Babies and Tigers and Cyborgs, oh my! Species Anxiety and Future Uncertainty in Donatella Landi’s “Les resonances sur l’image”

Walking into Italian artist Donatella Landi’s Les resonances sur l’image at Galerie UQAM is entering a synthetic environment in which species interact and contrast with one another in shared subjugation to various surveillance and recording equipment.

The exhibition consists of a collection of video works, each differently displayed. The darkened gallery space is alive with a curious and unsettling mixture of birdsong, atmospheric noise, scratching and scraping and anguished sounds that could be either human or machine made. Indeed, the boundaries between the natural world and the human-mediated environment, between species, and between developmental stages, are both naturalized and called into question. These are, of course, the boundaries that have shaped our very definition of what (we think) we are, and how we tend to treat ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live.

The boundaries built – physically and conceptually – between humans and animals, or between humans and machines, appear to be a central preoccupation in the exhibition and, we would argue, in much contemporary art production today. This is not surprising, as the increasing instability of these categories has produced excessive anxiety over the place of humans in this changing ecosystem. The current moment is marked by a greater dislocation of humans from the natural world, at the same time that technology is integrated into almost every aspect of our lives. Like cyborgs we interact more with our machines than with (and often at the expense of) the environment.

The first work encountered upon entering the exhibition is Casting Madonna. A ten-minute video loop (to be watched while wearing noise-cancelling headphones) depicts a woman with a small and naked baby in her lap, set against a sprawling Italian landscape that is partially obscured by a tacked up sheet of fabric.

© Donatella Landi, Casting , Madonna, 2011, video still,

© Donatella Landi, Casting Madonna, 2011, video still

The woman stares dispassionately into the camera, silently and subtly pacifying her ever-moving baby. She lowers her eyes to attend to the infant every now and then, shifting its unruly body to control or contain its movements, before resuming her gaze. Her composure is contrasted by the baby’s expressiveness and as-yet-untamed bodily processes. It spits up, drools, pees on her lap and exhibits a general disregard for the discipline and authority that the camera expects. After about five minutes, the pair is replaced by another mother and child who perform a similar process. The stamina of the women is startling and their calmness captivating. In contrast, the babies are animated – animalistic, even – and bear little resemblance to the equanimity of their mothers. They appear to be of a different species, or of an earlier evolutionary phase, more like monkeys than children.

In this tableau vivant, the classic Renaissance configuration of Madonna and child – Virgin and Christ occupying an Italian environment – resonates with the Western art historical canon in obvious and identifiable ways. The work’s title refers both to auditions in the film industry and the classical sculptural process of making molds to reproduce an original form.

These considerations might seem a diversion from our interpretation of the exhibition as attending to evolutionary species organization. But the production of art and religious systems is often invoked as proof of – and justification for – the distancing of humans from other animals. And here lies the critical edge to Landi’s work. She is not simply reconstructing art historical humanist assumptions, but rather (to use a brilliant pun) aping them, in order to reveal the tenuous distinction between human civilization and the environment in which it has been built.

We see the baby as more savage than civilized (to employ a disconcerting dichotomy at the base of white western societies’ subjugation of other species and races). The baby exists outside of language or social codes, unaware of its human status. It is the mothers’ role to conform, control and civilize these little animals. (Of course this process, when played out generationally, is more gentle and soothing than the aggressive initiatives employed by dominant societies over species and peoples deemed other or inferior). Each of us has undergone a similar transformation from wet and wriggling infants to supposedly acculturated adults and we, in turn, will do the same to our children, as they will to theirs. Somewhere in between infancy and adulthood we abandon or obscure our animal nature.

All of these issues are encompassed in the works occupying the main space of the gallery. Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Zoo are displayed on opposite walls. The first – an obvious reference to Edouard Manet’s controversial 19th century painting of the same name – consists of an enormous video projection depicting a pastoral scene, a park or the cultivated countryside, in which eight or nine small groups of people are pictured playing, picnicking and enjoying a leisurely afternoon. Kids throw a ball or chase each other but with the kind of overexuberance that rings false. Adults read and chat with one another. We don’t hear what they are saying. Every now and again someone stands and stares out at the camera. They hold these poses for an unusually, even uncomfortably long time.  Is this the video version of Manet’s famous gazers, typically understood as being directed at the viewer? Are these people looking at us? Or, alternatively, are they looking beyond us.

© Donatella Landi, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe: Zoo 1993-2009 (detail), 2009

© Donatella Landi, Zoo, 1993-2009 (detail), 2009

Seven small screens are embedded in the opposite wall, each displaying a looped recording of a single zoo animal – a lion, an orangutan, a panther, a rhino, an elephant seal, a monkey and a tiger. The perspective is so claustrophobically close that a full view of the animals is rarely permitted and the omnipresent bars of their cages are foregrounded. They move about slowly if they move at all. It is clear that the small scale of the screens is metonymic for the size of their “habitats” in the zoo. They hardly move because there is nowhere to move to. A black panther proves an exception to the other animals. Captured entirely by the camera, the panther paces rapidly and relentlessly in its painfully small cell.

It is almost impossible not to associate this panther’s frantic pacing with madness, the rhino’s stillness with dejection, the lion’s licking of its paw with sorrow or hurt, and the intensive, intelligent look of the orangutan with our own self-awareness. It’s unclear whether anthropomorphizing their behaviours in this way is a product of our own empathy or ignorance. The question arises, is this work about us or about them? Is that even the right question? Should there be an “us and them” at all?

