HKW – Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.
In a valiant effort to explain the ways that culture can define a species, curators Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg recently produced the exhibition Ape Culture for Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Framed by concepts from Donna Haraway’s, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), the exhibition followed the cultural shifts and effects on primatology through the age of rationalism and valorization to behaviorism, semiotics, cybernetics, sociobiology, and contemporary research on sociality.
Blind-sighted scientists, battles with dualism, and a discovery that there is no sociality in nature, but rather that it is culture which is defined by socially learned behavior are all themes that play out through the densely researched exhibition; the entire content of which is chronicled in a recently published catalogue incorporating essays and interviews, images and descriptions of the contemporary artworks, and facsimiles of the books, images and text that were researched and on view.
In the essay, ‘Mirrors at Frontiers’, Franke elucidates the fallacy of the ‘simian mirror’ and the complications of what he calls the ‘milieu of semiosis’, or the ways signification affects our understanding of culture and also of science. By digging into the failures and misconceptions of early primatologists, the exhibition also aims to prove the ways that we as humans are limited by the guiding philosophies and technologies of our times.
Comprised of two parts, the first part took place on quadrisecting walls divided into sixteen sections based on chronology or analytic themes. Printed wall texts explained the cultural research and important case studies accompanied by images and maps reprinted from archives and adhered to the walls, numerous books set upright fixed behind glass panes, and small media devices playing video excerpts from related case studies, documentaries and feature films. The second part of the exhibition expanded upon some of these themes through contemporary artworks including sculptures, films, photographs and works on paper.
An important historical example cited throughout the exhibition and texts is Solly Zuckerman’s study of Ethiopian baboons living in captivity as part of the popular 1920’s attraction Monkey Hill in the London Zoo. After a nine-day study, Zuckerman wrote the book The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes (1932). It was the first documented study of a nonhuman primate society. In the essay, ‘Mirrors at Frontiers’, Franke describes Zuckerman’s book as “exactly what an enlightened late Victorian expected from the ‘state of nature’ at the height of the British Empire: a fierce and violent war over resources, power, and dominance.” The innate ‘nature’ described by Zuckerman was entirely unnatural. The colony was started with one hundred males and who were given one-hundredth of the necessary space. When thirty females were introduced, massive fights broke out and nearly fifty percent of the males died. Zuckerman used this evidence to prove blanketing theories about male dominance and necessary violence in all mammalian societies.
His theories were widely accepted and only disproven thirty to forty years later when actual field research started taking place. In retrospect, the event is now seen as a ‘social catastrophe’ of a social group under extreme stress. Current research has now proven that life in captivity causes asocial behavior and destructive pathologies in animals (humans included). Zuckerman’s study is one of the clearest examples of western arrogance and even scientific racism; an effect of a blind-sighted and dissociated ‘gaze’ performed by a man living in colonialist era that reinforced the idea of ‘othering’. A significant part of Haraway’s work focuses on techniques of seeing and the growing importance of visualization in life sciences. As the field of primatology developed so did the technologies used to document, prove and explain the scientists’ discoveries.
In the essay, ‘Where the Hell is the Exit to This Field’, Professor Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky analyzes Haraway’s theories that promoted a reading of ape culture through the effect of diffraction, and not as a mirror. Deuber-Mankowsky writes, “The key to Haraway’s metaphorical reference to the process is the fact that diffraction, unlike reflection, does not produce copies, but patterns. Diffraction does not follow the model of representation. It is not based on the difference between original and copy, but instead deals with belatedness and the binding nature of events that have taken place elsewhere and are always already past.” Understanding learned culture as a series of diffracted events allows for a deeper awareness of the multiple effects involved and how the broader networks impact one another. Even as western colonialist attitudes of hierarchies and assumptions of normative ideas are dissolving in the sciences, we must also come to terms with the fact that knowledge across socio-economic and cultural boundaries are not equal. Whereas schools in parts of the US continue to teach Creationism and staunch adherence to the Caste system in India continues, we can not assume or expect a sense of universal understanding across lines of cultural difference.
