condition – fail to have an adequate grasp on the new social forms and categories that have resulted. As the privileged site where the distinction between the social and the political is contended, the animal in general, and the primate, in particular, has taken over the territory where battles over gender, race, sexuality and human rights are fought.
The creature in Human Mask is a long tailed macaque called Fuku-chan who works as a waiter in a Tokyo restaurant.3 Though Fuku-chan is Japanese, the ‘masked-monkey’ act traditionally stems from Indonesia, where it is known locally as Topeng Monyet. Bred in captivity or captured as infants, the monkeys undergo a gruelling training process. To strengthen their hind legs they are often hung by the neck with both hands tied up for weeks on end, until they finally acquire a human-like posture, learning to handle props and perform human chores.4 In the exhibition Ape Culture at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Human Mask will be shown along with Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy’s The Masked Monkeys (2013–14), a video-essay in which enslaved monkeys appear as an allegory for social hierarchies. What emerges out of Huyghe’s video, rather than a grim commentary on Kojève’s post-historical condition or on animal exploitation, is the performative dimension of the human: as much as ‘female’ and ‘woman’ do not necessarily overlap, ‘humanity’ can be seen as the effect of reiterated acting, which can be either coupled or decoupled from the concept of Homo sapiens.
*Image above: Katja Novitskova, Branching I, 2013, Digital print on aluminium and cut-out display (courtesy: the artist, Fluxia gallery, Milan & Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin)