Tag Archives: Anthropomorphism


Menangerie at ACCA – animals held captive by art

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is a rusty, angular chunk in Melbourne’s growing Arts Precinct. It protruds from hard granitic sand between The Malthouse Theatre and The Victorian College of the Arts. The building is apparently built defiantly not to relate to nature – no tree or garden is envisaged by the architects – apart from the very human height-sized graffiti scrawled all around the base of the velvety surface.

Portrait of ACCA from www.ravencontemporary.com.au

Portrait of ACCA from www.ravencontemporary.com.au

Yet the latest exhibition devised by ACCA’s Artistic Director, Juliana Engberg, is wonderfully about nature; humans as they relate to animals. It is called Menangerie and it is an ambitious exhibition of animals held captive by art. At first impression, the exhibition feels a little like visiting an eccentric, art-loving Great Aunt. 

Menangerie is a sprawling collection of many artists from many places. Much of the work is familiar, which I found disarming. I had seen Robert Gligorov’s  (and his Tumblr) mouth releasing birds and Ricky Swallow’s comforting bird in a shoe in previous Melbourne shows. There is also history (see Great Aunt) in the darkened Highland stags and dogs oils of Edwin Landseer and the various aged horse and hound hunting paintings from the likes of Howitt, Orme, Hall and Vernet.

There’s humour in the pithy quotes written on the walls and in the images like Elliot Erwitt’s dog leaping into the grey Parisisan sky and the sculptures such as a cat staring at a fallen chandelier in The day the sky fell down by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. There’s a covered bear and other melted ceramics by Paul Wood and endearing drawings of abandoned or lost animals by Anastasia Klose. The pieces are fun and engaging and reinforced my understanding of human superiority. There are some evocative fertility drawings by Patricia Piccinnini and some amusing horse impressions by Lucy Gunning.

I wandered around feeling safe for most of the time until I found myself looking at a video called Deeparture by Mircea Cantor. The name, Deeparture, is a pun, a play on words. The video is not play, at least I did not think so. A wolf, initally quite calm, and a deer, again, quite relaxed, are inside a white gallery cube. The creatures are not alone, of course, they are observed by the camera crew, presumably the artist. As the short piece continues, the audience sees that the creatures are in the same space at the same time and they are not happy about it. Both animals pant, perhaps from heat or lack of water, and perhaps because they are naturally not the best of companions.

The commentary in the catalogue suggests ‘we make attempts to relate to the animals both by drawing on our cultural knowledge of each and ascribing them with human characteristics.’ pg 42 Menangerie catalogue  2014 by Annika Kristensen.

As regular readers of this blog will understand, I am not a great believer in wide spread use of ‘anthropomorphism’, prefering instead the evidence of my own senses. I think most people have had enough contact with animals, their pets or creatures kept at school, to recognise basic animal mood signals. Why should a dog not have fear or a cat enjoy comfort? Why is it humans only who are allowed emotions? Clearly a dog wagging its tail is in a better frame of mind than one with its teeth bared, hackles risen and furious bark. If we dressed the dog in a suit and put a hat on the deer, that might be considered expecting the creatures to be acting as human. Yet, placing the two of them into an art gallery may be considered as anthropomorphism as we expect them to perform a piece of art for us much as any human performance artist must in the same surrounds.

Kristensen continues,

‘Unable to speak of their own accord, we instead seek to understand animals in anthropomorphic terms. Cantor’s use of close-up camera angles and his choice to present the film without sound heightens this inclination. The animals become a blank canvas upon which to project human emotions and our own psychological desires.’

But, Annika, these are living creatures. They are not empty blanks. They are not puppets. Both animals have observable reactions to being alive in this this space and this time and neither have any choice in the matter. They were transported to the gallery and filmed without their permission. There appears to be no reward of any kind – no steak for the wolf, no succulent fruit or grasses for the deer. They are prisoners for the sake of an artistic expression. I would guess they were filmed separately and that is what we see most of the time. Then they are introduced to each other and, as I said before, neither of the beasts look happy about it. Whether or no the viewer expects an attack, as AK surmises, this is not a suitable pairing for a caged show, a zoo exhibit or even a short video.

