As scientific advances and environmental pressures rapidly alter our relationship to the non-human and deconstruct humanist philosophies and values, how is the use of paint in the depiction of animals able to best represent this shift in thought towards other species? Can the use of paint represent animals in a way which is productive in terms of promulgating these changes in attitude, or at the very least decrying the antiquated humanist values behind animal depiction throughout history?
Moreover, who are the painters who would meet the criteria in relation to posthumanist thinking and what are their motives regarding the animal Other? Although I briefly describe the term Posthumanism later in this dissertation, to comprehensively define it is beyond the scope of this essay. Much of the terminology and theory gathered in regards to the definition appropriated for this discourse is from a handful of writers whose supporting explanations and comments are referenced accordingly. It is also important to note that this essay does not concern itself with the kinds of questions asked in John Berger’s famous work Why Look at Animals? such as the reasons for our loss of a connection with nature, although the book certainly has a vital context within this discussion. In addition, this essay is not intended as a defence for the validity of painting in contemporary art practice.
As we progress into the 21st century, it will be argued that painting is enjoying a renaissance as a genre, with a surge of emerging artists utilising the medium in a plethora of styles and with a multitude of subjects. The intention here is not to value one medium over another in the representation of the non-human, but rather highlight a selection of contemporary artists who are using paint in ways relevant and beneficial to the emerging field of animal studies within posthumanities.
Fig. 1: Red Cow and First Chinese Horse, anon. circa 22,000BC
A brief history of animals in art
The history of the representation of animals in art is unarguably as long as the history of art itself. The cave paintings of Lascaux (Fig. 1) and the rock art of the Australian aborigines depicted animals as the first subject and the first medium in art was most likely animal blood and fats, perhaps mixed with pigments (1). Throughout the ages, at least until the mid-16th century, animals were chiefly used across cultures as motifs, symbols and totems and as vehicles for religious and metaphorical values. Representing animals accurately in a physiognomic sense can be dated back to Greek Hellenistic art, but with the dawn of the woodcut and mass printing, illustrators in the Middle Ages began to compile imaginative pictures of creatures purported to exist at the edges of the known world, such as those in the Ashmole Bestiary of the 13th century, now held at the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford.
With the Enlightenment, these medieval bestiaries of fantastical beasts and inaccurately described specimens gave way to more concise encyclopedias of a taxonomic and scientific standard illustrating different species using ink and graphite. The illustrators aimed to pave the way for a new depiction of non-human species, one they intended to be largely free of symbolism and sentimentalism, as scientists began to categorise and codify the world around them.
Fig.2: Jaguars, from Georges Buffon, Histoire naturelle, 1785-91
Fig.3: Young Herdsmen and Cows, Aelbert Cuyp, 1655-1660
Perhaps two of the most important scientists to influence natural history in terms of creating order and eliminating fantasy from animal illustration were Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon (1707-1788) and Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). The latter was a Swedish botanist, famous for developing the classification system of plants and animals still in use today, the former a naturalist noted (among other scientific accomplishments) for his Histoire naturelle published in the mid-1700s. Buffon and his contemporaries produced illustrations and engravings of animals portrayed in a noble and aristocratic style that mirrored the portrait and genre paintings fashionable at the time. (Fig.2). The artists strived to show off animals in ways which made them appear “clean, neat and innocent”(2) and clearly recognisable for taxonomical purposes; they were often painted from taxidermied specimens and positioned in unnatural stances to display their bodies and markings. Like the earlier illustrations of Nicolas Robert (1614-1685), who produced portraits of animals for the French royal family of Louis XIV, the animals were idealised and perfect, with barely a ruffled feather or misplaced hair. Today they would perhaps be considered as mere caricatures of animals. Buffon was also influenced by Dutch artists such as Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Paulus Potter (1625-1654), whose hunting and agricultural scenes in oils were commissioned by the wealthy classes at the same time as Robert (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). These Dutch painters were following a tradition of painting animals that would continue alongside wildlife illustration until the present day and was at its most popular in western European society during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Fig. 4: Young Bull, Paulus Potter 1647
The paintings of this period and their relationship to contemporary animal painting will be discussed later in this essay, but first it is important to mention the wildlife illustrators who followed in the wake of Buffon and Linnaeus’ scientific ordering of the natural world and of their connection to the animal painters in the same era.
Where most 18th century animal illustration was designed to impress wealthy clientele with its gaudy, flamboyant and often inaccurate style, at the turn of the 19th century, the work of British illustrator Thomas Berwick had adopted a new approach. Forsaking the large colourful format, Berwick brought a “new insight into animal portraiture”(3) with a revival in woodcuts and an emphasis on physiognomic accuracy (Fig. 5). After Berwick came John James Audubon and Joseph Wolf in the mid-1800s: two illustrators whose technical skill appealed to prevailing Victorian tastes. At a time when the British Empire was at its height, their close observation and honest depiction of animals contributed to the collection of specimens in the name of science and taxonomy. Significantly for natural history illustration, lithography was developed during this period. With its capacity as a vehicle for colour and swift reproduction of images as well as the ability to create multiple copies, thereby reaching a wider audience, the two illustrators took full advantage of this new medium.
Fig. 5: Thomas Berwick’s Birds: Watercolours and engravings, Thomas Berwick, date unknown. From a cover illustration, 1982 ed.
