Photographs of animals are on display in this exhibition. At first glance, they seem to be photographs of live birds and beasts. But upon closer inspection, you begin to notice the glass eyes that resemble doll eyes, the tags on their feet, and the pedestals they are standing on. Animalism is one of the most ancient genres in art – it refers all the way back to rock paintings – but it is not as simple as it might appear. Its cultural-historical and aesthetic treatments are inexhaustible: naturalism, anthropomorphism and symbolism, as well as mythological, allegorical, and decorative interpretations. However, it’s difficult to call Nadezhda Kuznetsova’s exhibition “100% ORGANIC” animalistic. The project represents the intersection of several complex conceptual planes. We will attempt to understand them.
1. A copy of a copy
The series is based on exhibits from the zoological museum, which carry with them the positivist setting of the early 20th century for objective mapping of the world in general and the animal world in particular. The source material is the talented work of taxidermists, ideologically reflecting its time (and one has to wonder whether it is ever possible to represent an animal without any particular concept or ideological basis). The animals in the museum are representations of stereotypes: a jerboa standing on its hind legs, a leopard stalking, a bird bowing its head, and so on. The artist finds the right pose, perspective, and lighting, and now the animal is suddenly looking at us expectedly. If you look carefully, you find that each pose contains a question: What next? Where do we go now? What do you say? Or other questions, at our own discretion.
Recall that photography, when it began to become widespread, was called a “little death”; it was thought of like a mask, “taken” off of a live creature, a departing life, as a memory. In this way it removed the necessity of making a posthumous mould of a face. But a stuffed animal is the posthumous mask itself. This has the effect of doubling – imposing two technologies on each other for working with the live world, which allows us to capture a moment in the stream of life and experience it. The first method is the preparation of a stuffed animal while restoring the image of the animal, and the second is the digital capturing and processing of an image. It is a double death, memory of a memory, preservation of the preserved. This doubling leads to a shift in the interpretation of the series of photographs: they can no longer be viewed in the spirit of the animalistic genre. The author removes others’ representations and points to the ideological design of the exposition, directing our attention to the method of presenting an image, and not to the image itself.
Nevertheless, unlike many conceptual artists, Nadezhda Kuznetsova takes care with the appeal of the image by selecting “models” and background lighting, setting a rhythm between the sizes and fullness of frames, and retouching them if a worn side somewhere shows a spot of wool poking through. The tension and apprehension experienced by the spectator is not caused by a trivial display of a colorless, dull, abandoned museum exhibit, but rather by the flawless severity of the image of the animal, which creates a sense of unreality and makes it special.
First of all I am surprised by the inversion: the dead are transformed into living, faceless silence into questions, and alienation into compassion and care.
2 . Scale
The next gesture of the artist is the fact that the animals are matched to human size. Small animals (birds and rodents) are enlarged, and huge animals are reduced in size. They all become equivalent to us. They all have in common the symbolic reading of scale, which specifically and directly points to the significance of the image. Enlargement is a sign of importance, drawing attention, accenting an essential detail. Animals and birds are our elder brothers. However, this thought reaches us not through the humanizing of animals in the style of Filonov, but in an absolutely different way. We understand that this is not a totem, not an anthropomorphic entity, and not an embodiment of transcendental forces; it is something else, looking at us questioningly. And this questioning is an invitation to dialog. After all, it is essentially the eternal question of worldview: Who are they to us? They are our predecessors, or God’s creatures just like us, or in fact they (or we) are radically different, having been given (or not given) the gift of speech and a soul.
The scale of the animals portrayed makes the exposition interactive, in the sense that it creates potential for meeting with one’s alter-ego, with an animal character, or with a fellow inhabitant of the planet, who is wiser and more varied than we are. Thanks to the author, we find ourselves face to face with them, eye to eye, which is practically impossible with wild animals in their natural environment. But in the gallery the animal is equal to the spectator: it’s not in a museum, so it’s not an exhibit; it’s not in the wild, so it’s not small and defenseless before the power of our technology; and, finally, it’s not the object of skillful representation, in the manner of P. Potter or F. Snyders. It is our contemporary and an observer.
