The Zoo is something we all know, something we all did, like the first day at School, or learning to ride a bike. But as children we are in awe of the experience of real animals, oblivious to the complexities of their situation. Zoo, at new artist-run gallery Meter Room in Coventry, seeks to challenge these ideas of the Zoo as a space of childlike wonder and tranquil pastime, by bringing together five artists intent on exploring what this complicated space might mean.
Mike Bartlett's series of small-scale paintings explore the public spaces of London Zoo. The paintings began with a chance hearing of the BBC's radio interview with Andrew Sachs at the time of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal; the interview took place at the Zoo, seemingly by chance (perhaps Sachs lives nearby), but the location enabled an enlightening and emotional interview in which the actor recalled his childhood visits to the Zoologischer Garten, growing up in Berlin in the 1930's. The paintings, of the ramps, concrete enclosures and walkways, cafes and staff quarters, are hung in a broad constellation, and made in unlikely day-glow colours, luminous greens, and hot pinks. We are not told whether or not these are contemporary views, or perhaps the Sachs story so forced Bartlett into his own recollections that no revisit was necessary, or perhaps Bartlett painted from family photographs, but the paintings, with their luminous pinks are truly 'rose-tinted'. But then colour is often adjusted violently in painting that struggles to recall the long-distant past, the resulting distortion of a pan-handling of memory.
London Zoo is also the starting point for Alli Sharma's large group of painted animals, based on a collection of faded postcards, previously for sale to past generations in the Zoo's shop, now encased in plastic sleeves and stored in the Zoo's archives, which house all manner of printed ephemera dating back to the Zoo's opening in 1828. Sharma's project is ambitious, comprising some thirty-odd characterful portraits, seemingly a Zoo's worth, featuring proud lions, oblivious hippos, a tiger with a challenging stares, and all manner of birds, geckos, penguins, hippos, zebras. The installation occupies a large corner of the gallery space, like a veritable, chattering menagerie; one small group has even been released (or escaped?), out of the space and into the corridor. The paintings are deftly done, in the antique browns and paynes grey of the penny postcard, and a natural extension of the artist's previous explorations of the natural world. But these are, broadly speaking, small sadnesses, vignettes that remind of these hulking beasts in their confinement, particularly when one thinks that many of these images originate from photographs of the days before Zoos required licences. There are some cute pandas..., also a manic wildcat, the card that would have needed to be constantly re-filled in the postcard rack, bought by coach-loads of 1980's school children at a few pence a go.
Stephanie Quayle's sculptures also remind us of the sadness of Zoo-space, the eyes of her Orang-utan captures are uncannily lifelike, and the sensitively of Quayle's handling of her materials (terracotta, porcelain) with something of the clay-molding and pinching of Rebecca Warren, reminds us of their fragility; she is interested in 'the us-ness in their eyes'. Her Langur Monkey, made of white porcelain, sits mournfully on the window-sill of the gallery space, staring out to freedom, her animals are often perched on (unlikely) stools, or domestic objects as if to emphasise their wildness. A fascination for 'animal-ness', drives her practice, and her sculptures remind that animals possess intelligence and sensitivity, the personality behind the fur.
Cathy Lomax's Becoming Animals explores a dreamlike state, somewhere between sleeping and waking, nature and fantasy, where humans take on animal attributes or forms, We are on comfortable ground with Swan Dream, the fantasy of the princess of Swan Lake, or Cat Dream, which depicts cat-woman, but then the series quickly turns into a sliding scale of nightmarishness, as a young girl turned is into a bear, a man becomes half-horse (by desire or magical curse?), a indeterminate person is transformed, in dreamland, into a faceless rabbit, and a pagan deer makes himself known, like some image of pre-history, on a snowy mist-filled plain. These humanoid creatures, half-man half-circus, belong as much to the gothic novel or Victorian parlour story-telling, as to the land of dreams.
Anton Goldenstein's practice is an exploration of the history of anthropology and empire, with 'a sprinkle of absurdity'. Goldenstein is showing his sculpture The Pinkers - Ape Gothic, a teetering assemblage of cardboard boxes, the uppermost a 'Marlboro' box turned upside down, with a confusion of chimp's hands and straw, poking lifelessly from underneath, atop the box a plastic banana, as thought the chimps were just caught short of their comedic sustenance. The Marlboro box is key, and Goldstein uses references which seem glib at first hand but then one remembers that they may be shorthand for 'the world', or America (as with his past use of Micky Mouse, or Nasa in his series of Monkeys in space uniforms) and as well he might because for Goldenstein we are, or certainly have been, merely animals crawling the fact of the earth, trampling and imposing our control. As the artist says: 'We are just monkeys'.
Zoo forces us to consider what a Zoo is. Do we see them as educational places? It is interesting to reflect that it is only since the mid-1980's that Zoos in the UK have required licenses, and to remain open they should concern themselves as much with conservation as with the exhibition of animals. Or are they outmoded institutions connected to old-fashioned ideas of captivity and trophy-capture? Merely a constructed village of concrete sheds or enclosures, where species are transplanted to and imprisoned with no chance of escape; where they perhaps, loose the natural compulsions to hunt and source, to be part of breeding programmes generating new beasts, born into these unnatural spaces, unaware of their natural environments perhaps a day away on the other side of the world. There is an argument that the Zoo belongs to another era; perhaps that of Peter Beard, the big-game artist who made collages and photographs of Kenya, and who survived being skewered by an elephant's tusk.
But although the notion of the Zoo as a compound of brutality is perhaps too easy an assumption, Zoo tells us that the arguments are not easy ones, reminding us of the challenging cruelties that may sometimes be found underlying the furtherance of science.
Originally written for a-n interface
Zoo finishes today at Meter Room, in Coventry.
Meter Room, 58-64 Corporation Street, Coventry, West Midlands, CV11GF