Chromolithographed pieces produced by Wolf were highly sought after, but despite his attention to the animals’ environment and its importance “both to their concealment and their beauty”(4) some of his scenes portrayed moralistic situations that would be considered too contrived by today’s standards of illustration, often showing animals posited as anthropomorphised characters in emotionally-affected engagements; angry, fiercesome eagles worrying a defenceless, pitiful-looking antelope being one example (Fig. 6). It is important to note the relationship between the two fields (of illustration in the name of science and painting in the name of art), as they informed each other stylistically as well as objectively. Both were purchased by the wealthy and both were built upon a succession of styles and observations that were simultaneously improved upon and modified according to need. The application of taxonomy that these artists either advocated or ignored is a contributing factor to the current discourse surrounding the representation of animals and one that may be addressed by heeding contemporary posthumanist views. This will be covered in greater detail later in this essay, but first a historical context of paintings in relation to taxonomy must be discussed.
Fig. 6: Bearded Vultures Attacking an Alpine Ibex, Joseph Wolf, 1861
In flagrant disregard for the identification systems developed by naturalists of the Enlightenment, many of the illustrators and painters deliberately accentuated redeeming features of their subjects, or embellished the animals with richer colour and decorative effects. The artists often decided what to include and what to omit according to the tastes of their patrons or the fashions at the time.
Francois Desportes (1661-1743) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) were two painters who are best noted for their scenes of sporting and the hunt. Like most other painters of the period who produced hunting scenes, they achieved a visual and behavioural realism of species that was owed to a proximity to and familiarity with the animals they pursued. The paintings served as status symbols for the wealthy, reminding them of the nobility and grandeur of the hunt and ultimately of their power and prowess as leaders, land-owners and sportsmen (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8). Although details such as the physiognomy or colouration were carefully attended to, as well as naturalistic poses both before and after the animals’ death, it was important for the animals to appear more ferocious and impressive than in reality and as a result the animals (or features of) were often exaggerated or over-dramatised.
Fig. 7: Self-portrait as huntsman, Francois Desportes 1699
Fig. 8: Boar Hunt, Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1748
Towards the end of the 18th century, animal portraiture also became popular with the wealthy, as pet ownership became a sign of affluence. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) produced animal portraits, such as those of dogs, for rich patrons. In striving to capture the animals’ character in paint, attention to detail became paramount (Fig. 9). The fashionable practice of painting horses for rich landowners was also prevalent at this time, with exponents such as George Stubbs (1724-1806) leading the way in this oeuvre. The paintings were a record of their owner’s possessions and triumphs and care was given to imbue the animals with valiant and even individual qualities. Although Whistlejacket, a painting of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse made in 1762, is considered one of the first paintings to place an animal as the central subject, it is contested by those who believe the portrait was initially going to feature a landscape and rider but that Stubbs was forced to leave the painting unfinished at the request of Rockingham. Whatever the original intention, the individual character expressed in the equine subject is undeniable. (Fig. 10) (5) It is with these paintings of domesticated animals that taxonomy is displaced by individuality as a means of achieving accuracy.
Fig. 9: Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy, Thomas Gainsborough, 1777
Fig. 10: Whistlejacket, George Stubbs, about 1762
Following Stubbs and Gainsborough came other painters during the Romantic era, including Thedore Gericault (1791-1824), William Blake (1757-1827) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), all of whom sought to depict raw animal energy and vitality. The Romantics sympathised with the savage fierceness of animality and in their paintings they tried to show an admiration of animal beauty and the wild. Delacroix in particular “exposed a new religion of violence”(6) with regard to animals, painting scenes of carnage between predator and prey with startling realism (Fig. 11).
Fig.11: The Lion and the Caiman, Eugene Delacroix 1855
Fig. 12: Head of a Lion, Theodore Gericault, 1820
In contrast, Gericault’s animals, such as Head of a Lion (1820) (Fig.12) were much gentler and more sentimental and it is this sentimentality that ran rampant in 19th century painting: Painters like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) followed the tradition of animal portraiture for the upper classes, producing hyper-realistic but sickly sentimental images from dying stags in hunting scenes to family lapdogs staring sorrowfully towards the spectator-owner. In a description of one such painting titled Dignity and Impudence (Fig.13), writer Frances Fowle describes how:
“Landseer draws attention to the dogs’ ‘human’ characteristics: the soulful look and gentle dignity of the bloodhound is contrasted with the mischievous expression of the small terrier. Moreover, the larger dog is painted in smooth, variegated textures, while the smaller dog comes to life with a few jabbing and expressive brushstrokes.” (7)
Fig. 13: Dignity and Impudence, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1839
This use of paint to stylistically anthropomorphise animals was a popular trend at the time and demonstrates the painters tendency to ignore the animals’ true bearing in the world and overlay it with humanist affectations.
Whether consciously or not the artists of the late 19th century were producing such realistic paintings in response to the development of photography; a technological influence on paint that will be explored later. It was also at this time that the binary of nature-culture was strengthened by the industrial and scientific advances of the Victorian era and both animals and “the wild” receded into the distance and were romanticised. By the end of the nineteenth century, this sentimentalism in the treatment of painted animals culminated in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose excessively romantic imagery featured animals only as narrative references and metaphors, realistic though they were. William Holman Hunt’s (1827-1910) The Scapegoat painted in 1856 is a good example of this, portraying a male goat laden with metaphorical and allegorical meaning (Fig. 14). Despite the faithful rendering of its hair and physiognomic accuracy, it is impossible to ignore the desolate surroundings and red crown that implicate the mammal in a deeper religious agenda on the part of the artist.
