With Colleen Plumb’s animals, the surprise is part of the point: Wherever they appear, they are utterly out of context. Plumb has projected videos of rhythmically swaying elephants on a graffitied wall behind the Chicago River, across the opaque spray of an Oregon waterfall, and against a Parisian apartment building.
More recently the projections have depicted not just pachyderms, but a whole menagerie. Beginning last week, as visitors to the Photography Show approached Pier 94, they were greeted by lush, 16-by-22-foot shots of velvety elephant skin across the entry façade and a 7-foot-tall pacing tiger, its 6-inch paws thudding down just across the doorway. Fairgoers passed through flickering likenesses of giraffes licking walls, a polar bear rocking against its stone enclosure, a beaver swimming back and forth, its paw resting momentarily on the glass of its tank. Throughout the night, Path Infinitum, Plumb’s new project, greeted late-night joggers and taxi passengers heading home along the West Side Highway.
Since 2014, when the now 47-year-old Chicago native began to project Thirty Times a Minute, Plumb’s elephants have traveled the country, from her Miami gallery to the Portland Art Museum. She’s also headed into cities and natural habitats from waterfalls to snowfields guerrilla-style, with zero permission from governing entities. A security guard asked her to back away from the financial plaza she projected on in Chicago; the Paris police scared her off. Last fall she wandered New York: Elephants appeared to march along the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge and wove among the columns of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace Arcade. She’s gotten skilled at packing her projector very quickly. “Every time I do it, I’m nervous,” she says.
In New York — where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its elephants last spring, the Bronx Zoo contends with backlash about elephants in captivity, and local courts hear arguments about the habeas corpus rights of caged animals — Plumb’s in-your-face lyricism highlights an increasingly populated realm of contemporary art. A new crop of artists is harvesting the anxieties of animal rights activism to create conceptual art on an immense scale, pushing human viewers into strange and vulnerable territory.
The diversity of recent artworks about animals is broad. The pieces might be big and rich: Just witness Plumb’s projections or Duke Riley’s Fly by Night, a 2016 performance of two thousand trained LED-wearing pigeons that sent the flock swirling into the evening sky above the East River. Or they can be granular, as in Mark Dion’s Bird Libraries, enormous cages into which visitors are invited to cohabit with a tree, hunting and birding paraphernalia, a collection of books on ornithology, science, and biology, and twenty or so live birds — zebra finches, yellow canaries, African finches — varying based on where the library is installed. They might be performative, as for example the elaborate feasts Dana Sherwood assembles for wild animals: a terrine of hot dogs, beef, marrow bones, and Spam for coyotes, or layer cakes and similar confections made of birdseed and left out in meticulously researched wild habitats to be devoured by the local fauna as a hidden video camera records. Whatever their form, these works derive much of their power from placing humans in strange and uncertain positions: as voyeurs, interlopers, or participants in an animal’s conversion from creature to abstraction.
If a common thread unites such pieces, it’s the notion of control, or the lack thereof: human control over animals, animal resistance to control, an artist’s control over his or her medium. “All the fine details of meticulous planning for years and years, working on a project [in which] ultimately, at the end, there’s elements of the unknown,” says Riley. “There are things that a bird is going to do because it’s a bird. It ultimately acts out of its own free will.”
And the interaction between manmade structures, technologies, customs, and the natural world animates them. Riley’s pigeons are doing a human’s bidding; Sherwood’s banquets invite animals to devour human-like dishes. Plumb uses entirely human technological advances — recording devices, a projector, various screens that enable her to project during daylight hours — to mimic the sense of wonder and intimidation, that strange cocktail we humans feel when looking at enormous animals.
If the activism animates the art, it’s happening the other way around, too. Last autumn, Brooklyn’s International Studio and Curatorial Program presented a talk in conjunction with the show “The Animal Mirror”; Finnish artist Terike Haapoja had invited attorney Steven Wise to join her in conversation. “I’ve been following your work for a really long time, and I feel like my art, as well as many other people’s art, have really been affected by the possibilities that your practice has shown,” said Haapoja, whose work blends art and research for projects that use images, videos, books, and lectures to explore the history and consequences of the distinction between humans and other animals.
Last month, Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project presented oral arguments on behalf of two chimpanzee clients, advocating for their right to fundamental bodily liberty via habeas corpus; next month, three circus elephants will take a turn. Among the many affidavits to be presented in support of the inherent cruelty of caging elephants, Plumb’s videos were solicited for the same trait that lends Thirty Times a Minute its power: its obsessive repetition of the elephants’ movements. Against so many backgrounds, on so many scales, the elephants exhibit the same behavior.
But though the artistic and the activist may occasionally dovetail, advocacy is not, in the end, Plumb’s goal. “People can read about the intricacy [of stereotypic behavior] if they want. The big thing,” she says, “is that, projecting these in the street, or in Grand Tetons, people paused — they’re so stunned by it. ‘What is that?’ And that is really exhilarating.”