“In the beginning of all things.
wisdom and knowledge were with the animals;
for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly
to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed
himself through the beasts, and that from them,
and from the stars and the sun and the moon,
man should learn. Tirawa
spoke to man through
– Chief Letakots-Lesa of the Pawnee Tribe to Natalie Curtis, c. 1904
On ViewStudio 10
January 7 – February 5, 2017
Creation myths provide blueprints for their respective societies, on both a conscious and unconscious level. Lenore Malen, whose past work on utopian societies traverses history, in this exhibition takes us back to biblical Eden to ascertain where things went off the rails. Sadly, the piece where God gave humans dominion over the land and animals has unleashed our current mass extinctions and environmental apocalypse. Malen’s Eden is both dystopian and darkly humorous. An illustration from a medieval illuminated manuscript of Saint Augustine’s La Cité de Dieu by Maître François (ca. 1475), provided a springboard for Malen. Its upper half features Adam and Eve surrounded by animals, all planted up to their thighs in the earth. This scene of emergence may also be read in a more sinister way, as human and beast seem stuck in the mire. The lower half of the manuscript, showing Cronos eating his children and the devil carting away a corpse, reinforces the feeling of apocalyptic dread.
In Scenes from Paradise (2016), a single screen video edited down from a longer film sequence, Malen’s fly-covered Adam and Eve wear flesh-colored body suits with protruding ribs, giant merkins, and huge masses of underarm hair. In a voice quivering with existential angst, Eve questions an impassive sheep. Malen’s work is not about trying to communicate with animals as much as to understand the way humans, Westerners in particular, have anthropomorphized animals since Aristotle, and set up a false dichotomy between the human and animal realm. In Scenes from Paradise we return to Eden for a course correction, we have forgotten that we share the same web of life for survival. In some creation myths, things go amiss and the gods tear up the plan and begin again with another creation—if only we could.
For the Diné (Navajo), animals had a pedagogical role. Their creation story, the Blessingway Chant, tells how Coyote and Beaver showed man how to build the sacred Hogan in the form of a beaver lodge. This is true of many aboriginal creation myths as well—animals teach humans how they should behave. Malen’s talking white horse in the film Reversal (2016) addresses the United Nations in a strange reversed language with subtitles. This unknown tongue is a further reminder of the gulf that exists between animal and human communication. The horse’s speech with subtitles is adapted from Dilma Rousseff’s 2015 address to the U.N. General Assembly—where she denounced poverty and global atrocities committed by member nations—and includes a list of atrocities committed by humans against animals, ending with a declaration announcing the end of history—a poignant eulogy to a dying earth. Our heart sinks as the white horse is led offstage as if to be silenced or slaughtered.
The Reason of the Strongest is Always the Best (2016), whose title comes from La Fontaine’s fable The Wolf and the Lamb, is a hauntingly moving sequence in the artist’s trilogy. The title is also a term that has been quoted by political theorists: Derrida calls it a “violently tautological proposition.” In the video, four animals in pastel padded jumpsuits scramble over ancient boulders in Central Park, sometimes holding hands, like figures from the Dance of Death, a late medieval allegory, in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Behind them, skyscrapers act like a movie-set panorama as the animal headed figures move to a score reminiscent of a Fellini film. We emphasize with their silent bewilderment and plight, as they seem lost in this world of towering skyscrapers.
Another in the trilogy, So we’ll no more go a rowing by the light of the moon (2016) begins with a found YouTube video of a raven dying in an Australian gutter. Overhead we hear the cries of his or her fellow ravens, like the keening at a wake. Malen echoes this scene with performers dressed as ravens on a Brooklyn rooftop who imitate the ravens’ caws. We are left to wonder if our human flock would mourn the plight of a fallen comrade with such plaintiff cries. The scene feels like a lesson we have lost, in a desensitized world.
Lenore Malen is an artist of extraordinary intelligence, compassion, and depth. Her work bridges biology, ecology, philosophy, performance, political science, and a wide range of literature. Her work provides a fresh quirky take on cultural images that have been used to the point of cliché, making us feel we are seeing Eden or a talking horse for the first time. Malen’s work moves between humor and pathos with a lack of pretension and an almost childlike sense of wonder. Her exhibition is a must see as we stand on the edge of catastrophe.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.