Fig. 14: The Scapegoat, William Holman Hunt, 1856
For over 170 years photography has had a profound effect on the art of the 20th century. Although many painters, such as Degas, Courbet and Delacroix embraced photography and often even used it to help depict movement or achieve accuracy in their painted animal subjects, it eventually undermined painting’s claim to historical and documentary authority. (8) It is no accident that the development of photography eventually led to a peak followed by a subsequent decline in the realistic representation of animals, both in terms of romantic painting and natural history illustration. The work of Eadweard Muybridge and his use of photography to investigate the motion of living beings is particularly significant and perhaps places him as the central figure in the history of the reproduced image.(9) In the year 1879, Muybridge successfully documented specific visual information about the locomotion of animals and people. His work revealed the significance of an accession of images instead of the noteworthiness of a select few (10) and for the first time people could truly understand the way non-human and human anatomy functioned.
Muybridge’s experiments and the rise of photography altered the purpose of the painter. As a result, artists produced works which focused on the very qualities early photography did not possess: the play of light, gestural expressive qualities of paint and the spontaneity of creation, which resulted in the movements of Impressionism and Expressionism that still find popularity today. (11) By concentrating on colour, movement and the gestural, emotive qualities of paint, animals painted after the Romantics became prime vehicles for expression and metaphor. German Expresisonist, Franz Marc (1880-1916) is one of the most famous animal painters, whose paintings depicted the spiritual beauty he found in non-humans (Fig.15). He was perhaps one of the last artists to consistently use animals as a sole subject in his paintings. (12)
Fig. 15: The Fate of the Animals, Franz Marc 1913
Other 20th century artists who depicted animals did so as supplements to their oeuvres of genre paintings, still-lifes or portraits, positing the non-human as symbolic accessories to whatever narrative was being constructed in the work, and even using animals to represent themselves, such as in the Surrealist paintings of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), where the artist used creatures such as goats or horses to signify his own presence in a picture (Fig. 16). In his article on the artist, Simon Abrahams describes The Painter and the Goat (1982) as a piece in which
“Chagall placed his own figure behind the goat as if to say ‘I am the goat’…One eye of the goat is placed horizontally, flat on the surface, as an eye of the artist often is in self-portraits. The painter’s palette-arm is hidden though one leg of the goat extends straight towards the thumb-hole of the palette as though the goat’s leg and the painter’s thumb are linked.” (13)
Fig. 16: The Painter and the Goat, Marc Chagall 1982
It is important to note the changes that occurred in the art world throughout the 20th century, as the abandonment and denouncement of paint by Duchamp and subsequent climax of Modernism contributed to the decline of the figurative (and therefore the animal) as a painted subject. Reductionist values, avant-gardism and an overall dismissal of paint as a productive medium effectively vanquished the painted representation of non-humans (if not the painted representation of anything).
Throughout most of the Modernist period the subject of animals was overlooked and sometimes even derided as a lower art form. This denigration of animal painting was owed to an attitude initiated by the Royal Academy of Arts in France that went largely unchallenged for 400 years and culminated in a tendency to avoid representing animals as primary subjects by the mid-20th century. Andre Felibien first discussed a hierarchy of genres in 1667: At the top of the hierarchy was history painting, followed by portraiture, genre painting (that is, scenes from societal life) then landscape painting, animals and finally still life. (14) In Bailey and Conisbee’s work on French genre painting, Felibien declares:
“he who paints landscapes perfectly is above the artist who paints only fruits, flowers or shells. He who paints living animals is worthy of more esteem than he who only represents things dead and no longer moving. And since man himself is God’s most perfect work on earth, it is certain that he who imitates God in painting the human figure is far more excellent than all the others.” (15)
Although in this quote from Felibien it appears that animal painting was held in high regard, the fact that it was placed low in the Academy’s hierarchy did little to help its status as a serious subject over the following four centuries, which resulted in many painters refraining from using animals in their work for fear of being taken seriously as artists. More recently Giovanni Aloi is quoted in his seminal work on animals and art (2011) as saying:
“[w]e are all familiar with the multitude of works featuring animals that have helped define the canon of one of the lower genres in the history of painting” (16)
while artist and animal studies writer Steve Baker asserts that:
“[w]orse still, for much of the twentieth century the animal in art was regarded as the most kitsch of subjects, undeserving of serious attention.” (17)
Baker also explains how the anthropomorphic sentiments of the Victorian age disagreed with serious modernist art so that “the animal was the first thing to be ruled out of Modernism’s bounds…There was no modern animal, no ‘modernist’ animal.” (18)
With such comments, it is not difficult to understand how painting animals suffered for over 100 years of art history (that is, after its peak of popularity with Victorian Romanticists) and was relegated to the practices of wildlife artists and natural history enthusiasts.