Another important feature in Ape Culture was the focus on feminist studies and the effect it had on primatology which was a male dominated field until female research scientists came onto the scene in the 1960’s-70’s. Notable figures included Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Birut? Galdikas who studied orangutans in Borneo. The related exhibition text concludes, “Goodall and her colleagues embodied the late twentieth-century dream of reconciliation with a nature no longer conceived in Cartesian terms as indifferent and mechanistic.” Here Haraway is quoted, “Apes modeled a solution to a deep cultural anxiety sharpened by the real possibility in the late twentieth century of western people’s destruction of the earth.” Only male apes had been the focus of scientific research until these female voices came along, revealing important aspects of synthesis and cooperation in ape communities.
In respect to this history, the accompanying exhibition prominently supported female voices with artworks like Lene Berg’s Kopfkino (Mindfuck) 2012 – lauded as a ‘Last Supper’ meets Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979), featured a long dinner table of women in BDSM costumes hosting conversations about labor history and their experiences in the S+M industry. Also included, was a series of Rosemarie Trockel’s untitled works on paper from the 1980’s. The self-described ‘ape portraits’ functioned as a placeholder for reference to anthropomorphism and Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’. These dark ink, gestural portraits are caricatures of apes with their dilated pupils starring blankly back at the viewer, haunting in their resemblance to exaggerated features of humans.
Dealing with similar issues, the unquestionable highlight in the exhibition was Pierre Huyghe’s somber film Untitled (Human Mask) (2014) – a portrait of a real life macaque monkey that has been trained to work at the Kayabukiya Tavern in Japan as a waitress, wearing a girl’s dress and a human mask. For the film, the monkey’s usual kitschy female mask was replaced with a pale and disconcertingly vacant mask designed by Huyghe. In the film, the monkey is seen alone, inhabiting the empty tavern during the day in what feels like a post-apocalyptic environment where distinctions between humans and animals have fallen away.
Sexuality and seriality are referenced with Klaus Weber’s, Kouros (Walking Man) (2015) and Untitled (Collection of 31 vintage figurines) (2007), modeling Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. The variations of apes in this case each hold a human skull, more akin to the famed image of Shakespeare’s Hamlet holding a skull while contemplating mortality. Erik Steinbrecher’s sculptural assemblage of masks, walking sticks and mannequin parts in Affe (2015) and the poster stack showing cropped images of a woman’s body juxtaposed with a gorilla’s body She Ape/Ape Man (2015) and Damián Ortega’s sculptural assemblages of hand-tools and hanging branches felt obvious and redundant within the context of the exhibition, leaving little room for the imagination.
A series of auxiliary performances and talks included a live performance by Coco Fusco discussing theories of human aggression where she plays the character of Dr. Zira from the iconic sci-fi film Planet of the Apes (1968), and a lecture by Japanese primatologist and behavioral scientist Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzawa who presented his research on memory, humor and cultural learning showing the hot-tub bathing and sweet potato washing habits of macaque monkeys in Japan.
In what was otherwise a fascinating, imperative and timely show, there were a few unfortunate missteps in the production of the Ape Culture exhibition. The first of which was the exhibition design separating the research and historical background from the artistic representation and interpretation, further reinforcing a binary experience of the information for the viewer. Also, the repeated focus on sexuality and desire in the contemporary artworks felt cheap and subjective, and promoted selfish individualism while only glazing the surface of the breadth of content involved in the theoretical aspects put forth.
Walking away from the exhibition and rereading through the incredibly well researched and dense references in the catalogue, these combined factors were confounding. They seemed to go against everything the exhibition purported to encourage in Haraway’s writings, namely being holistic, integrative approaches focusing on empathy, symbiosis, collaboration and sociability. Nonetheless, the exhibition is an important reminder of the point at which we once looked to animals to try and define ourselves. That diffracted light has now refocused with attention shifting towards building artificial intelligence in the mirrored image of man as we continue the race to uncover the essence of consciousness and being.
First published in Metropolis M, Issue No 5, Oct. – Nov. 2015: Print (in Dutch).
*PDF available upon request