Why Look at Animals

Solo Exhibit

ARTIST: Jemima Yabes


Early in May this year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its global assessment report indicating, among other findings, an estimate of 1,000,000 animal and plant species at risk of extinction. A number that Dr. Andy Purvis, coordinating lead author of the report, explained is a “conservative” conclusion. The call of the report summary is very clear: we must act in urgency and listen to the researchers and those in the margins if we want to repair even slightly the effects of extreme consumerism increasingly threatening folds of the biosphere. Anxiety is not original.

Most recent statements on the subject are ominous too, if not ironic, green-washed, or too optimistic. The same vein of anxiety is what facilitated the inception of Why Look At Animals. An article published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on the endangerment of the giraffe species proved critical and helped catalyze the artist’s inquiry one afternoon with thoughts of her 3-year old niece: what of the natural world will remain natural in the future? How has our view of natural life so caustically transformed from a delicate wonderment in childhood and naïveté, to a lens of largely capitalist greed and apathetic commodification in adulthood? This is especially true and undeniable of those expended by the carnivorous system. How many beasts can remain to tread the earth in 10-20 years, and how many will be known only through media?

By appealing to some nostalgia, Jemima Yabes acutely brings us back to our former years and alludes to the ties we’ve made with pets or animal toys. There are so many reproductions of animals; animals we only know through illustrations. The question the artist is posing, and personally applicable to our experience of witnessing a few animals during primary school field trips: how much more shall be left? In this unease, Yabes is connecting our industrialist- operated upbringing to the decline of our chances of co-existing with greater beings. Drawing inspiration from Mark Dion’s Toys ‘R’ Us, Yabes shares and re-represents the anxiety Dion had in 1994 in regarding consumption and wildlife mortality. Unfortunately for both artists, the cases of commercialism and the worsening zoological health outlined in the 1990s work have only intensified in this 2019 reinterpretation. Human action is still a threat to natural life and we still look at nature as a resource to exhaust. In the case of zoos [and in which essay the exhibition is eponymous] John Berger wrote, “adults take children to the zoo to show them the originals of their ‘reproductions,’ and also perhaps in the hope of re-finding some of the innocence of that reproduced animal world which they remember from their own childhood.”

In this installation, Yabes aims to inspire the viewers’ thoughts on their own childhood, of green salad days—times of innocence and playfulness toward fantastic beasts and dimensions (massive and minute). It is also through the lens of childhood which she reminds us of days lived when we cannot resist the decision our guardians make in the capitalist order. So perhaps now the exhibit can urge us too, more grown-up and independent, to dwell on choices with better consideration, to heed the words of those who know best, and maybe adopt an evolved world view. According to the global assessment report, our current ecological situation is not promising, far from a pastoral which resembles closely our naturalist dreams in younger years. It is a hope to have this visual wistfulness propel the spectator consciousness to commit to transformative [or at least mitigatory and effective] action.

~ V. J., September 2019