Fig. 17: Untitled (12 horses) Janis Kounellis 1969
It was the development of Post-modernism towards the end of the 20th century that helped to shake off this antiquated view towards the painting of animals. Non-human subjects began to (literally) populate the galleries, from Joseph Beuys’ performance piece I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), which involved a live coyote, to Janis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses) in 1969, which saw the white cube become home for 12 live horses tethered to the walls (Fig. 17). Towards the end of the 20th century, there was also a surge in the use of taxidermy and preserved animal bodies in the gallery space, such as Damian Hirst’s Mother and Child, Divided (1993) which used whole cows, cut in half and presented in formaldehyde (Fig. 18) or Thomas Grunfeld’s Misfits series of the late 1990s that employed taxidermied sculpture to create grotesque, chimera-like animals (Fig. 19). The proliferation of live, stuffed and sculptured, as well as photographed and filmed fauna belies the negative view towards animals in art and reflects a rapidly changing attitude in the discourses and dialogues concerning human and non-human studies. Along with these various modes of representation, the portrayal of animals in paint has been aided by a gradual return to “traditional” methods of painting (traditional in this sense being about the use of the medium and a two-dimensional surface) in the last 50 years, which has “encompassed photography to redefine and extend its conceptual reach”. (19)
Fig. 18: Mother and Child Divided, Damian Hirst (exhibition copy 2007) original 1993
Fig. 19: Misfits: Cow, Thomas Grünfeld 1997
It is somewhat ironic that a technology that was once thought by some to have heralded the death of painting was actually a major factor in orchestrating its return to critical acclaim. In the latter half of the 20th century many artists began using photography to develop new modes of depiction in paint as a response to “the ubiquity of the photographic image and the breakdown of modernism as a sustaining paradigm”. (20) We perhaps owe a return to the representation of animals in paint to post-modern painters such as Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Gerhard Richter (b.1932) as both were among the first to utilise fresh approaches in dealing with paint as modernist ideals began to unravel.
Fig. 20: Study of a Dog, Francis Bacon 1952
Bacon drew from Muybridge’s photographic sequences of movement, as well as books of photographs on subjects such as radiography or natural history. He is said to have never worked from life, preferring only to work from photographic material. In a number of interviews made from 1962 to 1974 with art historian David Sylvester he spoke candidly about his use of photography to produce several series of paintings. (21) His work is a crucial part of the history of animal depiction in paint, primarily because of the way he dealt with his subject. Bacon’s paintings are often described as bestial and animalistic, particularly in his treatment of the human figure. (22) Some of his work featured animals themselves, such as Study of a dog from 1952 (Fig. 20), which showed a canine subject distorted and fragmented in an observation of movement. By using Muybridge’s studies of motion, Bacon directly transposed the filmic images into paint. His loose, smeared brushstrokes perfectly portrayed the blur-effect of motion and of a subject appearing to stretch and contort in an instant of film. One of Bacon’s favourite photographic sources, a book titled Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa featuring photographs taken by Marius Maxwell, supplied the image for another animal painting: Study of a baboon, made in 1953 (Fig. 21). In the painting, Bacon captures the claustrophobic environment of a zoo together with the anxiety of the trapped animal. He was perhaps moved to paint such a scene after visiting Africa and seeing the disparities between wild and caged animals (23) but the book from which the photograph was referenced remained an important source for many of his successive works. Of the book, Bacon said that
“one image can be deeply suggestive in relation to another. I had the idea that…textures should be very much thicker, and therefore the texture of, for instance, a rhinoceros skin would help me to think about the texture of human skin.” (24)
This comment together with Bacon’s bestial hybrid forms suggest the importance of animals and animality in relation to all of his subjects, whether human or non-human and how that animality, or even the movement of animals could be translated into paint.
Fig. 21:Study of a Baboon, Francis Bacon 1953
Richter’s foray into animal representation is exemplified by Stag (Fig. 22) which was painted almost ten years later in 1963. Like Bacon’s works, this subject was not painted from life, but from a photograph. In the image, the animal appears to float amidst a tangle of branches, separated from the forest by its depiction as a black and white photographic image. The stag’s dislocated quality is further exaggerated by Richter’s imitation of a photograph’s blur, which results in the viewer being forced to repair what is presented. (25) In his essay Post-conceptual painting: Gerhard Richter’s extended leave-taking, Jason Gaiger describes the painting as “a sudden but fleeting emergence of the real within the strained and artificial conventions of late 20th century painting” (26) and that “photography…allowed Richter to approach reality (in paint) yet again”. (27) Following Stag, Richter painted other animals ranging from cows to tigers and gemsbok to eagles, all depicted as photo-paintings. It was not Richter’s intention to change the way animals were perceived in art; his aim was to use photography as an aid in re-establishing the vitality of paint and “the animal” happened to be one of many useful subjects in subverting previously held assumptions about the two mediums. Above all, artists like Richter were interested in the way meanings and information contained within a photograph altered when transformed into a painted image on a canvas. (28) Therefore many other subjects from photography were considered, ranging from pictures of industrial buildings and cityscapes to scenes lifted from press cuttings and television footage, such as those in his 1988 series titled October 18, 1977. What all of Richter’s imagery does is question the modes of representation photography and paint offer, as well as challenge the experiences both mediums strive to appropriate, so that the process of forming meaning in the emerging image is left to the viewer. The pioneering work of Richter and his contemporaries has re-established the credence of paint for animal artists in the 21st century and engendered a new way of utilising the photograph and screen in relation to representation.
Fig. 22: Stag, Gerhard Richter 1963
Posthumanism, identity and the animal Other.
What is important to remember is that throughout paint’s history, humans have been placed at the centre of the known universe. This anthropocentric view has remained unchallenged across genres and other mediums for much of the history of animals in art; from Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull, 1647 (Fig. 4) to Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991 (Fig. 23), animals have played a subsidiary role in the portrayal of human concerns and values.
