“The Lives of Animals” at M HKA, Antwerp

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We all know many stories about animals; they are part of our collective imagination. Since our childhood, we have spent time observing animals in various situations. Many of us have also formed personal opinions about them. Animals are probably among the most popular and, at the same time, the most complex subjects to have accompanied us since our species emerged. Humans are evolving along with animals, which is why our attitude towards them has changed over the course of history.In the last two decades, animal studies has emerged worldwide as a new academic discipline. Scientists engage inquestions regarding concepts of “animality,” “animalisation,” or “becoming animal,” to investigate human-created representations and cultural imagining son the subject. Animal studies strives to understand human-animal relationships from a historical perspective, paying attention to the complexity of the issue, in connection with animal rights movements, ethics of care, ecology, feminism, human rights, postcolonial studies, and other disciplines.

It is important to mention that the origins of the animal rights movement can be found in nineteenth-century Europe. The increasingly widespread ideals of liberty associated with the suffragettes’ fight for women’s rights, as well as the abolitionists” struggle for the freedom of Black slaves, created fertile ground for the nascent animals liberation movements. Since then, various activists and researchers have been examining the state of animal objectification in the context of the food industry, clothing industry and entertainment industries, to name just a few areas where animals are exploited.

The exhibition “The Lives of Animals” looks at the subject of animals from the perspective of the visual arts, asking the fundamental question about what an animal is and whether humans can be friends with animals. Participating artists critically examine the attitudes of “human exceptionalism,” stemming from the belief that animals do not understand the concept of death or have a sense of future.

The title of the exhibition refers to the fictocritical novel by J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals. The text is an un-usual and polemic form of philosophical dialogue, in which two lectures given by the main fictional character, the literary scholar Elisabeth Costello, are interwoven with the narrative plot. J.M.Coetzee presents various viewpoints on the matter of animals. Often, these are perspectives that are extremely polarised, which gives the novel an exceptionally contemporary character, reflecting the dynamics of the public debate on the subject of animals. The protagonist of the novel discusses the foundations of human morality, referring to the ethics of compassion and “poetic invention” (the ability to imagine oneself as someone else). Empathy and kindness, spoken of by Costello, become the starting point for the present exhibition, which pro-poses an interdisciplinary approach. It blends literature, philosophy, ethics and the visual arts to explore and challenge conventional perceptions about animals, whilst encouraging visitors to rethink their relationship with them. At the exhibition, a unique space has been created where visitors can experience the languages of various animals.

Laughing rats, inaudible frequencies in the Amazon rainforests and the chirping of birds from different parts of the world are among the many sounds visitors may encounter in the Sonic Room. Besides field recordings, it features audio material created by artists and researchers in fields such as zoo musicology and eco-acoustics (the acoustics of the soundscape). The space, filled with sound, gives the exhibition a more performative character, which is aligned with the essential methodology of curatorial work that focuses on trans-disciplinary works and artists who have complex and prolonged relationships with their subject. The exhibition begins with the works of artist Lin May Saeed (1973–2023), who dedicated her entire artistic creativity to the subjects of animal liberation, domestication and cohabitation. Her work, which examines complex, transcultural relationships between humans and animals, has become one of the most important starting points for the creation of this project. The exhibition adheres to an ethical code. Therefore, it does not include taxidermy, living animals, or acts of violence against them. Animals are the main protagonists of the exhibition, focusing on their biographies and uniqueness whilst simultaneously questioning how gestures of empathy, kindness, and love towards them might be constituted.

Can we, and under what circumstances, adopt an animal perspective?

Participating artists:
Noor Abuarafeh, Antonia Baehr (together with Dodo Heidenreich, Nanna Heidenreich, Mirjam Junker, Itamar Lerner, Catriona Shaw, Ida Wilde, Steffi Weismann), Yevgenia Belorusets, Pierre Bismuth, melanie bonajo, Elen Braga, Sue Coe, Simone Forti, Nicolás García Uriburu, Piero Gilardi, Golden Snail Opera Collective (Isabelle Carbonell, Joelle Chevrier, Yen-Ling Tsai, Anna Tsing), Rebecca Horn, Katarzyna Krakowiak, K.P. Krishnakumar, Luís Lázaro Matos, Laura Lima, Anne Marie Maes, Dafna Maimon, Britta Marakatt-Labba, Ad Minoliti, Jean Painlevé, Charlemagne Palestine, Panamarenko, Rosana Paulino, Janis Rafa, Lin May Saeed, Tomás Saraceno, Carolee Schneemann, Filip Van Dingenen, Aleksandra Waliszewska

Sonic room:
Izabela Dłużyk, Nathan Gray, Jonáš Gruska, Kathy High (together with Michelle Temple, Matt Wellins), Anne Marie Maes,Jean-Claude Roché, Tomás Saraceno, Lisa Schonberg among others

at M HKA, Antwerp
until September 22, 2024

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