By Jack Ashby, on 1 February 2012
Today the newest exhibition at the Grant Museum opens and it’s probably not something many people will have seen before. Art by Animals is an exhibition of paintings by orang-utans, a chimp, elephants and a gorilla, and to be honest, most of them are better than I could do.
When our co-curators Michael Tuck, a graduate from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, and artist Will Tuck, first approached me about a year ago I have to admit to being shocked at the elephant painting of a flower pot – it truly displays the incredible dexterity of the elephant’s trunk, but is it art?
Here’s a video about it.
That’s the big question we are asking, and personally the artworks have actually got me thinking more about human art as well as the intentions of the ape artists. We are exploring the links between human and animal behaviours this term in our Humanimals Season. I’m not a fan of anthropomorphising animal behaviour – I think that what animals do in the wild is far more interesting than anything we could lay a claim to being human-like behaviour. There are plenty of examples of animals expressing themselves creatively in nature. Play is a big part of the development of many animals and I’ve certainly seen a lot of wild animals seemingly only doing something for fun. Aesthetics is the key to a bowerbird’s display bower (otherwise why would they be so picky about only decorating them with objects of single colour – it can’t all be about displaying their foraging skills).
As well as a bowerbird, this exhibition displays overtly human behaviour (painting) but I hope that it will suggest a level of natural creativity in the animal world. If that’s the case, where does creativity end and art begin?
The way that the elephants are trained (essentially they learn what kind of brush strokes to perform when their handler strokes their ear in a certain way) has led most people interested in animal art to debunk what elephants do as non-creative. The artist, zoologist and chimp art expert Dr Desmond Morris wrote this article explaining how it is done. But the way the apes paint really does seem to be expressive, and Abstract Expressionists in the 1960s and 70s, influenced by Freud’s work, raised the possibility that if human mark-making expresses something of the artist’s subconscious, the same may be true for chimps.
Talking to Mike and Will Tuck, what really fascinated me is that the apes decide when their paintings are finished – given a load of paper and some paint, they will choose to finish one painting and start another – doesn’t that say something about their artistic intentions? There is an old joke about abstract paintings being hung upside-down, but when we were hanging the ape paintings they really do only “work” one way up. Whether it’s the same way as the apes intended, or whether it speaks only to human artistic sensibilities we’ll probably never know, but it certainly got me thinking.
UPDATE: Due to the the popularity of Art By Animals, we have decided to extend the exhibition dates until 13 April 2012 (but note that UCL and the Museum are closed for Easter from 5-11 April 2012 inclusive).
The Grant Museum is open from 1-5pm Monday to Friday, with a special Saturday opening 11am-4pm on 10th March 2012. Admission is free.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.