Fig. 23: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damian Hirst 1991
Posthumanism has emerged through philosophy’s attempts to redefine humanity’s identity by repositioning humans within technology and biology, in which the human is but one life form among many, whether natural or artificial. (29) Its tenet is to decentre the human in relation to evolution, ecology and technology as well as oppose established humanist dichotomies such as male-female, nature-culture and human-animal. In his book What is Posthumanism? Cary Wolfe explains that these binary concepts are typically humanist in that they reflect humanity’s tendency to dogmatically divide the universe into opposites. He refers to his own sense of posthumanism as being in opposition of “the fundamental anthropological dogma associated with humanism and invoked by [French philosopher Étienne] Balibar’s reference to the humanity/animality dichotomy.” (30) What Wolfe means is that posthumanism as he defines it concerns the idea that human identity is realised by the avoidance or repression of animal origins in evolutionary and biological terms as well as by transcendence from bonds of materiality and embodiment. (31)
This concern with the devaluing and deconstructing of anthropocentric views has in part arisen due to post-colonialism and the ideas arising from the sense of “the other”. In his book Art and Animals, Aloi states “the animal has insistently sneaked through the pages of key continental philosophers” in reference to the way thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari all challenge the notion of humanity as being world-forming. (32) The concepts initially postulated by philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Michel Foucault are now debated in these contemporary circles of thinkers while science and technology open up the opaque world of animal phenomenology. We can now investigate and reveal animal communicative and cognitive abilities, or perceive things using wavelengths of sound or light that were previously denied to us as another species, resulting in a challenge to our hierarchical relationship with non-humans. This propagates a multitude of other questions about how we should interact with or regard animals in modern society, particularly at a time when other species are marginalised and exploited by humans more than ever before and on a global scale.
It goes without saying that the subject of posthumanism is extremely sensitive, not least because it is still in its infancy as an emerging mode of thought, but more so for its upheaval of values which have been central to our self-identification as a species. The problematic situation for artists concerning posthumanism is that in extending their artistic and ethical consideration out towards the non-human “other”, (33) they ironically adhere to humanist principles. This complicates the subject for artists in terms of what to represent as much as how to represent it. But the proposal here is that just by representing animals differently, we create the potential to discover more about ourselves and redefine that identity of ‘the human’. Steve Baker proposes that the “ideas of the animal…enable us to frame and express ideas about human identity” (34) while according to Ron Broglio in Surface Encounters, “[a]nimal worlds set a limit to human knowledge” and the human can no longer be regarded as a starting point when forming ideas about the status of non-human animals in society. (35)
The role of artists, and specifically for this discourse, of paint, in the wake of posthumanist questioning is a crucial one and for the representation of animals in paint to be productive in the 21st century against this posthumanist backdrop, certain conditions for its employment as a medium as well as choice of and depiction of subject apply.
What is meant by the term productive is the avoidance of depicting animals in an anthropocentric manner while simultaneously advocating positive shifts and alterations in human attitudes towards animals. This essay has presented a historical context on which to frame reasons for depicting animals, revealing that in the past animals in art have been represented as God, food, trophy or possession. Unlike the painters of the late 19th century, today’s artists are encouraged to avoid sentimental, romanticised imagery in their works of art as these attributes are now considered patronising towards other species and only serve to perpetuate the aforementioned humanist binary concepts. The posthuman world must appreciate animals for their capacity to think, act and communicate, whether this is at an inter-species level or an intra-species level, and more so for the latter. Posthuman thinking in the realm of animal studies is also about respecting diversity and universality. Artists can highlight an appreciation of the world on non-human terms, such as recognising individuality among other species that transcends taxonomy or emphasising that the ethical standing of at least some non-human animals is taken for granted. (36) For artists wishing to highlight the discrimination, injustices and marginalisation of non-human species, the imagery decided upon should ideally provoke discussion about such matters without denigrating or sentimentalising the animal subject.
Fig. 24: Camel, Zoo Series Britta Jaschinski 1995
The work of Britta Jaschinski, although photographic and not painted, upholds such values by its ambiguous depiction of non-humans, particularly in the series Dark. Black and white images of various species coalesce from the shadows: In one photograph what could be a frog could just as easily be a primate and in another a sitting camel looks remarkably like an ancient tortoise at first glance. (Fig.24) Stripped of taxonomy, the non-human becomes indifferent to human modes of identification. It is solely “the other”. For Jaschinski the series is about representing the animals’ dignity and beauty as well as the significance of their existence and individual personality. (37) A similar ambiguity haunts the paintings of Helene van Duijne, a Swedish artist based in Vienna. One of her works entitled Endangered Species (Fig. 25) likewise shows us a creature that could be an elephant or a flightless bird. The animal form is lost to painterly gesture rather than photographic technique and what remains is a nameless beast that evades classification.
Fig. 25: Endangered Species Helene van Duijne 2012
Steve Baker cites Rauschenberg’s Monogram of 1955 (Fig. 26), which consisted of a stuffed goat and tyre on a painted and collaged platform, as being one of the first convincing presentations of a postmodern animal (38) in that it is directly confrontational and presents an obstacle to the viewer (in as much a philosophical sense as a physical one) by being a literal object. It creates a situation and “only the viewer’s presence completes the work”. (39) Baker also extols the virtues of representing animals as they are, without positing them as the aforementioned symbols, allegories or depreciated subjects. (40) This rule of thumb perhaps accounts for the proliferation of taxidermied sculptures as well as live animals in galleries; it seems that artists recognise the value of using physical animal bodies to represent ideas about our relationship to the non-human. Take for instance Zhang Huang’s Cast-iron Pig exhibition at the White Cube in London 2009 in which two live hogs were presented as spectacle. (41) Surely the real thing (or a stuffed version of) can’t possibly be paralleled or even surmounted by paint in terms of unavoidable presence? The argument here is that it can, and will be evidenced through a selection of contemporary painters over the next part of this essay.
