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The Last Vestiges of Instinct
One would be forgiven for assuming that there is an ecopolitical sentiment at play in Deb Mansfield’s latest exhibition, The Last Vestiges of Instinct. For example, The weight of a dark sky (2017) presents the viewer with a tiny, overworked, hand-cast copy of an antique polar bear figurine treading a perilously thin, ice-like dagger of metal jutting from the wall. It is difficult to extract the image of a polar bear from the discussion of climate change, and such a title does little to dissuade the viewer from going there, but to label these works as activism is to miss their subtlety and wider relevance. In its totality, this exhibition is a reminder that nature is a human construct. According to Mansfield, these works address a specific human experience, the sense that our animal nature is inherent yet indistinct, cloaked behind layers of reason and learned behavior. If this nature is the subject of the exhibition then even its containment within the gallery space serves as a jarring reminder of our unavoidably anthropocentric perspective, given that art galleries are one of the ultimate sites of human thought and activity.
Many of the works in the show reify the problematic distinction between humans and animals by pointing out the many ways in which we regard animals, whether as companions, entertainment, labour, or food. These categories are compellingly confused and put to question by three photo-tapestries of the style for which Mansfield is well-known. Each appropriates an image of a suspended animal: a dog slung in a harness in mid-air (the kind we see in news coverage of helicopter flood evacuations, one that elicits compassion and appreciation for ‘man’s best friend’), an elephant in a similar harness, although likely being lowered by a crane into the conservationist security of a zoo exhibit, and three cows strung up by the head, probably in the final stages of their progress to the abattoir or undergoing the trauma of live-export. Regardless of their exact origins, these images encourage close scrutiny from the viewer, which forces meditation on the shifting standards with which we regard animals, and the fact that we invent a standard of worth that only depends on how useful we find them, or how much we like them.
Among the ideas that this exhibition provokes is one widely discussed in theories of nature: that there is no such thing. ‘Nature’ is a word that we use to describe the non-human world, in other words, the other. This idea of nature as a place, as a category, or as an idea is the extension of a set of enlightenment humanist binaries that are hugely problematic, but upon which much of our understanding of and practical use of the world around us is founded. Attempting to remove these divisions is difficult and potentially dangerous. Various post-humanist theories argue for relative equality among all living beings, even plants. Recently, Bruno Latour extended his proposition of the parliament of things to a universal scale. He encourages all, particularly the political ecology movement, to abandon the idea of nature and acknowledge all agents, living and non-living, as important actors in the processes and relations that constitute Gaia. But pushing these ideas to some potential outcomes reveals how dangerous they are, and how heavily we rely on humanist assumptions. For instance, if we dissolve this boundary there could be moral implications for wild animals hunting each other, and obvious problems with the food industry, which could prove catastrophic in developing nations. Possibly the most disturbing conclusion that can be drawn from abandoning the idea of human exceptionalism is whether it would open the possibility of treating humans like some animals are treated. While assigning these discussions to Mansfield’s work is a little far-fetched, they stem from the weight of our reliance on distinctions between the human and natural world, which is one of the key ideas of the show.
Two of Mansfield’s smallest and most unassuming sculptures give possibly the strongest sense of how much we project on animals. In There are fewer greater former ghosts (2017), the hand-cast paw of an Irish wolfhound pokes out of the gallery wall (an inversion of Maurizio Cattelan’s horse) as though it were stuck inside, trying to escape the container of human agency. Another work, A saccharine undercut (I shrink and shudder at the guise of you) (2017), presents a recast toy goat which has been polished to the point that half of its head is worn away. The depth of process in the creation of this work vividly resonates with our concept of nature: it is a toy animal, itself a representation designed for the use-value of novelty and education, miniaturised to make it more collectable and easy to handle, recast from a multiple like a Chinese whisper that renders details and individual characters less distinct, painted in strange colours to the fancy of aesthetic pleasure, then ground back to remove any rough edges and traces of its process of production, ground to the degree that it is unidentifiable and mutated. It is difficult not to empathise with the goat, or the goats that it represents—languishing at the behest of creative and destructive powers beyond its comprehension. However, to do so would be to assign a god-like agency to humans, which seems to be precisely the problem.
Deb Mansfield, A saccharine undercut (I shrink and shudder at the guise of you), 2017. Hand cast white metal goat. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Pompom, Sydney.
Deb Mansfield, Against the smell of rope we choke on hindsight, 2017. Photo tapestry in an American box frame. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Pompom, Sydney.