Artifact: Cruelty To Animals? - Page 1


by William Furlong

Denis Masi’s tableaux of laboratory animals are more redolent of the RSPCA than the ICA. But which species do they really refer to? William Furlong considers the exhibition.

Rats have long stood for all that is dirty, contemptible and threatening. They carried real Bubonic plague and were used metaphorically as instruments of terror in Camus’ “Plague”. But more recently, science has taken another view of these animals, finding them acceptable for experimental purposes due to their expendability and certain human-like attributes. In areas ranging from learning behaviour to environmental response to biochemistry, scientists experiment on these rodents in the quest for information about their human counterparts. Schedules of control, crowding factors and injections to reduce aggression are commonplace for lab rats. So are inquiries into the social behaviour of this ‘low status’ animal, who if left alone, lives in highly developed collectives.

With these references in mind, artist Denis Masi has created a powerful tableau at the ICA. Entitled ‘ Search: Rattus-investigatus’, it situates a number of specimens in the laboratory environment. The rats in this construction are suspended in time as if frozen within a three-dimensional film still. From an open cage they appear to walk, stand up and peer, or gaze at one of their number caged in a device especially constructed to wrap around the rat’s body and render it incapable of moving.

A row of precision instruments is meticulously arranged inside the glass-topped case standing on a table above the raked platform containing the rats. The instruments suggest various medical and paramedical functions but since those functions cannot be clearly identified, one tends to invent imaginary uses while responding to the tableaux’s overall impression of ambiguity and underlying stress. The sense of menace is heightened by a single spotlight shining on the instrument case, the rats and cage, all of which throw Hitchcock like shadows onto the platform. The surrounding darkness is filled with recordings of shrieking rats and the tableaux itself emits a pungent rodent odour. (The control of light and its dramatic effect are vital components of Masi’s work producing the visual qualities of theatre particularly that of Beckett.)

In another construction “Meeting: Canis Lupis Familiaris-obscurus” (‘domestic wolf’), Masi chooses another animal often used for experimental purposes. As with the rats, an Alsatian dog is used in the tableaux as a symbol of manipulation, control and conditioning. Yet the circumstances in which Masi places his ‘threatened’ animals are highly aesthetic and therefore contradictory. One is reminded of the horrifying story of German concentration camp authorities in the last war arranging for Tyrolian orchestras to perform next to gas chambers while doomed and wretched individuals queued for the last time.

The Alsatian, often used as a potent symbol of aggression, becomes peculiarly impotent and melancholic within this context. It stands muzzled, submissive, separated from ‘the pack’ – reduced to the role of captive. The sense of alienation and passivity reverses and contradicts its conventional symbolic presence. The animal’s freedom is obviously lost and its spirit broken. It is now totally subject to a routine or system that is incomprehensible, yet efficient, and the only way of surviving is to submit.

Masi exploits with considerable success the power of positioning, association and juxtaposition to the point where ambiguity, uncertainty and a sense of helplessness combine to imply rather than state an undisclosed threat. He lays emphasis on the ‘Human understood’ in his tableaux – the human being conspicuous through absence. This absence generates a certain anxiety about the precise role a human being might perform, if present.

Masi is clearly using animals and their predicaments in a symbolic rather than literal sense. Rather than illustrating specific concerns, the artist expects the audience to ‘load into’ the work their own meanings from personal reference. To me, these constructions suggest deprivation, confinement, fear and repression, but also institutionalisation, political manipulation and concealed social pressure. In the end the exhibition is not about rats and dogs, it is about human beings and the world we inhabit.