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Of Beast and Man (Des bêtes et des hommes)
Group Exhibition Grande Halle de La Villette, Paris, France
Date: 2007

Artists: YANG Zhenzhong 杨振中 | 

Des bêtes et des hommes (Of Beast and Man)
Exhibition at the Grande Halle de La Villette, Paris
Spring 2007

Purpose of the exhibit

“Le jardin planétaire”, the most recent exhibition produced and run by the Parc de la Villette in 1999-2000, used the metaphor of the garden to explore the relationship between man and his environment. Now, “Des bêtes et des hommes” (Of Beast and Man) pursues and updates this exploration, focussing this time on the rapport between humans and animals.

This society-oriented exhibition, like the previous one, reaches out to all ages and backgrounds. The considerable presence of audiovisual materials, the importance of the role given to soundscapes and the animals featuring in the exhibition will make it appealing and accessible for all.

The target is to receive 350,000 visitors during the four and a half months of the exhibition.

The Project

Our project focuses on the way in which we initiate interactions with animals. That said, even though this perspective does mesh anthropology and ethology, we took a resolute decision to abandon some ways of working with these two domains whenever they were concretely expressed by the exhibits: first, we do not focus on representations, but on real, concrete relations, which we decided to explore by considering their contribution to both humans and animals. As an example of this angle; instead of asking the question of animal metaphors in symbolic terms, we attempt to understand when humans concretely learned from animals, and how animals impact on humans by acting as a model. Moreover, the exhibition goes well beyond the domain of ethology in the sense that first, we query other fields of knowledge and second, we focus on the effects of relation.

Thus, one of our occupations was to identify and assess those transformations which occurred to animals (and by the same token to humans) during recent times. We decided to consider the animal within the context of a post-Darwinian Western world, and whenever we refer to more "exotic" animals, it is with respect to the several types of "westernization" procedures of which they have been the subject: for example, become an original primate and reply to Western-world questions regarding man's ancestors. As another example, we look at how and if animals can be protected using a preservation model and biodiversity content which are definitively Western as regards choice and origin.

The first step in our approach consists in asking questions regarding classifications, by comparing, to further highlight the haphazard aspect, different ways to classify the living world, from the fantasy classification of Borges, to Linné, to other ways of classification used by other cultures. We pursue this approach by using a concrete example: that is, contrasts between the various ways which we use to envisage an organisation of the natural social world, with Darwin in one corner, and Kropotkine  in the other. Contrasting political projects certainly, but also colliding worlds which deserve to be compared and contrasted, and which reveal to us the plurality of nature. This sequence reminds us that we have often called on animals, particularly the great apes, to enlighten us regarding the history of our origins, to act as "models" as it were (which Freud " living fossils when referring to "savages").

This leads us to a third sequence which aims at correcting the previous "representation" aspect, and where we take concrete look at how animals have been used as models for human beings, and how they have inspired human technologies such as the chimpanzee pharmacopoeia, bird song, octopus evolution, or corporal models as support for our techniques.

To enter into the world of animals is the key issue in research on the environment, on the basis of which, we create a contrast between the different ways of getting to "know" animals with firstly, investigations of ways of entering into their world, acknowledging their similarities, understanding what counts for them; and secondly, a long Cartesian tradition which leads to behaviourist labyrinths or Harry Harlow's laboratory.

This sequence invites us to create an inventory of all animals skills, especially those skills which we considered, for a long time, specific to humans. Starting with the emblematic situation of the orang-utan, capable of tying knots, we investigate concrete situations involving culture, creating tools, social relations, cognitive skills, and so on.
This exploration will naturally lead to questions, which we consider essential regarding firstly, how things change for animals once we acknowledge that they have these skills, and secondly, conditions which foster this acknowledgement.

By taking a closer look at the great apes, we naturally ask ourselves new questions under a somewhat unusual angle: for example, can we consider that a laboratory ape, working with humans on questions such as language, animal/human rapports, and skills, is a real "employee", exercising a real profession? And indeed, this leads to further questioning regarding animal professions in general. For example, could it be considered that to be a house pet is a profession? What are the collaborations which establish themselves in work relations? And of course, the question of animal breeding is at this point inevitable. We will be looking at the associated scandals and injustices, but also at alternative, promising models.

The difficult question of animal breeding engenders further questioning regarding the unfairness of human/animal relations, injustice, suffering, and political and ethical proposals currently envisaged to resolve this unfairness. And we know that even if current solutions as expressed by charters and animal rights can be considered useful in limiting violence and barbarism, they do not constitute really solutions.

And indeed, as we discovered when preparing this exhibition, legislation does not resolve such conflicts, tending only to temporarily stabilise the situation: one species is protected, thereby threatening the extinction of another species, measures are taken, people feel hard done by and demand that the situation be reviewed. In other words, we note ongoing controversy and  prioritisation, leading to solutions which are always temporary, excessive success can sometimes lead to failure elsewhere. And indeed, there are conflicts aplenty: wolves in the Mercantour, bears in the French Alps, elephants, crows, vouchers, pigeons, and so on. In other words, we need to learn how to live together within a restricted space with frequently conflicting interests.

We consider these conflicts and the resulting arrangements a sign of what to expect in the future. Optimistic on the one hand with the originality of some solutions showing that our relation to animals has definitively changed: now we move marmots and crows, whereas a more expeditious solution would have been used in the past. Now we negotiate with animals, they too feature on the political agenda. Yet pessimistic too when one considers that some conflicts are resolved unfairly, to the detriment of local populations. This is particularly true with some Southern hemisphere countries which we ask to protect the environment against their own economic interests. Pessimistic too when one considers all those who disappear, leaving nothing but artificial reminders such as a picture, a sound recording or a stuffed copy.

The exhibit will combine a number of exhibition modes: a scientific investigation with interviews, texts, research photos, and objects; an exploration of practices, with reports from concerned parties such as animal trainers, breeders and general enthusiasts; original points of view from artists, animal photographers, object designers, video artists, and indeed all those who ask, in a manner different to that generally used, the question of what it means to be an animal, or to be in the situation of an animal.
And of course, the exhibition will include real animals, which leads us to the question of living together, in regards of which we are beginning to imagine solutions which are not simple alibis; but which respect the needs of animals.

Vinciane Despret

Set - Museography

The exhibition will cover the entire nave of the Grande Halle, that is, about 4000 m2.

Architect / Set designer Patrick Bouchain has imagined a set concept drawing on spaces and areas shared by man and animals alike, embracing the hut, the den, the tent and the earth hole.
This concept will translate as transparent and opaque structures, of varying size, shape and colour, designed, built and laid out in order to respect and enhance the architecture of the Grande Halle.

The structures will feature photos (Jane Evelyn Atwood, Antoine D’Agata, Masahisa Fukase, Candida Hofer…), plastic art works (Object Oriented Art, Carole Benzaken, Maurizio Cattelan, Gloria Friedmann, Rebecca Horn, Carsten H?ller, Tony Matelli, Panamarenko, Alain Séchas…), audiovisual and sound spaces, and… real animals: mynah birds, European otters, iguanas, bustards, vultures.

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