"Zoo-Ethical Implications of Contemporary Performance Arts: Tajči Čekada’s She-boar and Trans-hare Meet Mary Britton Clouse’s Human-chicken Unison" by Suzana Marjanić
Suzana Marjanić is a research adviser at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb. Her research interests include theories of ritual and myth, animal studies and performance studies. She published books on Voices of “Bygone Days”: Transgressions of Worlds in Krleža’s Notes 1914-1921/22 (2005) and Chronotope of Croatian Performance Art (2014) that earned the Croatian Selection of AICA and the National Award for Science. She co-edited the collections Cultural Bestiary (2007) and its sequel Literary Animal (2012), The Folklore Studies Reader (2010), Mythical Anthology (2010), and Krleža’s EU/rope furiosum. She was also editor of a special issue of Treća devoted to human-animal studies and eco-feminism (2008/1/10). Email:
As Nikola Visković, the first zoo-ethicist of Croatian human-animal studies, pointed out, although the non-human’s symbolic value still has not been lost today, animals and nature have been reduced to the status of exploitable objects through what scholars of human-animal studies call a modern biological holocaust (Visković 1996). Already in his book Civilization and its Discontents, Freud regretted that “wild and dangerous animals have been exterminated” as an inevitable result of civilization’s human progress, and more recently the zoologist and psychologist Alan Bleakley warned of the tendency that “the more civilized the society, the worse are its attitudes towards animals” (He 2009, 397). Based on these ideas, my paper will explore the zoo-ethical thought in the oeuvre of two artists who are not familiar with each other’s work – the Rijeka-based Croatian multimedia artist Tajči Čekada and the Minnesota-based animal rights activist artist Mary Britton Clouse. Their works clearly correspond to the matrix of contemporary visual arts which has been defined as art for animals or animal rights art.
Tajči Čekada’s Gertrude the she-boar and the trans-species hare
The multimedia artist Tajči Čekada (Rijeka, Croatia, 1979) is introducing animals (a she-boar and a hare) as subjects of her two video performances, The Picnic (2013) and F to H, Run, Hare, Run (2014). In the latter performance, Čekada achieves the destabilization of her identity by becoming a mythical cyborg (see Marjanić 2004). In the two-channel video installation, She-Boar, He-Boar, the Meat, Dead Boar (2013) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvxr2BnsaAk), Čekada documents a picnic of herself accompanied by Gertrude, a huge she-boar of approximately 150 kilograms dressed in a white ballerina tutu. In the performance the human and animal actors seem to present a transspecies still-life tableau as animated statues nested in nature. Their artistic agenda is to reinterpret Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass, 1863), regarded in the history of art as a seminal masterpiece of modernism that realizes "the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape", as Émile Zola famously commented. In the video, Čekada and the she-boar are depicted at ease in nature, savoring various wild treats and sweets such as strawberries with cream, mignons, fruits, cake, and pudding; and occasionally sipping wine from silver glasses. Gertrude in particular enjoys the feast.
On the other side of this two-channel installation, as a counterpoint to the idyllic breakfast scene wherein the artist dwells in harmony with the she-boar Gertrude, spectators could firstly witness scenes of the ruthless slaughter of wild boars in the woods (images of hunting, shooting, hunters, and rifles), and secondly observe a depiction of the inhumane relationship of machinery and animals in the processing of boar meat. During the technologically enhanced industrial processing, the animal anthropomorphized in the performance is transformed into inanimate meat, and food items to be consumed by human meat eaters, and even into data by means of a specific transformation (from live being to slaughtered meat object) accompanying the process. (see Marjanić 2014, 1434, Šimunović 2016, 71).
In the title of her next video performance F to H, Run, Hare, Run (2014), F to H is an abbreviation of the shape-shifting from female to hare, throughout which Čekada adopts a prefix used in a popular abbreviation for gender transitioning used to describe transsexual people undergoing hormone replacement therapy and/or sexual reassignment surgery to fix the incompatibility between their biological body and lived sexual/gender identity. In popular terminology, the process of change from physically female to male is abbreviated as F to M or as F2M, while the change from male to female is known as M to F, or M2F. Accordingly, the author named her transspecies (from human woman to hare) and transgender (from female to male) transformation F to H, H standing for hare. It is important to note that the artist does not use the terms animal (non-human) male and animal (non-human) female in a sense of speciesism, but to denote both human and non-human gender, similarly to the animal rights activist and feminist Joan Dunayer.