Fig. 26: Monogram, Robert Rauschenberg 1955
Posthumanism and painted representation
We can again refer to Huang’s Cast-Iron pig exhibition as a counterpoint. As well as the live animals presented in the White Cube, Huang also showed a series of works consisting of ash applied on linen (Fig. 27). The medium was used to depict monochrome images of a pig named Zhu Gangqiang (which means “Cast-Iron Pig”) found alive after being buried for 49 days following an earthquake in China. After his rescue Zhu Gangqian went on to become something of a personality in his country and the artist felt compelled to record this in his work. In his review for the show, Mark Hudson of the Daily Telegraph was more enamoured with these paintings than of the live pigs:
“Even 10 years ago the idea of exhibiting live pigs in a gallery would have appeared to call the whole art-viewing process into question. But we’ve grown so used to headline-grabbing fun-art installations that Zhang’s pigs feel like just another addition to a list that includes Carsten Holler’s slides in Tate Modern and Antony Gormley’s plinth project in Trafalgar Square” (42)
Hudson goes on to say that Huang’s stylistic approach with regard to the ash paintings merges Eastern and Western traditions of producing art, drawing influences from Jeff Koons as much as from Communist-era social realist paintings (43) My point here is that the critic not only dismissed the live animals as attention-grabbing and run-of-the-mill but also that he conversely lauds the paintings for their contemporary value as a historical commentary on art. The paintings’ physical presence and ordinariness as a medium offers a connection to the viewer. It is the gestural, human-made pointillist marks, the historic reference in the work and the representation of an individual pig-as-portrait that captivate. In his essay on Everyday Painting, Barry Schwabsky supports this idea of the painting as commonplace with the fact that:
“ordinary art made by the ordinary artist is likely to be painting. It’s an art that meets the beholder on a plane of equality” (44)
Fig. 27: Zhu Gangqiang No.0 Zhang Huan 2009
My belief is that painting is able to communicate ideas pertaining to the posthumanist representation of non-humans by its use of surface and signifiers in a physical presence akin to the real animal in a gallery space. More specifically, painting can have as much (posthumanist) currency as other forms of contemporary art by using its historical and cultural connotations and familiarity as a material.
Painting also has the capacity to utilise the reproduced or screened image of the animal and in its physicality eliminate the distance created by these simulations. In his work Why Look At Animals? Berger investigates the visual encounter of the animal and writes of a growing absence of contact between them and humans, notably referring to photography by pointing out that:
“the camera fixes them in a domain which, although entirely visible to the camera, will never be entered by the spectator. All animals appear like fish seen through the plate of glass of an aquarium” (45)
In reference to Baudrillard’s writings on simulation, simulacra and the subversion of the real, one of the contributing factors to our disassociation with the non-human in the 21st century is progression from the mere mechanical reproduction of the photograph to the ubiquitous screening of animals via the Internet and television. Animals are abundant and accessible in ways never thought possible, but only in simulation; previously unknown species can be viewed at the click of a mouse or by viewing a wildlife documentary but they are never experienced as real encounters in which the human and non-human exchange a gaze or physical contact. As Baudrillard states, with video, interactive screens, multimedia and the Internet, “distance is abolished in all things.” (46) Through the Internet the viewer is brought into a false proximity with the animal by “immersion”; we interact with the multitude of images and videos in a virtual space. Baudrillard goes on to say that “machines produce only machines.” (47) However, painting takes these machine-made images and brings the animals depicted back to a physical level using the human gesture and subjectivity within the medium. Many artists use this concept to highlight the effects of the screen. Painter Judith Eisler for example, says:
“I am not trying to create a distance from the original image so much as to describe a distance that results from so many layers of technological interference.” (48)
Fig. 28: Lonesome George Juan Travieso 2012
Cuban artist Juan Travieso exemplifies this “technological interference” by appropriating imagery from photographs and producing paintings which contain an anomalous geometry of colours and shapes not unlike the pixelated distortions present in screened images. His subjects are collections of taxonomically similar species or iconic individual animals acknowledged for their imminent extinction (Fig. 27 and Fig. 28). While the choice of subject may be for aesthetic or ecologically-motivated reasons, it is the choice of medium and its application that holds the viewer enthralled. Travieso adopts a style currently prevalent among contemporary painters, one that art historian Dario Gamboni describes in his work Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art. The act of omitting parts of an image and deliberately forcing the viewer to be active in deciding what they see has been employed by many artists since the 19th century but appears to be more popular than ever in recent decades. (49) By way of example, in his essay Rehearsing Doubt: Recent developments in Painting-After-Photography Martin Herbert mentions Wilhem “Sasnal’s limiting of pictorial information, one that gives some kind of symbolic power back to the audience.” (50) Sasnal’s abandonment of staying true to the photographic source allows a painterly ambiguity to manifest in the work. Likewise Travieso’s ruptured animal faces and bodies burst with brightly hued blocks and patterns, thus challenging the expectations of his audience in relation to the depicted physiognomy of animals. As Schwabsky in the essay on Everyday Painting recounts:
“it functions…as a way of allowing the paint to linger in the condition in which things are still unsettled, metamorphic, in transition. Many such artists seem determined to catch painting in an in-between state, a sort of amorphous lability in which any given mark can read as abstract or as image-bearing, depending on how you look at it.” (51)
Fig. 29: Genus Deconstruction Juan Travieso 2012
In a similar vein of work using the screened image and threatened animals, painter Charlie Baird has produced graphical pieces such as About 400 Sumatran Tigers (2008) (Fig. 30) which simulates a collage of photographed tigers, assembled grid-like into a mock digital, pixelated visage of a single tiger. It could be read as a reference to the accumulation of the species in the virtual animal-mausoleum of cyberspace as they vanish from the real world. (52) Like the work of Travieso, Baird’s art is a commentary on the dwindling populations of several animal species, perhaps posthumanist in its effort to draw attention to an issue already acknowledged (and still largely ignored) by the general public. Other works by Baird are less referential to virtual realities, but still posit the animal as endangered by way of painterly colour and stylisation as well as obvious titling: About 180 Orange-bellied Parrots and 650 Mountain Gorillas (Fig. 31 and Fig. 32) being two good examples.
