‘“What will be spooky about Kinderzimmer? You will be walking into an empty box. The visitor will find nothing except his own inner experiences in that space. He will be asked to confront them”’ –Gregor Schneider (Campbell-Johnston 2009).
Through this essay, it is my intention to examine the impact of one aspect of postmodernism on a particular piece of art. I have chosen to consider how the theory of ‘the uncanny’ bears on the 2008 work, Kinderzimmer (Nursery), by the German artist, Gregor Schneider. I will begin by defining what we mean by ‘the uncanny’, follow this with a description of the Kinderzimmer installation, and then analyse the artwork and the artist in relation to the theory and with each other. I also feel that it is worth noting that while this essay is from the perspective of postmodern theory, ‘for a century of scholars, the uncanny has been a particularly modernist issue, because it shares the same concerns as that consummate modernist thinker, Freud’ (Arnzen 1997).
‘Uncanny’ is the English word used to translate the German unheimlich (literally ‘unhomely’) and was discussed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche. Chambers Dictionary (11th edition) defines uncanny as ‘weird, supernatural’ and this is how it most widely used. Freud recognised that there was no exact equivalent to unheimlich in English (for example) when he said that ‘some languages in use to-day can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by “a haunted house”’ (Freud 1919:364). Furthermore, Jeffrey Sconce points out that ‘in the popular imagination, the uncanny has become a synonym for the paranormal’ (Kelley and Sconce 2004). Freud’s use of the literature of fantasy -and in particular E.T.A. Hoffmann ‘s The Sandman- to illustrate his thinking means that the uncanny has been associated with fantasy, the supernatural and tales drawn from those genres right from the point at which it moved from being simply an identifiable experience and became a concept for examination.
The uncanny is a more complex concept than the upset caused by an apparently paranormal experience or even simply being afraid, for although it is ‘undoubtedly related to what is frightening -to what arouses dread and horror’ (Freud 1919: 339) it is important to remember that Freud was not actually discussing ‘the uncanny’, he was using the term unheimlich. The German word is the opposite of heimlich (which is closer to its English equivalent, homely), with heimlich meaning belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly (my emphasis). However, in his thorough review of the meaning of the term, Freud also finds that heimlich actually shares some meaning with its opposite, in that heimlich can refer to that which is secret, hidden, occult (a word meaning hidden that is also applied to the paranormal, magic), even dangerous.
While Freud’s essay acknowledges the uncanniness of purported supernatural occurrences (for example, the double, the apparent greater significance of coincidences, the apparent or actual animation of the inanimate), he is really dealing with this experience as a psychiatrist, the uncanny as negative experiences arising from everyday situations through the resurgence of repressed feelings, impulses and memories. Essentially, the uncanny experience is when the familiar becomes strange and thereby leads to discomfort, anxiety, even fear. However, it must always be remembered that ‘the uncanny’ has connotations that are lacking in the English, principally the association with the home and family and their safety and stability (or otherwise); because of this, one might use the German instead of the English in certain cases, to provide greater clarity and to avoid the elements of the fantastic that the latter implies, at least with an audience familiar with Freud’s essay.
Kinderzimmer was part of the Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art exhibition during the first half of 2009, where it was set up in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. It has since been moved, so its exact configuration may now differ due to its being in a new space, although the essentials should be the same wherever it is located. The installation took up the whole of the South Gallery, which was sealed off, with only one entrance and one exit, leaving the piece in total darkness. Somewhere in this darkness, possibly the centre -it is hard to tell- is another room: this is the kinderzimmer of the title. Viewed through a lit window, this room is cell-like, almost empty but for a small sleeping mat on the floor -a child’s bed, bare and empty. If one feels around the exterior wall of this room within a room, a door can be found, allowing entrance to an identical room, with a window showing only darkness and with a bare floor: there is no sleeping mat in here.
The child’s room is modelled after one in the German town of Garzweller, which was abandoned to make way for an enormous open-cast mining project. Hidden around a corner in the larger room, to hide its illumination, a video projection plays. It shows shots of Garzweller; boarded up doors and windows, empty streets. They look like still photographs, but sometimes a breeze swings a telephone wire, sets a bush twitching or a bird appears in the background sky, crossing the frame.
