February 24–May 28, 2012

Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination

  • Chief Curator Mark Scala discusses Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination

  • Patricia Piccinini. The Long Awaited, 2008. Silicone, fiberglass, human hair, leather, plywood, fabric; 59 7/8 x 31 ½ x 36 ¼ in. Collection of Penny Clive. Courtesy of the Artist. Photography by Graham Baring

  • Meghan Boody. In a Garden So Green, 1998. Cibachrome; 53 x 56 in. Edition of 12. Private Collection, New York. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art

  • NPT Arts Break about the Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination exhibition

  • Mark Hosford. Haunting 3, 2008. Digital video disc. Courtesy of the artist

  • Trenton Doyle Hancock. Vegans do Their Dirtiest Work, 2002. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas; 16 x 20 in. Private Collection
    © Trenton Doyle Hancock, courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

  • Andre Ethier. Untitled, 2007. Oil on wood, 20 x 16 in. Private Collection, New York. © Andre Ethier, image courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery

Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination is an exhibition of works by contemporary artists who invent humanlike, animal, or hybrid creatures to symbolize life’s mysteries, desires, and fears.  Finding inspiration in sources ranging from Aesop’s Fables to the products of genetic experimentation, the artists in the exhibition examine interactions between nature and humanity in the context of oral and written lore, psychology, ethics, and visions of the future in both science and science fiction. The exhibition will include approximately 60 contemporary paintings, photographs, sculptures, and video works.

Please note: Works in this exhibition address mature themes not suitable for all audiences. 
 

This exhibition is organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and curated by Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala. 

The exhibition will travel to Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba, Canada: June 15–Sept. 9, 2012, and to the Glenbow Art Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Sept. 28–Jan. 2, 2013.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog published by Vanderbilt University Press.

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Content from the Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination Gallery Guide

This exhibition includes contemporary artworks inspired by fantastic stories in which the boundaries between human and animal are blurred. Whether in mythology, fairy tales, or science fiction, these stories and their wondrous characters are often thought of as children’s entertainment. But as the artists in this exhibition demonstrate, while the novelty of invented creatures makes them delightful or frightening, they also have a serious dimension; they can cause us to reconsider our notions of what it means to be human. This takes on a new immediacy today, when scientists are able to conceive new species by mixing and matching existing genetic material. For the artists in this exhibition, the hybrid body—whether imagined or potentially real—expresses hidden desires, ancient fears, the intrigue of transformation, and the wonderful irrationality of life’s paradoxes.

Fairy Tales
Many people feel spiritually, genetically, or emotionally linked to animals, finding in them mirrors of humanity. 

This connection is especially evident among young children and seen in the popularity of pets, cartoons, and stuffed toys. Children, of course, also love fairy tales, especially those with talking animals or people who take on the characteristics of the animals whose behavior most resembles their own—fearful people become jumpy like rabbits, sly people have fox-like eyes. But fairy tales are not just child’s play. 

Amy Stein's Watering Hole

They are sugar-coated life lessons, used to educate children about the ways of the world and to advise them of the consequences of thoughtlessness or bad behavior, which may include being eaten, molested, or carried away. They are also meant to keep children from embracing the wildness in themselves. In Amy Stein’s Watering Hole (2005, Fig. 1, right) a bear and young girl stare at each other with what we imagine to be fascination—does each wonder what it would be like to be the other? In the photograph, the dream of such an exchange remains unfulfilled. Yet this powerful, mutual attraction—this empathy between species—sets the tone for other works in the exhibition in which human and animal are joined.

The use of animal characteristics and hybrids as metaphors for human behavior is an inheritance from ancient times, as exemplified in such moralizing classics as Aesop’s Fables. Although marginalized by dominant Western beliefs—in both science and religion—that humans are above animals, as early as the seventeenth century the didactic use of what has been termed “the animalizing imagination”1 was gaining a new foothold in the area of children’s education. In 1697, Charles Perrault adapted traditional stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty” to provide moral lessons to the impressionable young.2 Later, the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney promoted the idea that desirable traits—honesty, humility, thrift, cleverness—enable a story’s heroes to overcome adversity. But in addition to values that we still consider to be positive, fairy tales have often reinforced beliefs that are now discredited, such as male superiority and the natural goodness of the ruling class.

