This spring, the natural world has invaded Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain in more ways than one. There’s “Zoo,” which opened on May 24, a significant group show of national and international names addressing the depiction of animals in art. And last week, there was a flood in the museum’s basement, which put hundreds of stored artworks in jeopardy (although none were lost irretrievably) and forced the institution to close temporarily. The gallery’s tentative reopening date is June 12.
Noah’s ark jokes aside, “Zoo” also marks a kind of flood: a deluge of the multiple and often troubling ideas around humanity’s relationship with other species, and an inundation of the styles and aesthetics, often from big contemporary-art figures, associated with these ideas. Sculptor David Altmejd has produced a dramatic piece for the exhibition: one of his vitrine works, in this instance housing zebras whose stripes appear to be in the process of being flayed off. Other artists in the show are Ai Weiwei, Shary Boyle, Mark Dion, Nathalie Djurberg, Jason Dodge, Trevor Gould, Renée Green, Rachel Harrison, Mona Hatoum, Pierre Huyghe, Matthew Day Jackson, Brian Jungen, Liz Magor, Ugo Rondinone, Kevin Schmidt, David Shrigley, Kiki Smith, Haim Steinbach and Jana Sterbak.
Canadian Art held a phone conversation with MACM chief curator Marie Fraser about “Zoo” in April, in advance of its installation. During it, Fraser discussed the genesis of the project and its theoretical underpinnings—including the curious, fascinating affinities between museums and zoos.
David Balzer: How did “Zoo” come about?
Marie Fraser: I’ve had the idea in mind for many years. I remember visiting an exhibition with MACM director Paulette Gagnon and we were discussing how the animal is present in contemporary art, and how a lot of Canadian and international artists are dealing with relationships between human and animal. There’s a lot of philosophy that has been published over the past few years that rethinks this relationship. I thought it would be interesting to do an exhibition on this theme.
I think it’s interesting to see that the zoo, the concept of it, which is an act of collecting, of classification and of exhibiting animals, has a very close relationship with the concept of the museum, which also involves acts of collecting and exhibiting. It’s an institutional structure that represents our world in a certain way. The relationship between the zoo and the museum is important in this exhibition.
DB: Yet in 2012, we think of the zoo as kind of an antiquated notion, a Victorian throwback—and cruel.
MF: Yes, the idea of the zoo has changed over the last century. Before, it was more of a research space; now, it’s been completely integrated into the society of the spectacle. It’s important to go back to this first idea of the zoo, where the human is investigating its relationship to the animal.
DB: But isn’t there also a spectacular element to “Zoo,” with its big names and its positioning as the MACM’s summer group show?
MF: Well, it’s a blockbuster for the museum, for sure. But we don’t have to take it at that first level. It’s not a funny exhibition. There are some questions that need to be asked now about animals and our relationship to the environment. These are questions that contemporary artists are doing a good job of addressing.
DB: So it’s not family-friendly, then?
MF: I do think it’s important for kids and families to be able to look at how our own history has determined our relationship to the animal in a certain way. Do you know the philosopher Giorgio Agamben? He’s an Italian anarchist, and as important now as Lyotard or Derrida was 10 or 20 years ago. He published a book called, in French, L’ouvert. That was one of the orientations we wanted to give to the exhibition. Agamben wants to go back to the origins of our definition of the animal—from the point of view of the human—because the only history of the animal that we know is written by humans.
We know that other cultures have other relationships with animals; “Zoo” is from the Western point of view, which, I believe, is very problematic. From Aristotle to the 20th century, the animal has always been defined by the negative, always in relationship with the human—as a means to define what the human is, instead of the animal. I think if we change our discourse around the animal, and we are better able to integrate into our culture the rights of the animal, we can have another relationship with nature entirely.
This interview has been edited and condensed.