Kinderzimmer is clearly in the tradition of Gregor Schneider’s other work, which consists mainly of remodelling interiors and constructing rooms within galleries, museums and house. Famously, he began dismantling and reconfiguring the interior of a house in 1985 when he was sixteen and continued to do so. This was his childhood home in Mönchengladbach-Rheydt (Rhineland, Germany) and, as a work, is titled Haus Ur. The original internal structure of the house is now lost beneath the modifications, Schneider saying that some of it will only be recoverable when the house is finally demolished. From the outside, it looks perfectly normal.
In 2001, Schneider won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting Totes Haus Ur in the German Pavilion. Constructed in parts with components from the German house, this was described as ‘a house of horrors. The place was a maze of fake partitions, lead-lined rooms, makeshift sleeping quarters and a kitchen encrusted with mould’ (Lack 2009).
His work is often political and controversial. He has exhibited an enormous black cube, based on the Kaaba, the most sacred place in the Islamic faith (rejected in Venice, 2005, but finally realised in Hamburg, 2007); an installation of cell-like structures on Bondi Beach, which references the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Weisse Folter (White or Clean Torture), an installation also influenced by Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of political prisoners worldwide, based on the architecture and techniques designed to psychologically torture (let’s not quibble over this) detainees.
Notoriously, Schneider has also made it known that he hopes one day to construct a room in a museum or a gallery in which a member of the public would volunteer to die.
We can see from these examples that the artist is almost exclusively using structures -habitable structures, occupiable spaces- as his medium. We can also see that his intention seems to be to cause discomfort in the viewer (explorer?). While the discomfort depends on one’s views on contemporary Islam and its adherents in the case of the Kaaba-inspired cube, in other works the cause of the discomfort is more general: the distortion of a generic, familiar space (the house, the gallery, the museum); the way in which the built environment can impact on the psyche and how this can be done deliberately to cause harm; confrontation with the reality of the dying and of death.
These are clearly unheimlich, and therefore uncanny. As a German, Schneider automatically knows that the uncanny is unheimlich: there is no difference between the two terms. Or rather, when dealing with the uncanny, Schneider is less hampered by the paranormal connotations of the English. There are no ghosts in his houses: they are unheimlich, not haunted.
It is tempting for critics to argue that Schneider’s work arises from trauma. It may be significant that Haus Ur, begun when the artist was sixteen years old, coincides with the death of Schneider’s father (Lack 2009). For many, this would be an easy conclusion to draw but over-emphasis on this factor acts as blinkers in relation to the wider issues and complexities of Schneider’s work. However, it would be very appropriate if the artist was choosing to work from a foundation of his own trauma. Despite the other implications of the essay, Freud was essentially dealing with the uncanny in relation to psychiatry and psychoanalysis; in the Freudian tradition, the uncanny is very definitely tied to the home, the family, intimacy, and the repression and resurgence of trauma within these situations.
In Kinderzimmer, we immediately perceive the references to the home and the family. The inching through the dark, the looking through the window, the entry into the child’s room, these immediately speak of intimacy. On the one hand, it is possible to recognise the stealthy vigilance and concern of the parent or older sibling. On the other, we recognise how close that secret safety check can be to the behaviour of the burglar, the murderer, the sexual predator, just as heimlich and unheimlich can meet and share meaning.
During the time in which Schneider was constructing Kinderzimmer and then during its exhibition in Manchester, it would have been difficult to avoid making connections with the case of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl is an Austrian man, accused and found guilty of kidnapping and imprisoning his daughter, then having her bear his children while they remained locked in a specially constructed ‘bunker’ in the basement of his house for a period of twenty-four years. As this crime came to light during April 2008 and was an international story, it is difficult to imagine the artist not being aware of it and also conscious as to the reaction of his audience when experiencing Kinderzimmer.
The remodelled house and the secret basement are staples of our culture. The fictional Bates Motel, an uncanny place by any measure, is mentioned in relation to Schneider’s work, as is the real life 25 Cromwell Street, the internally modified house of the serial killer, Fred West. While the serial killer as constructor of a secret interior has become a cliché of the genre (for example, the house of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, the lair of Avery Marx in the 1999 Acclaim video game, Shadow Man), it is a cliché that sprang fully formed from the real world. In 1893, Herman Webster Mudgett (also known under the alias Doctor Henry Howard Holmes) opened his ‘hotel’, which was in fact a rambling construction of meandering passages, windowless rooms, soundproof chambers, and stairs to nowhere (Larson 2004): does this not remind one of Haus Ur and Totes Haus Ur? In our popular culture, the serial killer becomes an uncanny being, somehow able to avoid detection for abominable crimes. In many cases, the crimes are not recognised until the perpetrator is caught, turning their property into a gruesome and uncanny historical document: we look at the work of Gregor Schneider and we shudder at some of the company he metaphorically keeps and wonder exactly what the influences are.
