Look out! There’s a tiger in the gallery!

Written by Hannah Kemp-Welch and Illustration by Marcello Gibezzi

Last year, a menagerie of insects invaded London galleries. A room at Tate Modern became a boarding house for butterflies, and the Hayward hosted a space for silk worms. Previous years saw birds at the Barbican, and a free-roaming fox at the National Gallery. Ethics aside, what are exhibitions such as this saying about art audiences? How do we feel when confronted with all manner of beasts in the expected serenity of the gallery space?

Artists in the 1960s framed art as an experience, an unrepeatable moment, which cannot be bought or sold. Joseph Beuys spent a week with a coyote, and Fluxus artists wrote music to be enacted by butterflies and trees. Art where live animals constitute the performers is indebted to this, yet the experience offered seems to be framed in three categories: the beautiful, the disgusting, or the frightening.

In Damien Hirst’s butterfly room, I experienced an excited flutter in my stomach. The delicacy and variety of these magical creatures, intensified by the sheer volume of colourful wings, created great energy in the space. Fleeting memories of trips to the butterfly house in Oxford’s botanical gardens filled me with nostalgia. The sounds of thousands of wings beating composed movement in the air, as though we’d been transported to the tropics.

The darkness of the Hayward’s silkworm den was a very different experience, though equally alluring. Glowing worms oozed over each other slickly, their small size, slow movement and silent slithering enticing me to lean in close and gaze intently at the alien creatures.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a collection of live animals in a long time. Children seem to be the target audience of every zoo, and living in London provides few opportunities for encounters with the more exotic animals. I wonder – have we created a demand to see our fellow planet occupants outside the frame of the TV?

These exhibitions are decidedly tame when compared to those further afield. In Beijing, a tiger guards the gallery, the audience members ushered through its cage steering clear of this powerful beast feet away from them. Horses with swishing tails dipped in paint decorate the walls at an exhibit in Argentina. Are our British curators tamer, or are insurance policies and health and safety rules diluting experiential art?

At an instinctive level, I prefer art as an experience. The shock devised by the unexpected context for such an encounter gives me a shot of excitement that I sometimes feel immune to after trawling through rooms of static paintings.

Have exhibitions such as this changed me in any way? I wish I could say that I have felt enthused to seek out experiences with wildlife ever since. Although I haven’t taken direct action as a result, I feel the distance between myself and nature more keenly, and a longing for long green grass with frogs hoping across my path, with a horizon stretching further than the next tower block.

Written by Hannah Kemp-Welch, sound-art-text.com

Illustration by Marcello Gibezzi


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