In the Pupil of the Panther
11 September 2021 – 23 January 2022
Noor Abuarafeh, Joseph Beuys, Kristina Buch, Jimmie Durham, Petrit Halilaj, Henrik Håkansson, Christine Ödlund.
Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the greatest poets in the German language, wanted to imagine how the world looks through the eyes of the panther in his famous poem with the same name, subtitled ‘In Jardin des Plantes, Paris’. The insight that different animals experience the world differently also means that the human world is not the objectively true one. When humankind is no longer considered the self-evident centre of the universe it becomes clear that all animals, also humans, must live symbiotically in order to survive.
Western thought has long claimed exceptional status for humankind. The term animale rationale goes back to Aristotle: an animal endowed with reasoning and abstract thinking, often considered key features of language. Today we know that non-human animals have their own languages, only different than ours.
‘In the Pupil of the Panther’ reflects on the relationship between humans and animals, departing from an enhanced consciousness of the acute stress that human lifestyles inflict on the habitats of all individuals. The exhibition contains work by seven artists who, like Rilke, portray animals as subjects with thoughts and feelings.
The exhibition may also be seen as a commentary on the era we have been living in since the onset of industrialism around the turn of the nineteenth century, often named ’Anthropocene’ after humankind itself and characterised by our collective impact on the Earth and the ecological, climatic and geological changes it has brought.
We need better knowledge about the living conditions of all beings, humans as well as non-human, and the insights we have already gathered have must be turned into action. In the catalogue essay, the exhibition’s curator Magnus af Petersens brings forward early observations on this topic from prominent writers such as Rilke, Jacob von Uexküll and Axel Munthe.
Noor Abuarafeh (Palestine, 1986) shows a film from a zoo, in which the animals become museum objects, deprived of their natural habitats and reduced to leading their lives as objects of study.
Joseph Beuys (Germany, 1921–86), an obvious reference in this context, saw the artist as a shaman capable of encompassing all of society. He wanted to erase the boundaries between humankind and (other) animals and nature, of which we are all part.
Kristina Buch (Germany, 1983) found herself isolated, during the pandemic, in her home in the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden and surroundings, together with a variety of variously sized animals she had mostly observed in passing. In 86 drawings she captures the animals' gaze with great intensity, bringing small as well as large animals on eye level with the observer.
Jimmie Durham (US, 1940) has produced two new works. One is inspired by the monk seal. It is often associated with the mythological sirens, luring sailors towards the cliffs and death. Today the ‘sirens’ song’ is supposed to have been the characteristic call of the monk seal.
Petrit Halilaj (Kosovo, 1986) has worked with decommissioned collections from a museum of natural history in Pristina, Kosovo. His recycling of the discarded taxidermied animals creates unexpected and humorous constellations.
Henrik Håkansson (Sweden, 1968) shows new white monochromes, with sugar added to the paint to attract bees and wasps. An homage to Robert Ryman, they also comment on Malevich’s well-known white-on-white paintings from 1916, meant to usher in the end of painting. The disappearance of pollinating bees would be a more concrete, and more devastating, ending.
Christine Ödlund (Sweden, 1963) visualises various forms of communications among plants and animals with knowledge deriving from both contemporary research and esoteric traditions. Her work breathes hope about a way forward, yet this presupposes our willingness to be humble and our ability to listen.
Curator: Magnus af Petersens