It seems always to be that Schneider tries to make the uncanny experiential. His installations do not have any overtly ghastly trappings: no ghosts, no blood, no skulls, no bats. As I have already mentioned, it might be that his native linguistic familiarity with unheimlich means he can engage with it without the paranormal baggage of ‘uncanny’. Schneider himself ‘would argue (possibly disingenuously) that any associations we make concerning his art are constructed from our own ghoulish imaginations’ (Lack 2009), that any horror we experience is generated by our own imaginations. While this is clearly the case, the work is already charged with ready-made triggers for these associations. In fact, some might think that ‘Schneider’s manipulations are too obvious to inspire real dread’. However, even this commentator admits that ‘in Freudian terms, Kinderzimmer (Nursery) is all very unheimlich’ (Cumming 2009).
Kinderzimmer may lack the paranormal trappings of the uncanny, but everything else is there: darkness, isolation, silence, doubling, expectation. When one goes to see the work of an artist as distinctive as Gregor Schneider, one already has expectations. These are further encouraged by the attendant at the entrance reassuring you that you will be okay, that nothing will hurt you, that you only have to cry out and they will come and rescue you. Unfortunately, with Kinderzimmer, because one can immediately see how the expected effect is to be achieved and because it is essentially just a dark room (rather than an elaborate, extensive complex), ‘we retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit’ (Freud 1919: 374). The distance between the lit window looking into the child’s room and the door allowing ingress to the replica are too distant from each other to fool the senses, but it is apparent what was meant to be achieved.
In addition, we do not fully experience ‘the uncanny effect of silence, darkness and solitude’ (Freud 1919: 369) because Kinderzimmer is not soundproofed. We are not alone because we can hear the other visitors in the rest of the gallery and we are not in silence because Tony Oursler’s 1995 work, The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Never Seen, can be heard inside Kinderzimmer and throughout the whole of the Subversive Spaces exhibition. In another situation this might aid the experience of feelings of the uncanny, but in this case it is merely intrusive, destroying the intimacy of the heimlich that is required for the unheimlich to manifest.
However, the success or otherwise of Kinderzimmer does not diminish the recognition of the influence of the theory of the uncanny. Sadly, it makes this influence all too plain. The Freudian tradition is well known within our culture, it is no longer specialist information and we are all able to decode things, however roughly, in Freudian terms. We are familiar with the trappings of the uncanny, even unheimlich, and these can affect us even when we are aware and understand them. For example, two of the best ghost stories in the English language (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) can be read as being devoid of supernatural elements: this house is not haunted, it is unheimlich; the visitors have brought the phantoms to the house, not the other way round.
It is because we all know what is meant to be frightening, what can induce uncanny feeling, that Gregor Schneider is able to play upon this knowledge and these expectations. We like to feel that the home and the family are safe, stable, comforting. This is why we see deserted houses as creepy, haunted. This is why the architecture of Fritzl, West and Mudgett takes on the taint of the crimes of their architect. Everything is familiar but has been made strange by the associations we make and the half-formed conclusions we draw, and we cannot help but to dredge up things from our personal and cultural consciousness that we might not want to look at.
Whether it has been a result of his own trauma, Kinderzimmer and the wider work of Gregor Schneider are firmly in the tradition of the uncanny. It could even be said that they are wholly in the uncanny psychoanalytical tradition, with the artist also working as healer: ‘“My work is not about making you fearful. It is about helping you reflect upon and overcome your fear”’ (Campbell-Johnston 2009).
Arnzen, Michael (1997) The Return of the Uncanny. Paradoxa. Vol. 3, No. 3-4.
Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (2009) Gregor Schneider, the inner space man. The Times. January 27.
Cumming, Laura (2009) The art of dreams –and déjà vu. The Guardian. February 15.
Freud, Sigmund (1919) The Uncanny. Leeds Met Historical and Critical Studies Level 2 Module Handbook.
Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: The literature of subversion. Routledge.
