(ANIMAL ART) GA exclusive: Featured Blog Den contributor Claire Nettleton, Ph.D (ABD), shares her impressions of the art exhibit A Voyage of Growth and Discovery that ties themes of children, art, and animals. — Global Animal

LOS ANGELES – In an unassuming former self-storage building in Los Angeles, behind a lobby reminiscent of the dentist’s office in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), is a surprisingly massive and mind-blowing art exhibition. Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s A Voyage of Growth and Discovery exhibit is an exploration of the idea of childhood. I was particularly struck by the way in which Kelley’s installations fused together the concepts of children, animals and art.

At first, the exhibition puzzled me. These three typically positive concepts fit so well in a dark, ominous, warehouse-like environment.  Instead of A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, a more fitting title for the exhibition would be A Loss of Innocence.

Animals and children are often linked to the idea of innocence. The exhibition reveals the connection by featuring large structures, resembling those found in playgrounds, filled with stuffed animals. One of the exhibit’s installations is a metal dome, whose skeleton is made of monkey bars, with hundreds of stuffed animals glued to its floor. When I walked into the studio, a long-haired man was rolling around in the structure and petting the furry toys, challenging the taboo of adults playing with stuffed animals.

Children feel a kinship with animals that weakens as they become adults. They desire to be near animals, to pet them, play with them, talk to them and find out more about them. Animals in modern cities are typically limited to household pets and pests of the ‘vermin’ variety. Stuffed animals are  manufactured, plush substitutes that tame the childhood longing to be connected to other creatures. They can be easily disposed of as soon as puberty hits, à la The Velveteen Rabbit (1922).

Yet, this exhibition reminds us of that child-like longing, as described by John Berger (1980), animal theorist and art historian : “Nature thereby acquires the meaning of what has grown organically in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilization. At the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once again”.

Still untainted by the “artificial structures of human civilization,” children are perceived  in our society to possess that “human inwardness which has remained natural.” Some even say that children are closer to animals than adults because of their perceived lack of cunning, ruse or manipulation.

Another one of Kelley’s installations expresses the theme of  victimhood of both children and animals. A frightening, run-down van opens its doors to reveal a chair made of stuffed animals inside, as if to lure an unsuspecting child into the van. The innocence in a child that would be attracted to animals may also be unaware of the potential for evil. This work could therefore be an allusion to both child and animal abductions, thus actually warning its viewers about the dangers of being too naive.

For me, the exhibition reinforced the notion, established in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, that art serves to preserve images of animals, nature and child-like innocence.  As signs of wildlife become scarce in urban areas, animals become relegated to the field of art. The modern focus on animals is, in the words of Berger, “a monument to their disappearance.”

Paintings, films and art installations that feature animals are, in some ways, akin to toy stuffed animals. They are artificial representations of animals that may remind us of a childhood connection to other forms of life. This exhibition provoked a sense of lost innocence that we all hope to one day regain.

Claire Nettleton is completing her doctoral dissertation, “Primal Perception: The Artist as Animal in Nineteenth-Century France” at the University of Southern California. She has given talks on animals at conferences around the world.  A vegetarian since the age of 7, Claire seeks to challenge the assumption of human superiority, particularly in the fields of art and literature. She draws much of her inspiration from her cat, Odette.