Animals and their artists: Unsettling anthropocentrism through nonhuman concepts and representations of self

Elizabeth Eleanor Jacqueline Atkinson

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

After Alife Ahead, Pierre Huyghe, 2017

Elizabeth Eleanor Jacqueline Atkinson: Animals and their artists: Unsettling anthropocentrism through nonhuman concepts and representations of self


This research project looks to other species, to investigate how their exhibition in particular art works, successfully challenges traditional anthropocentric beliefs about selfhood. Through the exhibition of animals, I will explore what implications such practice has for the understanding of and respect for, these species, and how their appearance in art enables a visceral proximity for humans to be able to learn from animals. How might processes such as swarm mentality (as seen in the Hive mind of bees), metamorphosis (silkworms) and avian speech deconstruct traditional anthropocentric structures of knowledge and language when (re)presented within artistic practice? What impact might this have on the position of the human, one constructed through a number of binary distinctions (extending to race, gender, sexuality, species) when they are exhibited as art? Analysing contemporary artists who critically engage with animals, this research will propose an alternative method, one not exclusively human, of interpreting the world. Raising issue with human disregard for, and destruction of, those with whom we share the planet, the perspective I aim to establish will elicit mutual inclusion in our contemporary moment of environmental crisis.

This project will look, in the first place, at the influence of Surrealist imagery, particularly with reference to the uncanny, the weird and the monstrous, in birds (Max Ernst), insects (Roger Callois) and marine life (Jean Painlevé). These artistic perspectives and the particular species will lay the foundation for the second part which explores spiders (Tomás Saraceno) and silkworms (Candice Lin), bees and Glofishâ (Pierre Huyghe), ants (Fiona McDonald) and termites (Nicholas Mangan), parrots (Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla) as well as “the animal within” – specifically our primate kin (Huyghe).   

The thesis will argue, overall, that the individuated and discrete self, one in possession of consciousness, rationality, empathy and a face (as discussed by Emmanuel Levinas), is open to challenge by the introduction of non-human perspectives. Species other than homo sapiens demonstrate examples of distributed consciousness, collective or “swarm” intelligence, embodied cognition, as well as capacities for language and rationality that humanity often overlooks. Beginning with Nietzsche’s description of the ‘animal within’, the thesis will include critical discussions of Derridean deconstruction, the animal question (Donna Haraway), and Xenofeminism’s emphasis on alien thought. Using a methodology inspired by the porosity and infinite connections of tentacular thinking and entanglement (Haraway), this project will address the pressing context we find ourselves in: the increasingly rapid extinction of many species, ecological collapse and the arrival of climate change at the hands of only certain humans, oblige us to urgently re-examine nonhumans and our relationship to them. I will therefore look to learn valuable lessons from various organisms as either formed or framed, formless or frameless, how they relate to one another and their environment, and consider how humans could model some of their examples.

This project will ultimately propose how and why particular forms of nonhuman knowledge matter to us, in the hope of weaving these knowledges into human constructions, to establish a plane for coexistence. Looking at animals through artistic practice, I will argue why these particular (re)presentations of animals become an effective way for humans to encounter and learn from other species, and how the artists themselves suggest ways that animal capabilities might be adopted by humans to improve their relationship to the planet and its other inhabitants.

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