Kelley, Mike and Sconce, Jeffrey (2004) I’ve got this Strange feeling [Internet], Tate Online. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue1/article8.htm [Accessed 7 December 2009].
Lack, Jessica (2009) Artist of the week 28: Gregor Schneider. The Guardian. February 11.
Larson, Erik (2004) The Devil in the White City. Bantam Books.
ARE WE NOT MEN?
Towards the hybrid future: animal-human identity in the transgenic world.
With this essay, I intend to examine the animal-human interface as it relates to our identity as human beings. I will argue that the supposed difference between human and animal has become vanishingly small, that this divide was largely artificial and has been eroded through increased human understanding, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to biotechnology today. I will be drawing on legal and scientific source material, as well as works of art and art theory, as I believe that -while artists are posing and responding to questions in this area- it is the scientific research and legal definitions that will ultimately decide how these changes affect us in our day-to-day lives. Within these wider contexts, I will be looking at changing human attitudes towards our own animality, the idea of becoming-animal put forward by Deleuze and Guattari, human anxiety over the animal-human interface and also the so-called mouse-with-a-human-ear, which I believe represents a powerful symbol of the issues surrounding animal-human identity in the transgenic world of biotechnology.
Christopher Cox notes that ‘we are fond of our species and the rung on the ladder we still imagine ourselves to inhabit’ (Cox 2005: 24). The rung he is referring to is, of course, the top one. Whether we believe that this position is the result of God’s will or having ‘won’ the evolutionary contest, we still place ourselves at the peak of an Aristotelian scale where perfection is found in the human male (Cox: 19). Mark Dion’s 1994 work, Scala Natura, represents this traditional hierarchical view. Interestingly, the bust on the top step of the installation could be interpreted as representing only the idea of man or human, rather than the sex or the species itself, and its material gives it more in common with the man-made objects at the bottom of the scale than the representations of the living things between. There has always been a marked androcentrism in this hierarchy, man as master, man as driver of our evolutionary development (see Elaine Morgan’s book The Descent of Woman for an alternative view), though at least woman is no longer seen as a ‘deformed male’ as Aristotle had it (Cox: 21). If anything, our understanding of embryonic development suggests that the male is the deformed one.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection and the discourse surrounding the place of humanity in God’s creation was altered forever. What people often forget, particularly as we still find it difficult not to see our species as the completion of the evolutionary project, is that ‘not only did Darwin eliminate the boundaries between the species; he also flattened the ancient hierarchy’ (Cox: 20) -he kicked down Aristotle’s scala natura, which is why Mark Dion’s has a symbol at the top. The theory of evolution put humanity back among the beasts of the field and, as Nietzsche has it, transformed all our supposedly unique gifts -the things that made so obviously different and superior to animals- into the mere ‘means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves -since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with… sharp teeth’ (Cox: 18). Even though Darwin’s theory has been used to justify the superiority of humanity over the animals and even of sections of humanity over the rest of it, the living outcomes around us are not a drive towards greater complexity or representative of a steady advancement, they are merely the response of species to the static and changing environment around them (Simmons 2006: 49).
Human and animal identity has been intimately entangled for as long as there has been a concept such as ‘identity’. Humans, however, are in the apparently unique position of being able to discuss the various constructions of identity, including that of ‘every dumb creature’ as the Californian legal definition of animals would have it (Vining 2008: 53). In considering the Genesis creation story from the Bible, the historian Erica Fudge, argues that ‘it is as if the animals had no identity… without Adam… [through] their inability to name themselves’ (Fudge 2002: 13). For Adam, we can read human. In examining animal identity, whether one is a scientist, an artist or a lawyer, it is important to remember that it is humans who have created this identity. Artists who work with the animal as their subject are ‘aware that the animal itself can never be portrayed, only our notion of what it is’ (Schneider 2004: 5).
For most of the time, for most of us, a simple dichotomy is enough: we generally accept that there is a clear line between what is a human and what is an animal. However, humans are aware that we share many characteristics with the animals, particularly mammals and even more particularly the primates, enough to recognise that ‘we are surely a kind of animal’, although throughout history we ‘have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different’ (Cox: 18). The philosopher Giorgio Agamben ‘outlines how central the definition of “non-human animals” is to our own existence. In short, what make us human is simply that we are not animals’ (Thompson, J. 2005: 9). It is perhaps significant that animal studies now has a greater presence in the mainstream humanities than it did in the 1990s (Baker 1993, 2001: ix), suggesting that human-animal relationships (of all types) are taken more seriously outside of a scientific context than previously.
