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October 17, 2013

Of Art and Animals

Painting with beetles? Music from whales? Museum show uses art to explore the relationship between humans and wildlife

Most artists create images with a paintbrush or piece of charcoal. A few use an elephant, or maybe even a beetle.

“I’m looking for this engagement with the animals as part of the artistic process,” said Jane Winchell, who curated “Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations” at the Peabody Essex Museum. “We’ve got things that are collaborations with ants and collaborations that incorporate humpback whales.”

The show is unlike anything Winchell has seen before.

“I was aware of shows with artists who were really interested in probing into the creativity they had witnessed in other animals,” she said. “I was aware ad nauseam of shows with representations of animals, or a particular artist doing something innovative with animals.

“What I hadn’t seen was a show that captured a broad spectrum of works being generated at this intersection of artists engaging very directly with live animals, either harnessing the behavior of a particular animal or exploring the relationship between us and other animals.”

The painting “Sunrise No. 1, 2004” by Steven Kutcher, for example, was created by covering a beetle’s legs with paint and allowing it to crawl on a sheet of wet paper.

Kutcher, who worked with the spiders in the movie “Arachnophobia,” knew the darkling beetles he was using would crawl toward a light source. So he rotated the paper, allowing the beetle to create lines of footprints radiating out, like rays of light in a sunset.

While many of the more than 30 artworks in the exhibit are visual, others are aural, or tactile, or both.

“Ryan Hackett worked with the heartbeat of a polar bear in deep sleep, not quite hibernation,” Winchell said. “He turned this slow, pulsing heart rate into an installation. You experience it by touching this rectangular, fake-fur block on the floor.”

By imagining what it would be like to have such a heart, we can feel the difference between ourselves and the bear. That understanding also brings us closer to the other species.

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