Our ontological status has, until recently, been securely ‘human’. Yet in an era predicated on biotechnological breakthroughs and the erosion of the ‘natural’, the Homo sapiens stands at the precipice of species change. Our strange horizon emanates a bright artificial light silhouetted by humanoid structures and hybrid creatures.
This tenor of transhumanism is explored in ‘My Monster’, an exhibition unpacking the enduring fascination with the human-animal hybrid that has long entertained mythology, folklore and fiction. Featuring works by more than 25 local and international artists, the show coincides with the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which famously traces the tragic downfall of a scientist who reanimates a fleshy patchwork of body parts into a grotesque being. Nothing says hybridity like Frankenstein’s monster, whose emergent identity and longing for love derails the Western model of the human self.
Spanning sound art, painting, drawing, ceramic, sculpture, photography and film, ‘My Monster’ is curated by Evelyn Tsitas as an expansion of her doctoral research into how the science fiction hybrid emblemises our anxiety about the crossovers between animality and humanity. Each of the five spaces in the RMIT Gallery mirrors a different chapter of her dissertation. Among the many contemporary works in the show, Kate Clark’s taxidermied half-deer-half-human, Gallant (2016), incarnates Frankensteinian aesthetics with fleshy and furry facial segments stitched together like a post-mortem puzzle. Dangling from the ceiling, this bizarre being appears as an apparition from our future, teleported mid-gallop from a dystopian landscape concocted in our minds. When we look into its glistening rubber eyes, we see ourselves looking back from the animal body we deny we inhabit.
In Bharti Kher’s diasec print Chocolate Muffin (2004), a human-horse hybrid with a monstrous mummified-esque face confronts us with uncanny anatomical symmetry between man and beast, flesh and fur, hoof and high heel. The absurd plate of pink muffins and ‘50s hair-do brings together cultural domesticity and domesticated animal. Meanwhile, Melbourne artist Ronnie van Hout humorously conflates self and other in his existential photographs Monkey Business, Sculpt d. Dog and Self (2001), where bust portraits of the artist donning chimpanzee and greyhound rubber masks, facing three different angles, reflects the facets of human identity. Perhaps the bestial id and civilised superego aren’t as separate as Freud thought.
‘My Monster’ examines the cognitive processes behind why hybrid creatures send our moral compass into a spin. The desire to preserve species divides can be traced back to ancient anthropocentrism through to Renaissance humanism and Judeo-Christian traditions, where man’s dominance was defined by its separation from the animal; operating on a higher plane of existence. Such ‘othering’ practices have persisted to the current day – despite influential scientific claims for continuity between the human and animal worlds – and have justified a range of institutionalised exploitations, leading to new research into issues such as animal consciousness, animal politics, and speciesism. Deborah Klein’s intricate watercolours depicting various insects capped with the hairstyled anterior of women’s heads create a ‘homo-insecta world’ full of glam femme-bugs that uproot species hierarchies in a very pretty way, while Beth Croce’s intaglio print Seeds of an idea (2018) posits a biological proximity between the hearts of man and swine, bringing to mind recent developments in cloning and xenotransplantation (which make pig organs transplanted into humans possible).
Hybrids are harbingers of a future we may not welcome yet are willingly creating through scientific intervention and biological manufacturing. Just as Frankenstein’s creature lingers on the edge of humanity and animality, so too are we becoming less and less defined. As new awareness of human heterogeneity across gender identity and psychology fill collective consciousness, perhaps the next ‘spectrum’ to arise is that of our species.
Until 18 August, 2018