Philosophically, a very important concept when looking at the human-animal identity interface is that of ‘becoming-animal’, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, first in their book, Kafka (1975), and then at greater length in 1980’s A Thousand Plateaus. Steve Baker describes ‘becoming-animal’ as ‘a particularly complex example of philosophical thought about the relation of humans and animals’ (Baker 2000: 102). To try and explain it in simple -even crude- terms, ‘becoming-animal’ is not a literal transformation but rather taking on a similarity of action or sensation, ‘[destabilising] the strict boundaries modernity established between humanity and the animal kingdom’ (Thompson, N. 2005: 8). Deleuze and Guattari saw becoming as being useful for politically subversive purposes, using it to question and resist established authorities (Baker 2000: 104), effectively becoming a minority. This is an interesting thought in the light of Peter Singer’s idea, from his book Animal Liberation (1975) that our treatment of animals, on the basis of a perceived difference that only we can define, might be a form of racism (Thompson, N. 2005: 11), and taken to a logical conclusion by Joseph Beuys who maintained that he was trying to speak up for the animals, on the grounds that they could not speak up themselves (Adams 1992: 30).
Becoming is an alternative way of looking at things and of experiencing the world, intended to open up new possibilities. This is not confined to the philosophical or artistic realms, but has found its way into discussions on the legal rights and position of animals, where it obviously has implications for the relative positions of humans and animals.
Joseph Vining, in his talk at the University of Michigan entitled Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization, is clearly in the same territory as Deleuze and Guattari (even if he is neither directly referencing their work, nor even aware of their conceptualisations) when he suggests that legal frameworks should ‘move away from the basic human/ animal dichotomy, and… begin thinking and talking in other, more evocative terms… Hierarchy might be tilted even if it is never reversed, perhaps it would not be such a bad thing to be more like elephants or dolphins’. This legalistic becoming-animal, while altering the parameters of lawful and acceptable treatment of animals, might also lead to ‘their [the animals] opening to us… new perceptions and new realities’ (Vining: 56-57). An interesting perspective, and one that ties in with Deleuze and Guattari’s declaration that the alternatives offered by becoming-animal are ‘somehow proposed by the animal‘ (his emphasis) (Baker 2000: 102).
Becoming-animal offers an immediate, non-biological hybridity by breaking down the barriers between static category types. By allowing movement and exchange in either direction, it effectively erases the separation between all things and makes them interconnected. While this is meant to be liberating, it is at the same time frightening (Thompson, N: 8). The process works both ways and means that once-reliable category types are no longer stable; there is cause for anxiety. While Deleuze and Guattari are not proposing that becoming-animal will lead to the appearance of Moreau’s Beast Folk, the boundary at the interface of human-animal identity has been eroded by scientific discovery, even before the advent of gene manipulation and other forms of biotechnology: metaphorical has the potential to become actual.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Darwin’s theory of evolution will be aware of what upset it caused at the time, or the passions on both sides during the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. The controversy surrounding evolutionary theory is not relegated to the past, either, with theories of ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’ being put forward as serious scientific views in schools and even universities. In this case, the anxiety is as much that we are no longer so close to the divine as it is that we are closer to the animals, that we are naked apes (or hairy porpoises, as Elaine Morgan and others might argue).
Fundamentalist religious objections to evolution aside (sadly, only the single most well known of the array of scientific areas objected to), it is clear that ‘the latest scientific findings seem to be blurring the division between animals and humans’. While it might not be surprising that our genetic make up is 98% the same as bonobo apes and chimpanzees -it seems we can accept a certain amount of animal proximity (Schneider: 2), we may find it less comfortable that ‘the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea’ (Thompson, N: 8). In 1996 molecular biologists at Tel Aviv University concluded that the rabbits and hares were most closely related to the primates than to the carnivorans, the hoofed mammals or the rodents as they had variously and previously been believed to be (Shuker 1998: 40). What are we to do if our grandfather is an ape and our second cousin a rabbit? ‘How will people think of themselves, and their relation to others once such boundaries… have been eroded?’ (Tomasula 2002: 138).
