by Ksenya Gurshtein
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is not actually a book “about” animals. A fable, it makes sure that the human actors behind its animal protagonists are easily identifiable, and recognizing the specifically anti-Stalinist point of departure for its meditation on how utopia can go terribly wrong requires only a passing knowledge of 20th century history.
It is, therefore, perplexing that the curatorial call and statement for Gallery Project’s show inspired by the book conflates so carelessly the desire to reflect on the broad theme of “origins and expressions of human intimidation, power and control” with much more particular questions about the relationship of humans to animals. As a result of this conflation, the exhibition at best addresses the vexed question of ethical treatment of animals in isolation, but does not integrate it with Orwell’s concern for man’s inhumanity to man.
The show does offer compelling individual works. Craig Hinshaw’s stoneware sculptures (Large Twisted Milk Cow, Glove Rabbit)stand out as visual parallels to Orwell’s use of animal characters as blank slates for projections of human stories. Whether by twisting a cow’s body into angular planes hinged on its milk-giving orifices or by replacing a rabbit’s head with the glove into which it will be made, Hinshaw slyly questions the human view of animals as raw matter for the satisfaction of human desires.
David van Ness makes the point even more bluntly with The Stackable Cow – a fantasy about animals whose bodies have been optimized for the right angles of the industrial environment and who, at $60 per square plastic cow, are as cheap, disposable, and unindividuated in the art context as actual cows are in food production.
Jamie Berlant takes the next logical step and questions the ethics of pet ownership with the darkly whimsical The Cat Restraint/Human Pleasure Device, a contraption to which one only need add an imaginary cat, strapped in place so that the owner can amply express his affection for the animal.
Despite numerous individually strong pieces, though, the show constantly threatens to slip into a stylistic hodgepodge on a generic “Animal” theme short on engagement with Orwell’s allegory – a flaw particularly ironic since the hijacking of Animal Farm for other ends resembles the erosion of historical memory that is one of the central themes of the book.
The many things that the show wants to explore and then leaves unsaid also suggest a broader shift from grand political narratives – Animal Farm packs a big social theory punch into its hundred pages – to works that at their most critical can only interrogate specific consumer practices and deal with matters of personal guilt rather than impractical historical consciousness-raising. What is missing here is a whole mode of thinking that could ask what our age’s allegory for a failed utopia would be – or what political and economic systems such an allegory would condemn were it setin a modern-day factory farm.
These questions remain unanswered and unasked by all but one of the works (and one of the only two to reference Animal Farm directly). Frank Pahl and Vince Mountain’s Forward comrades! Long live the windmill! Long Live Animal Farm! is structurally a counterpart of an Orwellian allegory – a projection of shadows onto a screen. Its title references the crucial plot twist when the dictator Napoleon discovers fear-mongering at the expense of the exiled Snowball to rally the animals for the self-sacrifice of rebuilding the windmill – their great hope whose thin walls lie toppled over by the wind.
Pahl and Mountain interpret this moment abstractly and allusively. Behind a backlit white sheet, they place a rotating rack hung with fabric – the windmill’s blades or walls – while beneath them, drums with cowbells rotate around their own axes. The melodious clanks provide the soundtrack to the hypnotic motion whose shadows the viewer can activate or freeze by flipping the switch on the other side of the “screen.”
Simple yet effective, visually compelling, and able to tell a metaphorical narrative, this work embodies the best qualities of Animal Farm. One stands in front of it able to imagine herself intothe story, but able also to step out of it, too. It gives a thoughtful viewer pause about her place in the world in a way Orwell surely would have encouraged, and it inspires a bittersweet optimism that there are talented dystopian visionaries out there yet. We just need more of them looking for ruined windmills.