“Oozy Rat in a Sanitary Zoo”–perhaps one of childhood’s best palindromes takes on a whole new meaning for UT artists Sasha Fishman, Brooke Johnson, Seth Murchison, tín Rodriguez, and Rachel Wilkins. This installation at the Visual Art Center features five artists’ different take on what they describe as “our human relationships with animals and the natural world, and what these relationships might reveal about ourselves.” I had the opportunity of walking through this quirky, introspective space with fellow artist and curator, Brooke Johnson.
The exhibition begins with two mysterious display cabinets filled with “some dead things and some plastic remains.” This mishmash of trinkets, pelts, and stuffed animals taxidermied by the artists themselves serves as a microscopic view of the exhibition. It foreshadows the issues of perceived human dominance over animals that each artist addresses in their work.
On three pediments spin multicolored, zoomorphic sculptures vaguely recognizable in form. These works by Rachel Wilkins offer a commentary on how animals are misrepresented by humanity. Each sculpture is a 3D scan of an animal figurine that has been modeled off of a real animal. Wilkins states that the pieces “start as something natural and not so different from us;” however its representation quickly becomes skewed. The artist leads the viewer to question how many degrees away from an animal one can get before it is no longer an animal? At what point do humans assert a control over creation?
Juxtaposed with these sculptures is a floor-to-ceiling photograph of an exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo taken by Brooke Johnson. As the viewer ponders the image, this seemingly natural picture of a grand tree, boulders, and shrubbery begins to look off-puttingly unnatural. Johnson said she was drawn to environments constructed in zoos as a way of understand our interaction with nature and animals–the viewer is “looking at nature without the fear of being seen by it.” Johnson is commenting on how animals become a tool of amusement, research, and display to the point of objecthood. The massive scale of the photograph unnervingly makes the viewer feel as if they are on display, in Johnson’s words, “like you don’t know which side of the glass you are on when looking at it.”
In the far corner of the gallery is tín Rodriguez’s interactive diorama. Projected on two walls are highly saturated images of waving trees amidst an artificial hill of astroturf and plastic vegetation. Sounds of chirping birds emanate from the work and echo throughout the gallery space. As the viewer steps into this world they are enveloped in an unnaturally saturated green glow. The viewer is reminded that the space appears natural but in fact is unmistakably synthetic and “holds nature constant in the same way a display at a natural history museum does.” It resonates a similar theme in Johnson’s work–the notion of a constructed barrier between natural and humanity. In commenting on their piece Rodriguez says, “In a museum setting, when we behold nature, we purposely pull ourselves further from the organic world, into a hermetic environment purged of all unwanted life, a controlled climate.”
Seth Murchison’s background in alchemy, biology, mythology, and pop culture culminate in a multi-media narrative of three paintings and a self-built structure. Murchison explains that the paintings have their own independent existence because “the tension between representation and abstraction in my paintings both reaffirms their status as objects, painted surfaces, while creating the notion of animism or an independent life.”
Independent from the paintings is Murchison’s “Centipede”, a wooden structure placed an oval train track cutting through the gallery walls, invading the space of artist Sasha Fishman. The centipede structure demonstrates a key element to the exhibition–there is an inherent conversation going on between all the artists despite the different media and spaces that occupy the gallery.
Artist Sasha Fishman says, “Seth’s piece comes into my space; it comes through the wall, it is a centipede on a train track. This piece is specific to him about something he painted and I’m not a big painter so i don’t really think about it that way but I think it’s interesting that it can move into my space and out. I think alot about how sanitation is about eradicating any bugs or any germs that we deem harmful but it really just pushes evolution.”
A semisiculded room off the main gallery space is filled with whimsical sculptures reminiscent of creatures one might find with Alice in Wonderland. In this space, artist Sasha Fishman brings a sense of curious beauty to what we generally perceive as disgusting–growths, germs, fungi, decay, and malformations. Sasha’s research in developing alternative plastic resins led her create art that looks at how “humans attempt to control environmental entrop, whether it be through sanitation, genetic engineering, or new material formulations, and what this means for the future of our environment.”
Fishman questions the materiality of objects by incorporating living organisms in her work. For example, the sculpture known as Ms. Turmeric is pigmented with yellow turmeric powder. Fishman states that the root, which is commonly associated with superfood fads and found in the golden lattes of trendy coffee shops, illustrates how “things get so saturated in our culture today and become subverted into a harmful yet trendy thing. We are using more synthetic things and more chemicals in order to meet trends and our high expectations for sanitation.”
Playing on a TV is video explaining the narratives of futile systems that humans attempt to create in order to combat environmental issues. The monotone voice of the narrator interacts with the endlessly looping sounds of birds from tìn’s instillation creating a poetic clash between the sounds of humans and animals.