Art is a realm of soul where the creative spirit is free to express inner vision, but if this vision seeks to kill in the name of art, then our reciprocal spirits will rise to judgment. So follows our inquiry into the work of Nathalia Edenmont, composed of the animals she kills and photographs for her vision. Currently on exhibit at the Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm and the Chisenhale Gallery in London, we are informed by Swedish activists of plans to exhibit in other countries, including the United States.
Of themselves, the photographs are puzzling. All of the animals are open-eyed, but it seems as though their heads have been computer-imaged or superimposed onto objects, absent the bodies. We see the head of what appears to be a young, adult cat atop an hourglass figure; the heads of rabbits dressed in decorative collars; five mice held waist up, each by a separate finger of a human hand; a decapitated lobster with the head of a chicken; and chicken legs, standing in what might be military boots.
Only in reading the Wetterling Gallery statement do we realize Edenmont has chosen to kill them. And we wonder why she has not used the available technology to photograph living animals and achieve the same visual results. Or, if her artistic vision concerns death, why she use animals at all; and then why not animals who have died for other reasons?
Science teaches that animals have both physical and emotional experience, and that their conscious interest in well-being is an essential component of their survival. Hence, the moral obligation to respect the animal’s personal interest in living. For us, this knowledge and obligation are primary. Yet they are new values in a world, that designates animals as instruments for human purposes.
That the Wetterling Gallery defends the exhibit does not surprise us; after all, money and reputation are invested. But when Bjoern Wetterling insists it is part of the fight for animal rights, he is either grossly mistaken or disingenuous.
He is careful to mention that Edenmont is concerned with how the animals are treated, and that she “slays” them humanely. We are told these animals were intended for snake food, or they were no longer wanted by pet owners. However, what Wetterling calls humane slaying is only a reference to a degree of cruelty. Killing a healthy animal — no matter how painlessly — is not kind, and it is not consistent with the animal’s interest or the philosophy of animal rights. While killing animals for one purpose might be no worse than for another, Edenmont is responsible, whether or not someone else may have harmed them. She, of course, has other options, including not to kill.
Cleary, she sought animals that were visually appealing, not debilitated by age or disease, or damaged by trauma. Animals who died from illness or injury would not have suited this purpose. Because she kills them fifteen minutes before they are photographed, they do not appear to be dead.
The Wetterling Gallery compares the exhibit to other forms of animal use , and notes the hypocrisy of endorsing one while condemning another. But since the Gallery deems the exhibit is moral, the comparison itself is an acceptance of animal exploitation.
Art, says Bjoern Wetterling, is “food for the soul” — an old cliché, and one we tend to agree with — but here, his message is that because humans kill for food, artists can also kill for art. This is an argument that shows the morality of neither. It’s also a repeat performance: In 1992, Katarzyna Kozyra was an art student with active Hodgkins Disease, who decided to do her graduate project about her death and the food chain. While her professor suggested she create a sculpture, she chose instead to stuff the skins of dead animals — a horse, a dog, a cat, and a rooster — each with red hair, in order to match her own. For visual appeal, she too required that the animals appear undamaged. Her decision was to have red-haired animals killed for her “Animal Pyramid,” and to film the killing of the horse.
In defense of her thesis — for which she won more acclaim than criticism — she said the purpose of her work was to ask whether having animals as pets annihilated the awareness of the presence of death in food animals — a theory that makes no sense at all.
Nevertheless, the controversy over her exhibit propelled her into the public spotlight. She survived, and continued her work, though she focused on humans thereafter. In April of 2002, the New York Times reported that for her, the “Animal Pyramid” represented the hypocrisy of outrage over killing animals (for art) while the outraged are happy to eat them.
Unlike her predecessor, Edenmont has announced that she plans to continue killing animals. Bjoern Wetterling has even encouraged her to use dogs. Keeping in mind that controversy is free publicity, we understand that killing for art may be profitable. It’s unlikely that photographs of living animals — or of animals who died for other reasons — would receive such attention.
Wetterling explains the five mice on the fingers of a human hand represent the Five Stars of the former Soviet Union, where Edenmont’s mother was murdered. Whether or not the violent death of her mother figures in her work, what we believe about violence is also essential here. We may seek a peaceful society, but if we are content to harm animals for food or art, or for other reasons, we must admit that we do condone violence.
Our laws reflect this, and are based on a consensus where the majority supports animal exploitation. Harming animals is permitted so long as we are not wantonly cruel, but then that is something that may be difficult to prove. For example, an amendment to the Federal Criminal Code prohibits depictions of cruelty to animals, yet at the same time makes exception for that which has “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” But in a society that endorses animal use, what is considered “serious” may not be sound or well-intentioned, and the law may do more to allow cruelty in these exceptions than to prohibit it.
In the world of contemporary art, some believe that art is neither right or wrong because it is meant to be an experience. Others say that contemporary art should challenge social values. If art is controversial, offensive or shocking, it becomes a measure of artistic freedom that may be acclaimed for engaging aspects of society that we are inclined to forget or deny. This is quite apparent in the current Sholby exhibit in Paris, which includes a depiction of cruelty to animals. It’s a visual crash with a photograph of primate experimentation that collides with the title of the work, “Good Science.” We are confronted by the horrific suffering of animals in research and the barbarity that is labeled good science. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could not question the morality of these experiments. And here the law — which would permit Sholby to show this cruelty — also allows the challenge to their exploitation.
The crucial difference between Sholby’s vision and Edenmont’s is that unlike Sholby, Edenmont causes harm. If Edenmont is making a statement about animal use, it is akin to an artist who depicts domestic violence by beating and photographing a relative. Yet because her exhibit — and the “Animal Pyramid” — are considered works of art, the law would allow them. If the line between violence and art is an illusion, it is nonetheless specific to species. Only animals may be killed for art, but animals are killed for many reasons. Significantly then, killing for art does not challenge animal use; it is rather a testament to it. And in this sense, it is conformist.
That critics applaud Edenmont — and possibly those who may follow her example — is irrelevant. Killing for art is unequivocally immoral. None of the reasons that attempt to justify it can change that. We continue to educate and to work toward the day when animals will no longer be victims of our vanity and arrogance.
Ellie Maldonado is an animal rights activist who lives in New York City.