Doug Harvey's Favorite Non-Human Artwork
"There is one thing which distinguishes us from the other animals," declared playwright Edward Albee in an interview on the post-9/11 meaning of culture. "We are the only animal that makes art." While we're probably the only animals that make such stupid pronouncements about ourselves, I think the following list (by no means exhaustive) clearly indicates that our species can't use art-making as an excuse anymore. Please note that although many of the artworks here have depended on being reified by humans as Art to come to our attention, there is, in the ones involving animal life, at least a credible intentionality on the part of the AAS (Artist of Another Species). Thus works like Chris Offili's or Paul Warhola's paintings which incorporate elephant poop and chicken scratchings, respectively are excluded. For similar reasons, the vast can of worms that is AI art music generated by algorithms; robot paintings I will leave for the book-length expansion of this article.
1. Songs of the Humpback Whale
Memories of this and similar LPs may emerge to you from the purple haze improbably popular recordings of cetacean moans and warblings. Toward the end of this inexplicable '60s fad, composers such as schlockmeister Andre Kostelanetz were even creating collaborative works with our aquatic mammal friends, and soon spinoffs by wolves and tree frogs appeared. Forgotten kitsch of a drug-addled era? Not so. While the most cutting-edge DJs have begun to recognize the similarities between whale song and experimental electronica, we now know from Star Trek IV that whale songs are a dense, holographic, polyphonic, constantly evolving bardic tradition on which the very future of Civilization may depend. The 1970 album that started it all was recently reissued on CD, and features "rare recordings from the Bel Canto era of whale singing" that still blend awesomely with the low burble of a water pipe.
2. Dog Pound Found Sound
I bought this two-CD set at Rockaway for $5.99, mostly to annoy my spouse, who volunteers at the SPCA-L.A. shelter and bristles at any hint of anthropomorphic sentiment. Recorded and self-released by one Claude Matthews in 1996, the album contains two long unedited soundscapes from inside New York's Center for Animal Care and Control. While apparently intended as an animal-rights-style cultural criticism, the recordings Matthews describes as an "attempted creation of a sort of communal canine space in the medium of sound" are curiously musical. Mr. Matthews maintains a cranky Web presence at , and promises a free copy of his CDs to anyone who e-mails asking for one.
3. Primate Painting
Popular ethologist Desmond Morris got the ball rolling on this whole deal with his articles and book The Biology of Art, detailing the creative efforts of Congo the chimp. Congo was the co-star of media-savvy Desmond's 1966 BBC-TV show Zoo Time, and created an uproar with her first painting exhibit. In a seminal art prank that many mistake for urban legend, Desmond exhibited Congo's paintings under a fake (human) identity to great critical acclaim, whereupon he revealed their true authorship. Other chimps and the even more famous Koko the gorilla have made names for themselves in the animal art world, but it's Congo who first broke the species barrier. Desmond's book is criminally OOP, but an equally compelling volume, Monkey Painting by Thierry Lenain, contains reproductions of some of Congo's works.
4. Elephant Painting
Sometime in the early '80s, a Syracuse zookeeper named David Gucwa gave a paintbrush to the African elephant Siri and a new branch of non-human art history was born. A few years later, Ruby, an elephant at the Phoenix zoo, became a media sensation with her prodigious output of vibrant works. Realizing the fund-raising potential, zoos across America began shelling out for art supplies. Russian artists Komar and Melamid were inspired to open a school for unemployed Thai elephants to learn painting a story outlined in their 2000 book When Elephants Paint. These sarcastic foreigners have more than a little invested in ridiculing Modernism, but the good their patronage has done is undeniable sanctuaries in Thailand, India and Bali now support themselves with work by dozens of elephant artists sold through online galleries at www.soarts.com and www.novica.com. The Balinese sanctuary has been suffering the tourist gap since those discos blew up, and may be assisted directly at baliadventuretours.com. Look for the link to the Have-a-Art Appeal.
5. Thai Elephant Orchestra
In 1999, Columbia neurologist and New York avant-garde fiddler Dave Soldier teamed up with expat Richard Lair of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang (where Komar and Melamid established their first pachyderm art academy) to equip a group of elephants with oversize versions of traditional Thai instruments gongs, drums and mouth organs. They then encouraged the elephants to improvise freely, resulting in this outsider gem, chock-full of haunting, evocative aural sketches. Lair singles out Luuk Kob as "the Buddy Rich of elephant percussionists," but for my money, it's subtle ensemble pieces like "Harmonica Music" or "Thung Kwian Sunrise" that make the best case for a non-human Grammy category.
6. Crop Circles
M. Night Shyamalan's film Signs almost got it right, but I think the aliens have been in control all along, and are just waiting for us to pulverize all the organic matter on our planet into a protein-rich, deliciously radioactive stew (as per our programming). The crop circles are merely decorative, like the decals on a crock pot. Right purty, though. And as Lari Pittman always says, Why shouldn't that be enough?
7. VLF Radio and Nature Itself
The popularity of Songs of the Humpback Whale arguably gave birth to two related but distinct genres of music: budget-priced Relaxing Sounds of Nature CDs and their highfalutin cousins in the Environmental Soundscape Composition bin, which include such AAS phenomena as dawn choruses of birds and frogs, as well as various weather patterns, recorded and sometimes transformed by such legitimate experimentalists as Hildegard Westerkamp, electronic-music pioneer Bernie Krauss, and Chris Watson, founding member of both Cabaret Voltaire and the Hafler Trio (!). The online specialty store at www.earthear. com offers an extensive selection and further information. One of its most intriguing offerings is Stephen McGreevy's Auroral Chorus II, a transcription of radio emanations from the ionosphere, recorded in remote locations with enormous antennae, which gives eerie voice to lightning and the Northern Lights.
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I believe it was Albee who once asked, "Who is the master that makes the grass green?" Ironically, one of the central destabilizing challenges of Modernism to the art establishment that anything can be proposed or understood as art; that art is in fact a way of looking at the world brings us full circle. Do we really need Duchamp or Rauschenberg or Tapies or the Boyle Family to point out the equivalence of "fine art" and a heightened awareness of our everyday environment? To show us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Even if it is the lofty conceptual impulse we are meant to admire, that doesn't make it something separate from Nature the ultimate readymade. Where does that leave man? For one thing, even if only God can make a tree, She still needs human collaborators to achieve one of L.A.'s exquisitely lurid toxic sunsets.
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