À poils et à plumes: politicizing animal art
Following a 13 year hiatus between 1996 and 2010, the Musée de Flandre has radically rethought its identity, offering a programming designed to both revitalize its collection, and to attract visitors from the rest of France to this commune two hours west of Paris.
The exhibition “A poils et à plumes”, is a case in point. Running from March 4 through July 17 and curated by Sandrine Vezilier-Dussart, the show brings together nine contemporary Belgian artists; the very contemporary, and at times disturbing works of Jan Fabre, Wim Delvoye, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Thierry De Cordier, Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, Koen Vanmechelen and Eric de Ville, are confronted with those hailing from the museum’s collection, rich in Flemsih art treasures.
Serving as a sequel to the exhibition “L’Odyssée des Animaux”, (October 8, 2016 — January 22, 2017) “A poils et à plumes” works around the juxtaposition of old and contemporary, explores animal presence within art history and contemporary creation, raising important, but also uncomfortable questions as to what the relationship between human and animal kingdom means for these artists, and what their works can tell us about the way we experience art.
Works such as the monumental installation In Flanders Fields by Berlinde de Bruyckere are shown alongside fifteenth-century war painting Les Casselois dans le marais de Saint-Omer se rendant à la merci du duc Philippe le Bon le 4 janvier 1430, Jan Fabre’s bronze lambs stand next to religious art by Flemish masters, whilst Wim Delvoye’s tattooed pigskins are shown with Jacopo Bassano’s Entombent of Christ, in a decidedly dessecrating manner.
Berlinde de Bruyckere, In Flanders Fields. Collection M HKA © Cedric Arnould
In Flanders Fields — consisting of three life-size horses lying directly on the ground or on unstable sawhorses — was created for the eponymous Belgian museum and shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Most notably, it’s the work that catapulted de Bruyckere to international recognition, becoming one of her most renowned artworks. In dialogue with a fifteenth-century painting, the installation gives a new resonance to Medieval art, but also, and more importantly, evokes the deliberately thinner distinction between human and animal sphere running throughout the exhibition, evoking the dystopian scenarios of a Black Mirror episode.
All throughout this slightly eerie exhibition, the relationship between humans and animals makes for uncomfortable artworks which challenge the way art is perceived, the impact of human agency on nature as well as the consequences of a possible reversal of roles.
Marie-Jo Lafontaine, I love The World ! Rabbit (2006) Diasec © Studio Marie-Jo Lafontaine.
In Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s series of photographs I Love the World animals have successfully, and quite literally, superseded humans. However impossible, her portraits of half-human, half-animal chimeras, strike for their Orwellian quality: surrounded by a closed-off panorama of skyscrapers, they serve as a powerful reminder of the dehumanizing nature of capitalism, where individuals are almost reduced to human transactions.
Elsewhere, Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken Project intertwines art and science through cross-breeding of several species of chicken, with the aim of creating an authentic “cosmopolitan” fowl. Vanmechelen’s ongoing endeavour makes a — slightly extreme — point about multiculturalism, whether it is embraced or forced upon us; in a way, it represents an absurd reversal of the increasingly alarming political climate we are witnessing today.
Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse (He, KV) (2002) from the series Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Musée départemental de Flandre. Courtesy Jacques Quecq d'Henripret.
It makes indeed more sense to speak about manipulation rather than use of the animal theme throughout “A poils et à plumes”, as artistic agency over the animal form remains always ambiguous.
If Van Caeckenbergh’s Cheval, entirely made of kitchen hardware and everyday materials including plates, knives and tin cans, remains a heartfelt homage to his hoarder father, other works, including Jan Fabre’s Les Messagers de la Mort décapités: L’Annonciateur du froid, consisting of a mounted owl head, and even the more traditional photographs of captive animals by Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, work together towards the creation of an ambivalent environment, where both humour and sadism, celebration and pain are at play.
Patrick-Van-Caecken, Cheval. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp © Adagp, Paris 2017 Dominique Lampla.