This dichotomy is evident in the two tendencies in fairy-tale inspired art in this exhibition. The first involves critical re-evaluations of well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes that convey overt messages of danger and often hidden reflections of attitudes we today might consider unjust. Marcel Dzama, Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, Paula Rego, Tom Sachs, and Kiki Smith consider how stories from “Mother Goose” to “Little Red Riding Hood” have embedded seeds of fear in young children as a way of keeping them in line, whether through the image of a farmer’s wife with a huge knife3 or the big, bad wolf, as in Kiki Smith’s Born (2002).4 Divesting fairy tales of “happy-ever-after” endings, they embrace the notion held by such psychologists as Bruno Bettelheim that such stories help individuals cope with unexplained urges from within and dangers from without.5 The second tendency in fairy-tale recreation involves the invention of modern day parables that are not derived from past examples, but  still function as metaphors for negotiating tricky pathways through life. Inspired narratives by Meghan Boody, Kate Clark, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Allison Schulnik depict composite creatures as symbols of the complex self, shown as one type of creature in the process of being transformed into another.

Monsters
Such transformation leads to marvels, some of which can be characterized as monsters. The word “monster” is rooted in the Latin moneo, meaning “I warn” or “I advise.” Monsters have fulfilled complex functions throughout history. The monster as a marker of the unknown extends back through Greek mythology, with Cerberus, Cyclops, and Medusa; and medieval Europe, with its trolls, ogres, werewolves, and witches. With their horrible appearances and violent impulses, they are conceived as punishers of behavior that deviates from parental teachings, religious beliefs, or social norms. Before scientists began to understand genetics, people born with physical anomalies were often thought of as being monstrous, or at least bearers of physical evidence of sinfulness. Throughout history, xenophobic cultures have often painted “the outsider” as corrupting, evil, and monstrous, as seen in offensive caricatures of gypsies, Jews, Blacks, or any other group that a fearful people might find it useful to cohere against.

The monster as an expression of both personal and societal darkness is pronounced in Francisco de Goya’s famous etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which shows demons in the form of bats and owls ominously hovering over a sleeping man. This was created in 1799, at the height of the Enlightenment, when irrationality and superstition were understood to be forces holding back humanity. Yinka Shonibare’s own version, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America) (2008), reflects the monstrosities unleashed under the aegis of the Enlightenment in Goya’s own time and after: racism, slavery, colonialism, economic exploitation, and other blights of Western history.

Other contemporary artists also use monsters to symbolize society’s darker impulses. Inka Essenhigh’s Brush with Death (2004) shows the war in Iraq as a snarling demon seeking to ensnare the artist’s sprite-like husband, who in real life has embedded himself with troops in order to authentically portray their experiences. Cindy Sherman concerns herself with historical and cultural representations that have been used to control or repress women. Her work in this exhibition evokes a witch, whose vile features offer gross parodies of sexual and other appetites. Such archetypes of the “monstrous feminine” are widely understood in feminist theory as fear-mongering mechanisms for maintaining patriarchal rule in Western culture, past and present.

But the invention of monsters is not only driven by the desire to provoke fear of the unknown that lurks outside the walls; monsters also may represent aspects of the inner life—irrational thoughts, pathologies, sexual conflicts—that are repressed by the iron hand of reason. David Altmejd’s Untitled (Man’s Hard Idea Comes Out of His Head) (2007) reminds us of the Surrealist’s desire to reveal humanity’s primal or animal essences as a way of exposing contradictions in the mind and in society, while proposing a completeness that can only be attained by recognizing the power of the irrational. Clad in a business suit, shirt, and tie, this rooster-headed figure glares out with the calculating eye of a predator measuring the distance to his prey. But the bird is less an expression of evil than a hallucination of nature’s amorality projected from within the depths of man: in the business of maintaining a pecking order, men are not so different from birds. In this gaudy creature, the boundaries between reason and instinct dissolve.

Altmejd’s composite being evokes the story of Frankenstein, the classic cautionary tale about the unpredictable consequence of collaging body parts. If a monster like the one composed by Dr. Frankenstein is a one-off, all we need do is destroy it. But we often see and read science fiction in which monsters have the capacity to breed, spelling possible doom for humanity. Frankenstein’s monster asks the doctor to make for him a mate. Afraid of the horrors he might unleash if the two managed to procreate, Frankenstein refuses, perhaps saving humanity. This Pandora’s-box theme taps into our greatest fears about unfettered scientific experimentation. If we can create new life forms, can we also keep them from spreading? Such films as Jurassic Park and Godzilla portray monsters run amok as the ill-considered consequences of technology, which become threats to human survival in part because of their ability to reproduce. As in the story of Godzilla, Ashley Bickerton’s human-headed monsters can be seen as intelligent mutations, which perhaps arose as a consequence of such human folly as radiation poisoning or the dumping of chemical waste. Not knowing the circumstances of these creatures’ origins, how can we be sure that there are not more, many more? How can we know what they want and how can we prevent their spread? All we do know is that they are frightening and that they are our offspring and kin, mirrors and extenders of our own dangerous tendencies.