In an Initiartmagazine story about Cantor, the author writes and quotes Cantor himself,

‘ … inside a pristine white gallery space, what interests the artist is not scenes of bloodshed but a perpetual climax of “something-might-happen”, but then it would never happen.  “It’s the power of the humanity, the ability to control.  That’s why we are above other creatures, because we can control and sublimate the tension, turn it into something higher, let’s say love. But then the question is how.”  The encounter of the wild and the civilized reflects back on us as a conscious contained subject.’

Assuming the human control, the creatures are both fed and watered before transportation to the white cube. Their needs are sated and they wait for their release, not enjoying their situation but not desperate to escape. It is a fascinating video, unpleasant and shocking but completely compelling and provoking. Has the artist turned the tension into something else? Love? Perhaps not. Empathy? The need to write a piece for a blog and think about it? What have we learned? That humans are superior to animals because we can control them. Is that superiority or just bastardry?

Can we apply our human instincts and ascribe ideas into the head of the creator of this piece? I leave it to you!

Menagerie is a fantastic show missing only the bullfight, but then, one cannot have everything. Get along and see it if you can.

Nothing in common?

Continuing thinking about anthropomorphism. Could it be that humans have absolutely nothing in common with animals?

Cover of Primates and Philosophers

Philosopher Franz de Waal says:

I still remember some surrealistic debates among scientists in the 1970s that dismissed animal suffering as a bleeding-heart issue. Amid stern warnings against anthropomorphism, the then prevailing view was that animals were mere robots, devoid of feelings, thoughts or emotions. With straight faces, scientists would argue that animals cannot suffer, at least not the way we do.’ (Pg 76 P&P)

Frans de Waal called this separatism ‘anthropodenial’ and it has hopefully withered under Darwin’s theories of evolution. (It may, however, be quite popular in modern creationist America.)

Another philosopher, Christine M. Korsgaard, in an essay about the evolution of morality, discusses the vested interest we have in our dominion over the animals:

I think it is fair to say that we are more likely to be comfortable in our treatment of our fellow creatures if we think that being eaten, worn, experimented on, held captive, made to work, and killed, cannot mean anything like the same to them that it would do to us. (Pg 104 P&P)

Jared Diamond concludes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, that it is basically our human capacity for genocide and the basic human desire to take drugs to get off our faces that marks us as different from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the prologue he says:

Among the…[se] characteristics unique to us are the abilities to talk, write, and build complex machines. We depend completely on tools, not just on our bare hands, to make a living. Most of us wear clothes and enjoy art, and many of us believe in a religion. We are distributed over the whole Earth, command much of its energy and production, and are beginning to expand into the ocean depths and into space. We are also unique in darker attributes, including genocide, delight in torture, addictions to toxic drugs, and extermination of other species by the thousands. (Pg 1 Third Chimpanzee)

The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

So does it seem to you that us humans are not actually very different to our animal cousins after all?


Anthropomorphism in objects and gods

There are so many animal characters in our media now, from Kermit and Miss Piggy to Snoopy and Garfield, we’re surrounded by them. And not just animals. Anthropomorphism can apply to everything, from objects to ideas. Who said, ‘I could murder a curry’?

Death, of course, from Mort, by Terry Pratchett, an anthropomorphic personification if ever there was one.


Terry Pratchett stands with a brush with Death thanks to

Terry Pratchett has a brush with Death thanks to http://www.paulkidby.com/news/aug2006.html

If we think of Thomas the Tank Engine, Spongebob Squarepants, The Magic Pudding or even those grubby mouldy carrots in the bottom of The Young One’s fridge we can see that talking objects and plants can be used by storytellers to great entertainment effect. We all remember when hippy Neil, dressed as a police officer, walked into a tree, and was hit by the Special Branch.