Fig. 30: About 400 Sumatran Tigers Charlie Baird 2008
Fig. 31: About 180 Orange-bellied Parrots Charlie Baird, 2008
Fig. 32: 650 Mountain Gorillas Charlie Baird 2008
In contrast to paintings which utilise simulation and the hyper-real, Sue Coe, a well-known illustrative painter of animal-related subjects, uses the immediacy of drawing from direct observation combined with informed imagination to highlight the contradictions and cruelty present in human-animal relations. Here the subject is an obvious commentary on animal rights, but it is the medium of paint that shows Coe’s sensitivity and subjectivity towards the non-human. Without anthropomorphising animals, Coe simplifies and stylises her subjects to intensify the dialogue between them and the spectator. (53) One such example is her painting Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat (1990): A monochromatic scene of a terrified man looking behind him to see a host of spectral animals staring dolefully at him and his McDonald’s meal purchase (Fig. 33). The work is simultaneously ridiculous and sinister, with Coe using the uneasy balance to disconcert (and even make culpable) the viewer with the uncomfortable facts regarding the treatment of animals in the food industry. (54) Instead of merely resorting to using photography of slaughterhouses and battery farms Coe uses paint in order to “give the animal a face” (55) amidst theatricality and poignancy in the character of her work. Coe simply asks the audience to read the paintings as literally as their content. In his book, What is Posthumanism? Wolfe states that her work succeeds in a posthumanist sense by referring to the effect capitalism and factory-farming have on representing the animals, rather than solely using the disfiguring nature of paint and its capacity to distort. (56) By this he means that her choice of subject reveals the gross mistreatment of animals as commodity and that Coe achieves this “through figural excess” and the “interposing materiality of representation itself”. He goes on to say that her “artwork is a faithful (or perhaps “dramatic”) enough representation to didactically incite ethical action and change on the part of the viewer”. (57)
Fig. 33: Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat, Sue Coe, 1990
For artists Olly and Suzi, this material representation manifests as a process in which humans and non-humans engage through the medium of paint. Their work is described as a process in which they work together “hand over hand … a collaborative, mutual response to nature at its most primitive and wild”. (58) By producing the work in close proximity to the animals, often painting in dangerous circumstances alongside predators such as great white sharks or polar bears, the work is charged with a frenetic urgency of mark-making and displays a “physical performance of the senses”. (59) (Fig. 34 and Fig. 35) In leaving the studio and venturing into remote and inhospitable terrain, the painters seek to engage non-human species in their natural habitat and exchange marks “to discern and promulgate the cultivation and enculturation of animals within human culture.” (60) This decidedly posthumanist approach attempts to decentre the human by allowing the animal “other” to participate in the creation of the work and leave traces of the encounter. The medium of paint is merely a material with which the animal can leave such traces and its employment here is far from stylised or borne of photographic reference. One could argue whether the animals with which Olly and Suzi interact are actually involved in any real sense; the artists have, after all, invaded the creatures’ habitats and imposed themselves with the intention of educing some sort of physical engagement. However, as Steve Baker asserts in The Postmodern Animal, despite the constructed scenario “the depicted animals are encouraged, without manipulation or coercion, to ‘interact’ with the work,” and that “it is the painting as object, as thing, marked by the animal itself, which can indelibly record the immediacy and ‘truth’ of the encounter.” (61) Ron Broglio goes on to say that what Olly and Suzi accomplish is “a rethinking of what marks of significance mean within the economy of art, language and culture” in relation to human and animal interactions and establish “a visual argument for the value of an animal”. (62) In the post-humanist era of painting, this cogent value lies in engagements between human and non-human species and reveals how such encounters at a surface level can be productive.