There is also an anxiety concerning the possible commodification of the human being and our rights over our biological self. With Genetic Code Certificate, the artist Larry Miller claimed copyright of his own genetic code (and has since made it possible for others to do likewise). The point of departure was obviously the commercial aspects of biotechnology. This art work should certainly be considered in the light of the fact that John Moore had his own cells patented by the University of California and two of its researchers following cancer treatment. In the end it did not matter that he was originally unaware of this, nor gave his consent, as the California Supreme Court ruled that he had ‘no property rights over the tissues of his body’ (Tomasula: 142). Much like an animal. As a side note, animals themselves are patentable under United States law following a Supreme Court ruling over an oil-eating bacterium (Vining: 52), so legally it would seem the divide between the human and the animal is coming down and not necessarily for the better.
As we draw new lines and split thinner hairs with regard to our biological and legal relationship with animals, ‘one cannot escape a very definite sense that we are simultaneously telling ourselves what makes us human’ (Vining: 53). With regard to Lucy Gunning’s The Horse Impressionists (1994), Kate Bush refers to ‘our fears of regressing to bestiality’ and our ‘deep-seated anxieties about our own success at ‘being’ human’ (Bush 1995). I suppose that the fear and anxiety is related as much to whatever cultural and psychological factors lead to the imagining of Moreau’s Beast Folk, Edward Hyde, Brundlefly, werewolves, of ‘trans-animals as predators stalking the night’ (Thompson, N: 9) as it is to the terrors of helplessness in the face of exploitation (something else we share with animals).
The Brazilian artist, Eduardo Kac, uses scientific techniques, particularly biotechnology, to create art while at the same time examining and commenting on the implications of the processes he uses. He may well be best known for creating Alba, a rabbit containing jellyfish protein which means that it glows under a particular type of light (Tomasula: 137). This has been widely reported as a rabbit that glows or glows in the dark, which certainly sounds more radical and disturbing.
Kac’s creation of Alba suggests that it is now possible to produce a living being that is a literal work of art, as opposed to the metaphorical living work of art or the performance artist. This now allows us to look at the headless frogs created at Bath University (with the ultimate aim of producing headless human organ donors) (Tomasula, p. 139) and also the Vacanti mouse as potential living works of art.
Named after the director of the research team (Dr. Charles Vacanti) that produced it at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Vacanti mouse is a laboratory mouse (itself of a type bred by humans specifically for experimentation), on which human ear and cartilage cells were used to construct a fleshy growth that superficially resembles a human ear (Fudge: 110-111).
It is important to remember that, despite the Vacanti mouse being widely called the mouse-with-a-human-ear, it is not that at all. It effectively has a benign, though alien, growth and will survive its removal; its offspring will not have ears on their backs. Unless, of course, someone decides to grow them there. However, due to this confusion, this immediate acceptance of the mouse-human hybrid, I see the Vacanti mouse as a powerful symbol of the transgenic world to come. In it we can invest hopes and fears, because it is no longer a thing, it is an idea; it is the bust on top of Mark Dion’s Scala Natura.
The influence of this symbol can be seen through its inclusion in at least two works of art. First, the image of the mouse features heavily in Protein Lattice, a 1997 work by Patricia Piccinini, an artist who explores the issues surrounding biotechnology today (Lauritzen 2005: 30). Secondly, in the form of a frog with ears on its back, it appears in Rompers, a 2003 video work by Motohiko Odani, in which it by its presence it reinforces the possibility of the human-hybrid figure in the video.
The paradigm upset caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution has still not been fully assimilated, even today. Historically, the human reaction to the erosion of the animal-human division has been one of anxiety and it is still difficult, particularly for those who feel this affronts their relationship with the divine, to overcome this ancient, ingrained fear (which may, paradoxically, turn out to actually have some evolutionary benefit. Advances in scientific knowledge, from better to classification to gene splicing and other biotechnology, have opened our eyes to possibilities once considered impossible, imaginary. Philosophically, when there is not anxiety, there is excitement at these possibilities, even a desire to try them, and this is reflected in the shifts in legal status between human and animal. Artists continue to respond to these developments and produce work that depicts or takes the living form of transgenic animals -hybrids, monsters, even- though they ‘take particular care… [that the viewer] feels sympathy and even empathy for the subjects’ (Powell 2004: 333).
It is almost as if they are trying to prepare us, for the time when the ‘hybrid might say, “When do I?”- become human enough to escape… treatment as an animal?’ (Vining: 56).
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