According to Čekada, one of the major sources of inspiration for the idea of this performance came from transsexual persons. She claims to have worked with trans people all the time, and having heard this term quite often, made a silly joke on it. “Every time when I put make up on them (trans people) to get them ready for all those gatherings and parties, I told them that I will go with them next time, and that they should introduce me to their friends as an F to H person.” She also explains the significance of the choice of the biological denomination: “The term hare, instead of rabbit was in order not to get confused with cute little rabbits and especially not she-rabbits, like Hefner’s Playboy bunnies. That is why the rabbit has to be male, that is a hare from the woods!” (Čekada in Marjanić 2014, 1510). Obviously, the hare also reminds art lovers of Joseph Beuys’s neo-avant garde performance/action in which he explained pictures in a museum to a dead hare, inaudible to the audience behind a glass panel. The questions raised by Čekada’s trans-species transformation performance belong to a zoo-ethical register:
How did Beuys’ rabbit die? Did he have it killed for the performance or did he find it next to the highway, as some people claim? Did he perhaps buy it at the butcher’s? How did Dürer paint his magnificent portrait of a forest rabbit? Did he sketch it in the woods and subsequently create the painting using a dead rabbit; or did he keep it alive in his studio while making the portrait? (Čekada in Marjanić 2014, 1510).
Čekada deems these dilemmas essential for a thorough understanding of Beuys’ action featuring a dead hare and Dürer’s famous still-life portrait of a hare, but also admits that she does not have the ultimate answers – suggesting that humans may never fully comprehend animals’ lived experiences.
The first phase of Čekada’s multi-day video performance was the visit to the dentist Tea Antončić, who created rabbit teeth for her at a dental clinic in Rijeka. This was followed by her vestimentary transformation into a rabbit, which involved putting on a black hat with long hare ears, an artificial fur coat as an homage to Joseph Beuys the shaman artist, and in the end big round glasses, which Čekada saw as “additional instruments in achieving that particular style of a wise, old, and old-fashioned hare”. The artist used antique, more than sixty-year-old glasses she had fixed by an optometrist just for this performance. She admits that her first subconscious association was probably the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, a creature who is always late, acts as a psychopomp, and has similar glasses in several illustrations. The glasses as an antique vestimentary attribute helped her in not looking contemporary but rather passé and also assisted in suppressing her femininity, giving the performance a comic, asexual note, which was another main goal. (Čekada in Marjanić 2014b, 29).
Čekada presented this trans-species and transgender transformation at the Performance festival of MMC, to which she also invited the painter Andrea Knežević. The video recording of this event (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcuHNntLQBg) shows Čekada’s final retreat into a winter forest, treading in the footsteps of Beuys’s shamanistic tradition, while embracing a transition towards quadrupedalism. Finally the human hare is hopping off into the forest accompanied by the music of Josip Maršić.
In the context of this transspecies modification, it is important to point out an interspecies co-dependence. In her “Riding: Embodying the Centaur,” Ann Game highlighted that, while riding a horse, both the horse and its human rider unite in a co-creative process, where the rider also becomes a part of the horse. Game is recycling the concept of becoming-animal introduced by French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari to explore through a phenomenological study of horse-human relations how as embodied beings we live relationally rather than as separate entities. Game tracked back the connection between humans and animals to mythological roots, focusing on the example of the hybrid, half-human, half-horse centaur. (see Blackman 2008). Mythical in-between beings are also known in folkloric imaginaries, featuring fantastic human-animal creatures like those of South Slavic legends who have human features coupled with animal hoofs (belonging to goats, donkeys, ox, or horses, depending on the regional availability of the animal). In a way, these chimeric subjects recall Donna Haraway’s mythical cyborgs “who appear in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed.” (see Haraway 1985). The artist stresses the significance of her hybrid sources of inspiration: for example, in a part of the performance called “Portraying the hare,” the painter Andrea Knežević is creating Čekada’s portrait and hence is directly referring to the famous Renaissance observational art piece, Albrecht Dürer’s hyperrealistic portrait of a young hare. A strategic combination of “conscious, subconscious and instinctive” allusions simultaneously evokes the dead hare from Beuys’s action – and more specifically a “powerful, popular, ubiquitous” photo from that performance called by some critics ‘the Mona Lisa of the twentieth century’ – and the living hare from Dürer’s painting, both paid homage to by Čekada’s human-hare (Šimunović 2016, 69).
In her latest work, called Eko-eko ljudsko mlijeko (Eco-Eco human milk), 2017, Tajči Čekada produced dairy products, like bread spreads or soft cheese, from human maternal milk. The first part of the video depicts the collection of the milk from the donor women, featuring explicit images of lactating mothers pumping their breastmilk with the help of a manual device, then inscribing their names on the milk bottles the artist collects in her portable refrigerator. The second part of the video performance shows how the artist – intent on problematizing the abuse of living bodies and the non-consensual commodification of bodily fluids – makes dairy products from the human maternal milk she gathered, following the instructions of skilled goat farmers, dairy-product producers Armano and Marijana Jeričević.