3. The line
The animal images are not only enlarged, but crossed out. It would seem that the line fulfills a purely aesthetic purpose – to draw attention to a separate page, to add a reference to the artist herself, to create a dramatic moment. But it is exactly this gesture that communicates the era, the time, and our social unconscious. The jagged line destroys our trust in the visible picture, cutting us off from the possibility of na?ve animalism. The project is original in that the power and value of the photos resonate in it by virtue of elements of creative craftsmanship: the line cutting through an image, as if marking the distance of 100 years, allows us to “see” not only what is represented, but also how differently the animal world is interpreted in the beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Destructive gestures are well known in art of the 20th century; in an attempt to escape the flatness of a painting, artists not only glued objects on or added bas relief, but also cut up paintings (Lucio Fontana, for example) and made holes in them (like the St. Petersburg artist Valeriya Lukki); somebody gave self-destructive performances, dissecting his own body; and Hermann Nitsch comes to mind with his crucified pet carcasses, as well as the severing of a cat’s head (Teemu Maaki). In one way or another, the artist reacts to the loss of a sense of harmony, unity, and integrity of the Universe. In this particular case, to the inability to perceive the world of wild beasts wholly and authentically: it can be filmed, researched, put through a selective process, but it’s na?ve to view it “as is” – this is already too difficult. Its existence has been dismembered by the human factor. Birds can’t migrate freely, animals can’t freely choose a place to exist, and none of them can freely interact with each other due to the density of the human population using the space. We have filled the habitat with ourselves, having destroyed the main portion of animals. The act of crossing out, similar to Heidegger’s crossing out dasein, is intended to force us to look closely and carefully protect that which exists, just as it is, appealing to our sympathy and love.
In this sense the line, while rendering the dissociation of the artist from the photographed object, undercuts our involvement with and trust in the beautiful image. This series continues the conceptualization of photos, joining the tide of “Photograph of a photograph” or the artist’s series “Silver rule”, “Portraits”, and “Cheshire landscapes”. It is about how a photograph becomes “the Logos pose” (Valeriy Savchuk), meaning that it teaches us to think, to enter into a dialog, to somehow defend ourselves from the invasion of images, and to somehow meet them halfway, to concentrate on them and contemplate together with them. The latter makes up the essence of the project. Without active participation and co-contemplation, it’s not possible to become an equal part of the carnival.
In the gallery we find ourselves surrounded by animals at our own height. They encircle us, surround us, and draw us into their dance. But this dance resembles the dance of the dead (Danse Macabre): we see them all in the same place, on the “reservation” of a single exposition, or, in a more optimistic interpretation, all on the same rescuing ark.
The artist generalizes our perception of the world, which is accustomed to dividing the world into sectors, charts, and formulas. A world that is in our hands, easily packaged and captivated as a frame on the screen, a world broken into fragments that are predictable and accessible to our perception. Their bodies, divided by a line, are our divided bodies: separated from soul and feeling, separated from our own nature (because it is dictated to us through advertising), and finally, separated from them, who are herded into the zoo or the zoological museum. The torn edge carries a symbolic meaning, separating the live from the lifeless, those who have frozen for a second from those who are frozen in sculpture, and those who were viewed in the past from those to be viewed on the pessimistic horizon of the future; we can imagine what a person of the post-apocalyptic era would feel, when not even a corner of wild nature remains, and the previous world of animals no longer exists. The multiple levels of this project allow us to discover both our past, surprising and beautiful, and the present, which has been given to us, but which we don’t appreciate.
And nevertheless, the danse macabre is a cheerful dance, since it is filled with the momentary beauty of life. And again I am surprised by the artist’s ability to draw the world to herself and listen attentively to it, by her sensitivity, which makes it possible for us to exchange glances with the characters: with inanimate objects (the “Everything of ours” series), with people (the portrait series) and now with stuffed animals, who come to life here.