• Animals and their artists: An exploration of impossible encounters

Atkinson, Elizabeth, 2020, Thesis, Animals and their artists: An exploration of impossible encounters PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

This research looks at the representation of animals in artistic practice to interrogate anthropocentric principles. I argue that the individuated and discrete human self – typically white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual – in possession of consciousness, rationality, empathy, a voice, and a face, is open to challenge by nonhuman capacities such as distributed cognition, gender ambiguity, metamorphosis, mimicry and avian speech. In traditional philosophy, animals represent all that is lacking in mankind. However, this dissertation argues that just because we frame ‘the animal’ as a negative term, our binary opposite and everything we are not, does not mean that animals have no meaning in themselves. Rather, animals in their very unknowability, mark the limits of human thinking.

I analyse a selection of artistic representations of nonhuman animals which emphasise and experiment with these limits. The artists chosen all work with animals to create spaces where animal meaning takes centre stage and human meaning is side-lined. The marine life documented by Jean Painlevé and the praying mantis who disturbs Roger Caillois establish an erotic, subversive and Surrealist opening. I then shift to more recent exhibition of spiders (Tomás Saraceno) and silkworms (Candice Lin and Kumi Oda), bees and Glofish (Pierre Huyghe), parrots (Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla) and ‘the animal within’ – brought to life as our primate kin (Huyghe). Each of these works places their human viewers in new territories and modes of relating to animal others, something increasingly vital in our current context: the rapid extinction of species, ecological collapse and the arrival of climate change at the hands of (some) Anthropos.

If we look beyond human language, what wealth of material can be unearthed? By learning more about nonhuman ways of life, how are principles such as anthropocentrism, patriarchy and gender normativity destabilised? I identify examples of human traits amongst animals, positioning other species in unusual alliances with identities typically assumed to be human. But at the same time, I interrogate the superiority of these human traits in comparison to the wealth of abilities other animals have that humans do not, such as the sensuality of spiders, the tactility of octopuses, the metamorphosis of silkworms or the collective organisation of bees. What happens to human subjectivity when faced with these radically other ways of being? When answering these questions, I elevate the status of animals from that of ‘the other’ to individuals mattering in their own right.

To establish my argument, I align Derridean deconstruction with Critical Animal Studies theory, including that of Donna J. Haraway and Lynn Turner, as well as the unthought of N. Katherine Hayles and Xenofeminism’s embrace of alienation. I combine this discussion with the lesser known science theories of Jakob von Uexküll on animal Umwelten and Francisco Varela on embodied cognition. I apply a methodology inspired by the porosity and infinite connections of tentacular thinking and entanglement (Haraway) to encompass a range of approaches and positions. I weave animal bodies and knowledges into human bodies and constructions to establish lines of thought, forms and behaviours often overlooked. Through an encounter with these works and the species they exhibit, this thesis establishes a new position where differences are embraced. This is a space of exploration where what humans – with our limited perceptual worlds – cannot and do not want to know materialises.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W900 Others in Creative Arts and Design
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Date Deposited: 25 Jun 2020 15:44
Last Modified: 01 Jun 2023 08:38
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/4421
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