01 April 2009

unBecoming Animals

I'm interested in a distinction that i don't actually see Steve Baker making very often in his book, The Postmodern Animal, namely between representations of animals and actual animals used in representations of animals (what i might call representative animals). My initial interest in this question stems from looking at Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworlds exhibition and wondering to what extent the bodies (animal and human) presented there in fact are 'real', that is, are we seeing dead bodies when we look at the pieces or representations of bodies (the assumption of the question being, of course, that the answer matters).

It seems to me that the lack of this distinction in Baker's book might be the very definition of 'the postmodern animal'. Baker lays out the progression of animality from the 19th Century 'symbolic animal' to the 'modern animal' (which for him doesn't exist, but i would like to think of as the industrialized animal), through to the postmodern animal (p. 20), where the distinction between representative animals and representations of animals breaks down to some extent. For Baker, this eroded distinction gets most interestingly questioned in works like Olly and Susi's in which representations of animals are placed 'on the border' where they will (hopefully) be interacted with by the animals depicted. Sharks bite pictures of sharks and deer urinate on their own image… which reminds me of this one time… in Copenhagen…

But in a case like Olly and Susi's (or Mark Dion's Library for the Birds of Antwerp as another example) the answer to the distinction seems obvious, at least until you start thinking about zoo theory in which even the living animals become representative (and perhaps representations). Far more challenging, I think, are works like Damien Hirst's This Little Piggy and The Physical Impossibility of Death in which actual dead animals are preserved in formaldehyde and presented in glass casing. And this is where the connection to von Hagens' work comes into play. The most common question asked by critics of the Bodyworlds exhibit is 'why not just use platic molding to recreate the human interior'. In other words, if we, as good little postmodernists, are going to dissolve the barrier between actual animals and representations of animals (see zoo theory as a starting place for this), why then does Damien Hirst need to cut an actual pig in half for his artwork, when a realistic molding would accomplish the same thing (and essentially, be the same thing). (Plus, such a rendering by Hirst would demonstrate much more 'artistic expertise' than cutting an animal in half and dunking it in preservatives - and therein lies the answer to my own question, methinks).

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