The products are labeled with logos to stress the transformation of corporeal material entities into consumer products. The label reads “eco-friendly human milk” and the commodity is advertised with slogans such as “The only distinctively human milk!” The campaign included posters, banners, and leaflets, in line with the marketing principles of the increasingly competitive dairy industry. Čekada admitted that a major source of inspiration for this project was the sudden arrival of consumer society to Croatia after the fall of the socialist regime.
She recalls how the “dairy giants” initiated a hunt for consumer victims, primarily targeting children, who constitute a vulnerable target group since they depend on adult caretakers who aim to satisfy their needs while educating them to become proper consumers. “The milk propaganda” served the financial interests of factories like Dukat or Vindija’s by “spreading an abundance of untruths and lies.” The artist criticizes the manipulative propaganda lines, such as “Healthy every morning!” and “Healthy for your child!”, which sustain the myth of accessible well-being while serving capitalist interests. Čekada feels hostile to these slogans, since she firmly doubts if the idea that milk from other species is a necessary part of human diet.
She shot the third part of the video at an organic market in Rijeka, where she was present at her own market stall, offering promotional materials of human dairy products to the interested public. She offered her products by the side of the Jeričevićs, who were selling their own (goat dairy) goods. The aim of this human-animal product parallel was to document how products made from animal milk are sold, taken, eaten, and tasted in a much quicker and more unproblematic manner than the products made from human milk, which surely disgust many people. The artist finds it surprising how food products made from animal body fluids, flesh, or interiors are fully acceptable to humans as part of their everyday lives, whereas the more natural nourishment, the products made from the milk of their own species, provokes horror and disgust. This illustrates the double standard for the commodification of human vs non-human bodies.
“In the US, laws stipulate that all schools must provide children with milk for each meal or, if not, the schools will stop receiving subsidies, thus the government is basically threatening schools with cutting funding. Those responsible for this statute chose to ignore, among many others, the fact that up to 90% of African American, 70% of Asian, and 15% of Caucasian children cannot digest lactose. The dairy industry is subsidized with up to three billion dollars a year.” (Čekada) This illustrates the ethnocentric, marginalizing short-sightedness of food politics and the exclusionary ideology permeating state subsidiary system.
The “chicken art” of the animal rights activist artist Mary Britton Clouse
While Čekada, has not gained preeminence so far on the global art scene, the artist Mary Britton Clouse is discussed in Steve Baker’s seminal book Artist / Animal (2013), along with other artists problematizing ethical and aesthetic issues of humanimal life, including Catherine Bell, Mary Britton Clouse, Mircea Cantor, Catherine Chalmers, Sue Coe, Britta Jaschinski, Eduardo Kac, Lucy Kimbell, Olly and Suzi, and Angela Singer. Baker’s most pertinent zoo-ethical questions are the following: “Can a contemporary artist be trusted with animals, living, or dead? Can they be trusted to act responsibly, ethically, when their work engages with questions of animal life?” (2013, 1).
Unlike Baker, many advocates of the animal rights movement condemned the transgenic art of Eduardo Kac and his GFP Bunny, also called Alba, a transgenic artwork that comprised the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit through genetic engineering. Baker praised Kac’s work as iconic, beyond mere sensationalism, a provocative piece that allows for in-depth reflections on the complex relationships of co-dependence and/or exploitation existing between humans and non-human animals. For Baker a decisive prerequisite of the animal art works he studies is that they never reduce animals to the status of zoometaphors, zoosymbols, or zooallegories, but rather dare to “directly confront questions of animal life, treating animals not as aesthetic objects or as symbols of the human condition but rather the beings who actively share the world with humanity” (Cronin). This idea resonates well with Haraway’s “companion species” notion even if the distinctions between represented (art objet) and representor (artist) cannot be fully left behind.
Baker claims that the issue of ethics must not be regarded as superior to aesthetics, and conceives of the two as not dichotomous but interdependent considerations. These relations between ethics and aesthetics could be put along the line of a variety of philosophers ranging from Lenin, who prophesied that “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future,” and Laurie Anderson, who agreed that “Ethics is the Aesthetics of the Few(ture)” (Goldberg 2003, 154) to Wittgenstein heralding that “Ethics and aesthetics are one!” (Martek 2002, 34-35).
