Not everything needs to have a clear function, but if art does indeed serve a purpose, it might be to make sense of humanity's relationship with itself. Contemporary art follows diverse paths, but eventually returns to this overarching theme: what does it mean to be human?
To understand what is human, it seems important to also understand what is not. Therefore, exploring our relationship with animals is a theme that art has returned to again and again, across continents and throughout history. From the earliest prehistoric cave paintings to exhibitions in prestigious modern galleries, humanity has gazed upon animals and has seen more than fur and feathers. We have constructed whole mythologies based on animal forms and we have endowed certain species with sacredness. Yet, at the same time, our activities threaten our fellow animals. Some, we keep in our houses and treat like family members. Others, we seek to eliminate as pests or nuisances. Our relationship with other animals is a complicated one and provides much scope for imagination and exploration in art.
This summer, an exciting exhibition takes place at the Turner Contemporary, displaying work from over forty artists that explore how humans conceptualise and interact with other animals. Pieces by Marc Chagall, Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin, Pablo Picasso and others will be displayed alongside ancient artefacts depicting humans and animals. Animals and Us will show how artists over the ages have taken the theme in many different directions; from playing with anthropomorphism and mythology to examining our relationships with pets and with our food.
Laura Ford, a Camden-based sculptor, frequently injects her pieces with humour. Her piece A King's Appetite will be among the works on display, which depicts a cloth giraffe lying lazily on its back, while caricatures of human figures watch in horror and disgust. It plays upon themes of excess and greed but is also pertinent in an exhibition exploring human exploitation of nature. However, in A King's Appetite, it is the animal who takes the place of the greedy human. Following a similar trajectory, Stephanie Quayle's sculpture encourages visitors to look into the eyes of a troop of chimpanzees taking over the gallery.
Selvedge has also, in the past, explored humanity's relationship with animals through art and textiles. You can read all about it in the Zoological issue.
Animals and Us is on from 25 May - 30 September 2018 at the Turner Contemporary, in Margate, UK.