Fig.34: Untitled (film still), Olly and Suzi, (date unknown)
The term surface can be defined in two ways for the purpose of this discourse: the first as a surface of paint intended as an artwork; the second as defined by Ron Broglio of Arizona State University, who is a leading exponent of the value of surfaces with regard to animals and artists. He uses the term surface to relate to the animal world with regard to their apparent lack of interiority compared with the depth and recursive-thinking of human phenomenology, saying “such depth (animals have) if radically different from our own remains closed off” and “this impossibility of understanding animal as Other serves as productive friction by which authentically new thinking and art is produced” (63) His texts investigate the ways in which artists such as Olly and Suzi manoeuvre these “contact zones” of paint, paper and canvas, the optical and the material, to form dialogues between species and “challenge classical representations of animals.” (64)
Fig. 35: Olly & Suzi with Greg Williams, Olly and Suzi, 2003
While there is definite value in challenging such traditional modes of representation, it can also be argued that contemporary painting does not have to avoid such styles if it is to comment in a posthumanist fashion. Take for example the work of Canadian painter Laurie Hogin, whose surrealist works reference historical painting from the centuries preceding the 20th. Her tableaux of fantastical, colourful creatures parody the whimsical compositions in the days of the Enlightenment and “challenge the myth of the binary” (65): staunch posthumanist thinking indeed. To challenge this delusion of duality is to question humanist concepts of human-animal and culture-nature and Hogin’s work does so with aplomb. Her work draws upon modes of representation popular during the Enlightenment, in which animals were presented as collections of display, whether as harvested bounty or hunted trophies. (Fig. 36, Fig. 37 and Fig. 38) The animals throughout this period were usually painted from taxidermied specimens rather than life and retained a still, lifeless aura even if presented as alive and interacting in the painted scene. Hogin’s fantastical beasts are deliberately unnatural as a reference to this artificiality, as well as mimicking the historical painters’ propensity for extending artistic license over their subject’s physiognomy. Hogin also makes a commentary on modern day taxonomy and the relevance it has in her own work, saying:
“I wanted them to resemble field-guide illustrations specifically to invoke the history of taxonomy and its implications for our (mis)understanding of our relationship with the rest of the world and the things in it we wish to dominate and possess even as we desire to recognize and connect.” (66)
Fig. 36: The Economics of Heaven, Laurie Hogin, 2005
What Hogin refers to here is the way humanist taxonomy has undermined our attempts to define what it is to be human by supporting a system of dominance and control over nature. There is an unwholesome, sinister atmosphere in her paintings, alluding to themes of “products and processes, including shopping, advertising, politics, and language” (67); Hogin’s works are about consumption and communication in the 21st century:
“Allegorical animal specimens sport the colors of our globalized economy, from the day-glo hues of big-box store commodities to the pixilated palettes of television and the Internet, as well as the colors of nationalist identity and political affiliation. An imagined nature’s literal embodiment of contemporary conditions” (68)
Fig. 37: Diorama of Familiar Indicator Species, Laurie Hogin, 2005
In using these references to television and the Internet as well as a globalised society, Hogin combines the heritage of animal art with contemporary attitudes towards animals in respect of production, commercialisation and genetic modification. She goes on to explain that:
“[t]he paintings in this show are not about the impingement of evil modern culture on hapless nature, but rather they are about the way in which SYMBOLIC representations of “nature” exclude the natural processes of hybridization, incorporation, evolution, complexity and diversity—the tendency (Darwin pointed it out, of course) of things to combine and recombine, the very enmeshment of “nature” and “culture” that constitutes who we are…It is in the process of hybridization, as with evolution, that there are possibilities for change. My images are intended to bear witness to the emotional collateral of this process as I imagine and exaggerate its embodiment; these emotions are often contradictory, as the process suggests a future that is inherently fraught with anxiety. This is partially because hybridization, mutation and recombinance suggest a loss of identity.” (69)
Her commentary on hybridisation is especially resonant of posthumanist thought, with Dr. Steve Best (Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Texas) supporting the crucial role the hybrid has within this context:
“For many the age of humanism is over as well, we are rapidly morphing into a new posthumanist/transhumanist condition. Posthumanism unfolds as a symptom of an implosive culture where the distinction between biology and technology, never absolute, blurs significantly, resulting in both the technification of biology and the biologization of technology…Whereas the modern adventure brought a new definition and experience of subjectivity in the form of humanism, the postmodern adventure deconstructs and reconstructs the concept of the human through new philosophies and hybridized forms of existence that bring the subject ever deeper into the matrix of technology, preparing the way for a posthuman turn.” (70)
For this discourse Hogin’s paintings offer a final example of how paint as a contemporary medium can bear witness to these emerging posthumanist ideas, particularly those concerning human identity and the animal “other” as the established binaries of humanity/animality and biology/technology collapse.
Fig. 38: Satire Monkeys: US Agricultural Policy, Laurie Hogin, 2006
The artists and ideas evidenced here in relation to posthumanism indicate a thriving medium that is being tackled and challenged to meet the demands of decentring the human within the realms of animal representation.
Paint’s strength lies in its ordinariness and familiarity as both a material and a form of depiction. Its historical and conventional qualities bind it to the everyday of contemporary (Westernised) global culture and society and facilitate subjectivity; paint adds a human element. It is with this human gesture and subjectivity in paint that the “abyss of non-comprehension” (71) between humans and other species can be productively bridged.
Paint can critique itself as a medium. It can present tactility, physicality and gesture pertinent to the understanding and appreciation of the animal form, surface or comportment and it can illustrate key contemporary issues by way of direct representation, allegory or allusion in ways that challenge our assumptions about other species or highlight concerns regarding human-animal relations. It is not a passing trend, like a ready-made object or a live pig situated in the white cube of the gallery. It was perhaps one of the first methods of expression, used as an attempt to understand the animal “other” by way of representation, as the art of Lascaux testifies. Science and philosophy conspire to undermine the humanist principles entrenched in society by reminding humans that they are, in fact, one of many incredible species present in an interconnected system of life. Like the ancient art of Lascaux, contemporary works in the grounding medium of paint have the capacity to represent our awareness and appreciation of other species and remind us of where we stand in relation to them.
Mark J. Newton
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