The Genetic Imagination
While monster imagery has traditionally conveyed humanity’s darkest aspects, today many artists reconfigure the notion of monstrosity to express empathy and identification with the outsider. They sometimes challenge the ancient linkage of ugliness with evil, as Charlie White does in Getting Lindsey Linton (2001), from a series of photographs showing a misshaped neurotic named Joshua trying to navigate his way through contemporary relationships. This photograph shows the forlorn little misfit being forced to witness a group of young men attacking a pretty young woman by pouring milk over her head, a thinly veiled allusion to the mob mentality behind gang rape.  Here, we see clearly that monstrosity is a measure of behavior, not appearances.

Other artists consider the wondrous possibilities opened up by science’s capacity to fashion chimeras, a word derived from a hybrid monster in Greek mythology that had the body of a goat, head of a lion, and tale of a serpent, but which today refers to biologically engineered organisms. Research into cloning, stem cells, intelligent prostheses, the transplantation of animal organs and cells into humans, and varying degrees of genetic modifications have made the bodily metamorphosis that was once only imagined into a present and future reality.

Suzanne Anker and Aziz + Cucher consider potential directions for human life in its most elemental aspect. Named for a nineteenth-century evolutionary parable called “Water Babies,” Anker’s photographs show fetuses in various stages of development. For her, these roughly formed specimens represent life as a cycle from birth to death that always holds the possibility of transformation into new forms. Aziz + Cucher’s Chimera series shows abstracted figures sheathed in human skin and hair, but with no other feature that might identify them as human; no sexual characteristics, faces, arms, or legs. These mammalian amoeboids suggest the exciting potential of raw, organic matter that has been cultured in the bio-lab, which might become anything we can imagine.

 

Images of mutated or hybrid beings by Janaina Tschäpe and Saya Woolfalk also offer optimistic alternatives to natural biology as a force shaping what life may yet become. Tschäpe’s Polaroids show wonderful new species that resemble nineteenth-century fairy pictures, which portrayed the supernatural little creatures as mergers of human and insect. Inspired by the abundant flora and fauna of the Brazilian rain forest, Woolfalk has created an entire world of new life forms that are governed by a radically inverted set of natural laws.

Piccinini's The Long Awaited

A more cautionary note is struck by Patricia Piccinini, who warns not of a Pandora’s Box of unleashed genetic horrors, but of our own unpreparedness in dealing ethically and humanely with the results of our scientific adventurism. In works such as The Long Awaited (2008, Fig. 2, right) Piccinini places play and nurture over fear and rejection, suggesting that our own future creations might ask the same questions that haunt Frankenstein’s monster: Why was I made? Who will love me? What is my destiny?

These mysteries, of course, mimic our own. We can only wonder and speculate, or perhaps ask God for answers and receive silence; in the future, how will we answer our own creations as they move from fiction into reality?

Mark Scala, Chief Curator

Notes:
1. A term used by Gaston Bachelard in Lautréamont (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1986), 27, and discussed by Alan Bleakley in The Animalizing Imagination (Hampshire: Macmillan, 2000).  
2. See Charles Perrault, Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697).
3. While scholarship about its origins remains inconclusive, it has been suggested that “Three Blind Mice” is a commentary on England’s Mary I, “Bloody Mary,” who had three noblemen executed for plotting against her.
4. Traditionally understood as a cautionary tale about predatory men and young girls.
5. See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Random House, 1975; repr., New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 31.

 

Fig. 1. Amy Stein. Watering Hole, 2005. C-print, 38 x 45 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist and Brian Clamp Gallery
Fig. 2. Patricia Piccinini. The Long Awaited, 2008. Silicone, fiberglass, human hair, leather, plywood, fabric; 59 7/8 x 31 1/2 x 36 1/4 in. Collection of Penny Clive. Courtesy of the Artist

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