This was one of the central questions in Donna Haraway’s now famous Cyborg Manifesto of 1985. Interpreting the world to be at a crossroads, Haraway called for a dissolution of boundaries that were becoming or had always been untenable: the boundaries between humans and animals, animals and machines, and between the virtual and the real. Recognizing our kinship with other species, our marriage to machines and the interplay of fiction and history, Haraway proposed becoming cyborg as a radical ethical turn by which we could transcend the longstanding inequality between genders, races, and species. If our interaction with machines and our disconnect from nature was already apparent in 1985, it is even more evident today.

The distinction between human and animal (each the subject of technological control) is particularly present in the pairing of Zoo and Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Standing in the centre of the room, we are caught in the visual crossfire between these two camps – between human and animal, between the zoo and the park.  Neither is a “natural” space and both come out of a modern drive to order and organize the world according to humanist ideals and hierarchical logic.

Remove the viewer from the equation and those individuals that stand up and stare out from Dejeuner sur l’herbe look directly at the zoo animals. And who’s to say their gaze is not being returned? They’re also objects of observation, perhaps unaware of their own false freedom. There’s an ugly incongruence here: the animals are confined in concrete structures while these humans fill their lungs with fresh air and feel grass under their feet. Perhaps this is why we abandon our animalism as we age. It’s not a great time to be tiger and our mothers know it.

We have noticed this fraught complex to be present in other exhibitions throughout the city that also draw on the distinctions between humans, animals and machines. The two installations at Galerie B-312, as part of Mois de la Photo, for example, directly address issues of inter-species surveillance. Véronique Ducharme’s Encounters (2012-13) is in an incredible installation, although arguably undermined by its description in the promotional material for the show.

Véronique Ducharme, 2012:08:14  03-46-56, 2012.

Véronique Ducharme, 2012:08:14 03-46-56, (from the series Encounters), 2012

A series of retro projectors in the centre of a small room cast images on the surrounding walls: wild animals captured in their “natural habitats” by hidden cameras triggered by their presence. The write up for the show suggests that the question posed by Ducharme’s project is “Can animals take their own pictures?” The question seems so inane, when the exhibition is so affective, and the only possible answer, it seems, would be “No.”

These animals aren’t existing “beyond human control” as the wall text suggests. In fact they are more controlled than ever. There is much more going on here than the description allows. The work speaks to the inescapability of surveillance over all species and to the uncomfortable alignment of hunting and photography. The sound of each slide shifting position is like the reloading of a rifle and the images – especially those captured at night – resemble prey caught in the crosshairs.  (In fact images of this sort are also lining the walls of Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, as part of Benoit Aquin’s photographic series La Chasse). There is, of course, a long-held connection between the camera and the gun. They are both technologies of capture and control. We shoot with both and become capable of stopping life and freezing it in its tracks.

The surveillance of animals is also evident in C’heryl Sourkes’ work, on display in an adjacent room from Ducharme’s. Sourkes engages with the ubiquity of webcams and social media sites that keep us imaged and exhibited at all times in the great human zoo that is the Internet. Many of Sourkes’ webcam images capture animals alone or alongside their human companions in domestic spaces. Between Ducharme’s and Sourkes’ shows, it becomes apparent that, like humans, animals are under excessive surveillance even outside the zoo or the game farm or safari park where they have been placed purely for people’s viewing pleasure.

A final work is included in Landi’s exhibition, cordoned off from the main gallery space by a curtain. My Dear My Beloved consists of a large video projection of a creek running through a wooded area. Speakers project the sound of voice actors reading from a series of love letters exchanged by the artist’s parents in the 1950s before they were married. In post-war Europe, at a time when the world had supposedly lost all innocence, these romantic writings remain sweet, ardent, optimistic. It’s a pensive and poetic work, but perhaps less curatorially successful than the rest of the show. The wall text suggests that it encompasses two divergent aspects of time: the enduring quality of nature and the fleetingness of our earthly existence. The statement is oddly naïve and even incongruent with current circumstances in which we live longer than ever, but the future of the planet is in peril.

Disregarding the wall text, there is a subtle post-apocalyptic quality to My Dear My Beloved. There’s a sense in which these lovers and this environment are all artifacts of the past, existing now only in mechanical record. It is as if love, optimism and even the future itself are outdated ideas, belonging to an earlier time, or an earlier world.

In UQAM’s second exhibition space, Mélanie Martin has constructed an enormous and labyrinthine cardboard structure that viewers can enter and explore. It’s like a disposable bunker or purely opaque house of mirrors. The installation’s title, Can I Stop Being Worried Now? is a cautious rumination on the future and its place in the present and its significance can be extended to a consideration of Landi’s exhibition. If our reading of Landi’s show is less than optimistic, it is probably because, no, it does not yet appear time to stop worrying. Maybe Haraway was right: if we want the future back, we need to retire or radically recalibrate the outdated idea of human as the centre of the universe.

While it’s doubtful that Landi had cyborgs in mind, they nonetheless haunt Les resonances sur l’image. Vision is layered, as the machine’s gaze interacts with that of the human and the animal. The exhibition is on view until October 18th.

Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall

© Passenger Art, 2013