Naked mole rats are blind, entirely without fur and capable of surviving only at temperatures between 85 and 92 degrees. Genetically speaking, the wrinkled, hairless rodents are also one of the most inbred animal species on earth. And for artist Pawel Wojtasik, they are a haunting metaphor for humankind.
Now, as part of a new exhibit at Artspace on Orange Street, that metaphor is being proffered to the public in all its frankness and grotesquerie. “Why Look At Animals?” showcases the work of Wojtasik and 13 other artists as they attempt to examine, expand and subvert the intricate relationships between animals and their human observers. Gallery Director Denise Markonish, who said that animals have always been a “huge presence” in her life, borrowed the exhibit’s title from a 1977 essay by critic John Berger.
“Why Look at Animals?” presents a variegated spectrum of artistic attitudes and approaches, calling to mind the whimsy and grandeur of biodiversity within the natural kingdom. The art on display proves that there’s more than one way to alienate and provoke a viewer’s sensibilities: Jill Greenburg’s photographs capture primates making facial expressions that are startlingly and evocatively human, while Katie Clark’s hybrid of sculpture and taxidermy literally fuses a human face onto a wildebeest head.
Certain works are especially direct in summoning the wild, resilient elegance of nature. Brandon Ballengee’s stained cross-section of a Clearnose skate, a cartilaginous fish, highlights the creature’s delicate biological architecture, and his aquarium projects are living diorama pulled straight from local sites such as Long Wharf and the Quinnipiac River.
“A lot of us see Long Wharf and we think it’s a garbage dump, but there are actually millions of plants and animals living there,” Ballengee said.
But the human touch is never far from sight, as the occasional cassette tape and Bud Light bottle mar Ballengée’s otherwise-naturalistic tableaux.
Wojtasik’s particular fascination with naked mole rats is articulated in a DVD display, entitled “Naked,” which features silent, looping footage of the fleshy creatures as they clamber over one another in their plastic laboratory enclosures. At the exhibit’s opening on Saturday, Wojtasik said he perceived a vague, unsettling parallel to human life in the cramped mammalian society.
“Looking at a colony is almost like looking at one organism made up of may different units,” he said. “It’s inconceivable for one of these animals to live on its own. They only make sense within the colony.”
Wojtasik’s film, from which humans are entirely absent, opens with a quotation from Wallace Stevens: “It is the human that is the alien/ The human that has no cousin in the moon.”
The technique of disorientation is used consistently throughout the exhibit, even when different media are used. The works pose similar challenges to the viewer’s conceptions of human identity and institutions.
Amy Jean Porter’s crisp gouache paintings of Asian primates are accompanied by Bible passages written in ink: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.” A bright blue Indian langur stares dumbly from the page.
“One thing I like about animals is that they provide a very neutral face to look at,” Porter said. “They make us aware of our own absurdities.”
Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder said she was pleased with the exhibit and with the turnout for Saturday’s opening. She also said the exhibit’s title was playfully deceptive.
“The exhibit is called ‘Why Look at Animals?’ but when you’re in here looking around, you really come to realize that the animals are actually looking at you,” Kauder said.
“Why Look at Animals?” is the latest manifestation of Artspace’s pronounced avant-garde ethic. Motioning to a stuffed fawn transformed into a makeshift ice tray by Carlee Fernandez, Kauder said she was especially fascinated by the artist’s subversive exercise in taxidermy.
“This kind of embodies what Artspace is all about,” Kauder said. “You wouldn’t really see this in any commercial setting.”