POLICE CHIEF: That’s right, that’s right! Now, you practice going, “CCCCHHHHHH”. And if you don’t get it right, I kick your head in.

NEIL: Fascist!

POLICE CHIEF: Si! Okay, now, here is the uniform [he hands Neil the uniform] take that with you, and as you go out, watch out for the Special Branch.

[Neil walks out of the station and hits his head on a tree branch] NEIL: I don’t see what’s so special about that.

TREE BRANCH: I’ve got a degree in Computer Science, that’s what.

NEIL: Oh, yeah, that’s quite special.


Watch the last bit of the ep here!

Neil from The Young Ones

The third edition of the Concise Macquarie Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as: “Ascribing human form or attributes to beings or things not human, especially to a deity.” Whoa! A God?But which came first, the God or the human?

In Genesis Chapter One verse 26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Amusing annotation here 

So if humans are made in God’s likeness, then are not all humans Gods? Or did God not make an exact likeness? Is it anthropomorphic to think that God can make anything at all?

Let’s talk about dominion another time, shall we? For that is at the heart of our relationship with nature!

Painting of The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo



Clearly, Ektek is anthropomorphic, there’s no getting away from it. Or you could think, like the scientists in The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, as they discuss his own work;

People like Adams represent animals acting as if they were humans, when actually it’d be nearer the mark to consider them as automata controlled by the computer they inherit in their genetical (sic) make-up. (pg 442 The Plague Dogs)

Cover of The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

Cover of the Plague Dogs, thanks dangblastedcritic.blogspot.com

I have been writing about animals, particularly endangered creatures, since 1993. My play, It’s NOT the end of the world, was first presented by Polyglot Puppet Theatre in 1994. Instead of animals, anthropomorphism animated an endangered family of string bags threatened by a hamburger corporation.

In 1996 I commenced work on an unsolicited bible for a television series (working title Ektek) about endangered Australian animals. In 1997 I realised production would be unlikely unless I could get the stories published as books first. The first book was rejected seven times. Three of the rejections came about at John Marsden’s Publisher’s camp. When I pitched the idea to the publishers represented they said Ektek would never work because young adults do not like anthropomorphism.

When I prepared the proposal for the second draft of the book I included a list of anthropomorphic books, such as Animal Farm, Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, to demonstrate that books written from the point of view of animals might be profitable for a publisher. This proved unconvincing, as that ms was also rejected seven times. I placed Ektek deep in the bottom of a drawer. Of course, it’s since been retrieved, reworked and resubmitted and rejected many more times. Now, it’s free for you to examine as you will because publishers are reluctant. Is anthropomorphism to blame?

As I looked at more and more books about animals and thought about anthropomorphism, it slowly dawned on me that when a book is about a type of animal, be it horse in The Silver Brumby, Dog in The101 Dalmations, or Cat as in Forest, there is always reference to the other species – the most dominant of all. I began to wonder if when writers use animal characters, they are actually exploring what it means to be human.

Zoologist Colin Tudge, writing in Last Animals at the Zoo, believes anthropomorphism is a primitive and easy way to attempt to understand animals. He explains

… the portrayals of animals from Aesop to Edwin Landseer – cunning foxes and noble stags – are anthropomorphism of a kind, animals with human qualities, presented as symbols of those qualities. The animals of children’s stories – Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher, Wind in the Willows, Rupert Bear, Donald Duck – are humans, in tweeds and spats and sailor suits.  Because of the way they look and behave, however, they are presumed to have some of the character of the animals whose physiognomies they have assumed; pompous Jeremy, bumbling Mole, irascible Donald. (Pg 193 Zoo)

cover of Last Animals at the Zoo; how mass extinction can be stopped

Humans have told anthropomorphic stories for hundreds of years. Ektek is just one more.