In his book Artist/Animal (2013) – his third work in the interdisciplinary field of visual animal studies combining aesthetic with ethnographic and posthumanist philosophical agenda – art historian Steve Baker studies postmodern animal imagery in artistic engagements with non-human beings’ life and death struggle to assert art’s power to open up new ways of thinking about animals by reconsidering the symbolical and exploitative relation between humans and non-humans. He carefully considers zoo-ethical implications of controversial shock-art pieces like Kim Jones’s 1976 Rat Piece, in which the Vietnam war-veteran shaman artist ritually set on fire three live rats to address themes of destruction, pain, and healing, or Catherine Bell’s more recent performance Felt is the Past Tense of Feel (2006), in which she ate raw squids to purge with the animals’ black ink the trauma caused by losing her father to cancer. Oddly, in Baker’s interpretation, these artworks might be more about kinship than difference between human and non-human entities, despite the violence involved in the intimate interactions. The ethically-aware aesthete is neither idiot, nor voyeur, nor moralist, but an attentive and righteous witness to interspecies dialogues of postmodern times.
Such a dialogue is carried out by bird-lover Mary Briton Clouse, who has been photographing chickens and hens with whom she shares her home since 2000. As a visual artist she condemns the use of animals as inanimate art objects for the shock value. Her urban chicken rescue organization started with an installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that included two live chickens, Mabel and Scout, who were to hang in a cage on a wall for the duration of the exhibit. Clouse, along with local animal rights activists, mounted a vigorous campaign and had the birds removed from the show. Clouse has been protesting art that harms or exploits animals ever since, but she has also been involved in the rescuing of domestic fowl that became victims of neglect, abused as a source of eggs, intended for slaughter, fighting, or ritual sacrifice, or abandoned as hobby animals that no longer hold interest.
In her photo series titled Portraits / Self-Portraits, Britton Clouse presented what Baker called an “accidental juxtaposition of chicken head and human face” (2013, 113) meant to express “how alike we are.” Highly influential for her art, the Justice for Animals Association Guild (JAAG) was founded in 2000 (the same year Baker published his seminal book The Postmodern Animal in which he thematized the botched taxidermy) with the intent to promote the prevention of cruelty and degradation of living animals in contemporary art practice. The society urges artists to consider animals real, unique, individual living beings with equal rights instead of metaphoric embodiments of ideas, decorative subject matter, or disposable objects. Briton Clouse’s intimate relation to animals is similar to Čekada’s insofar as it embraces a Deleuzian logic of “becoming animal”: experimenting, throughout confessional performances’ self-definitions, with multiplication, contagion, deterritorialisation, and animal-anomalies. “Becoming” is identified with being, and co-habitation belongs to a collective interspecies identity. The oxymoronic animal-anomalous human self is realized on the borderline between animal and human – evocative of a shamanistic, ritualistic, liminal positionality (cf. Baker 2000: 148-149, Baker 2002: 74 ).
Through these anomalies, both Čekada and Britton Clouse invest their work with zoo-ethical dimensions. Čekada raises the question of how Dürer and Beuys obtained the dead rabbit for their work and thus appropriated nature for their cultural artistic purposes, and how a live animal becomes dead meat destined to be digested by human flesh; while Mary Britton Clouse reminds us that domestic animals may share our human household or habitat but are often not (just) beloved pets (or companions/ companion animals/ companion non-humans, as animal rights academics would say/write) but abused “underdogs of all underdogs,” a fate they do not deserve as trusting companion species to the increasingly isolated humankind.
List of Figures
- Figure 1: Tajči Čekada: video performance The Picnic (2013), part of the two-channel video installation She-Boar, He-Boar, the Meat, Dead Boar (2013)
- Figure 2. Tajči Čekada: transgender, transspecies video performance F to H, Run, Hare, Run, 2014.
- Figure 3. Albrecht Dürer: Young Hare, 1502.
- Figure 4. Joseph Beuys: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf, 1965.
- Figure 5. Mary Britton Clouse: Nemo – Portrait/Self Portrait, 2005
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- Baker, Steve. 2013. Artist/Animal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Blackman, Lisa. 2008. The Body. The Key Concepts. Oxford – New York: Berg.
- Britton Clouse, Mary. 2007. “How Chicken Run Rescue Hatched.” Animal Rights Coalition News. https://www.upc-online.org/winter2007/clouse.html
- Britton Clouse, Mary. 2009. “For the Wonderful Chicken.” Interviewed by Annie Potts. United Poultry Concern (https://www.upc-online.org/thinking/framed-clouse.html).
- Coe, Sue. 1996. Dead Meat. New York, London: Four Walls Eight Windows.
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