IN 1906, NATIONAL Geographic published a series of 70 black-and-white photographs titled “Hunting Wild Game with Flashlight and Camera,” depicting scenes of deer congregating, hopping about, and resting under the cover of darkness, and occasionally lit up by flashlights. These images were so popular among readers eager to get a peek of the world beyond familiar civilization that the issue became one of only two in the history of the magazine to have been reprinted. A 2007 Yale University study suggests that human attention spans are longer and more intense when it comes to animals rather than other categories of objects, which points to the role that images of animals play in visual culture.
Contemporary art, a space for generating symbols, often features animals as a subject matter. Think Joseph Beuys’s dances with wolves (I Like America and America Likes Me), Maurizio Cattelan’s suicidal squirrel, Huang Yong Ping’s cold-blooded battle to the death (The World Stage), Adrian Wong’s giant animatronic geese narrating the story of the firstever Hong Kong film Stealing a Roast Duck (From the Annals of the Harmony Jade Roast Meat Society), Pierre Huyghe’s pink-legged puppy wandering the museum (Untitled), and Jon Rafman’s whimsical tigers, horses, and dogs of Google Street View (9-Eyes).
Katja Novitskova’s installation series “Approximations” is laid out like a zoo: high-resolution images of wild animals (white horses, chameleons, hornbills, giraffes, penguins) collected from search engines and photo archives are enlarged, printed and mounted on aluminum plates, and erected in galleries or outdoors, among greenery. As physical distance continues to be eroded by Big Optics, Novitskova declares “there is no flatness.” These animal sculptures, inherently two-dimensional, echo the computer screen, a spatial void that does not have to abide by the rules of focus and perspective. In relatively saturated colors, the pieces are often installed alongside another sculpture series, “Growth Potentials,” which makes use of the rising arrow found in clip art repositories. Colorful rising arrows frequently represent productivity or success; they belong in performance charts. Without any quantitative basis or data points for reference, the red arrow is left to fend for itself as an object of aesthetics; it is the physical manifestation of an abstract concept. Images from both series, one drawn entirely from nature and the other from the competitive business environment, seem to get along rather well in physical proximity.
Novitskova links both sides of several dichotomies: human and nature, pre-human and posthuman, ancient history and the distant future, abstract and concrete, nature and civilization. The work becomes a transition between two extremes, offering both a continuum and the possibility of homogenization. When the dichotomy dissipates, the project becomes a vanishing mediator.
Novitskova’s work spans a broad temporal scope, collecting images from the future and from prehistory. The Story presents 3D renderings of Neanderthals published in National Geographic in ordinary, white Ikea photo frames, while Dissemination and Proliferation involves digital prints on papyrus, interpreting the monopolistic history of knowledge and writing in physical form. The pre-human condition is a recurring subject in Novitskova’s work; she also studies the infant imago. Childhood states of pre-subjectivity are assembled into a collage alongside the posthuman, as in alien civilizations. Children are less affected by social and cultural norms, and are more open to speculation around epistemology—as well as, for instance, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Pathfinder coincides, in name, with the probe NASA sent to Mars in 1997; the artist’s version consists of Martian terrain reprinted on the scattered fragments of clay pots. This piece appeared in the solo exhibition “Spirit, Curiosity and Opportunity,” titled after American rovers sent to Mars that were themselves named by children’s submissions. In Peaceful Snuggles Swing‘n Sway, Novitskova turns powered infant swings, network cables, polyurethane resin, silicon fish bait, and protein molecules into sculpture; the baby furniture, designed with ergonomic and biological principles in mind, loses its mechanical properties, instead taking on a lifelessness akin to an extraterrestrial object deprived of its original functionality—yet another reminder of the posthuman state.
If technology and culture are idiosyncrasies that human beings have developed in order to cope with our environs, then animals, too, have a technology of their own. In the modern narrative, nature is both transcendent and detached, while society exists within itself, and there is a clear distinction between the two concepts. In reality, however, human beings coexist with nature, and the two entities run cross-interference against one another, as evidenced by the plastiglomerates—mineral formations containing plastic—unique to the Anthropocene. Novitskova’s work does not discuss nature, but rather how nature is interpreted and how the development of the visual sense is affected by nature; she outlines the phylogenetics of the human-nature visual interaction. Nature and humanity together form a vast network of consciousness in which they meet at a point of otherness and translate but never assimilate. Like the broken silicon wafers attached to lumps of epoxy clay painted with nail polish in “Shapeshifters,” unifying distinct material processes of molding and crystallization, the two forms are connected in stark contrast, hiding certain properties while heightening others without ever truly mixing: “everything is an alien to everything else,” in the words of Ian Bogost.
Media philosopher Vilém Flusser studied the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, a species of cuttlefish that lives in the ocean’s depths. This species of mollusk, with tentacles connected by cape-like soft tissue, breaks the pure darkness of the ocean floor with bioluminescence in order to momentarily perceive (and be perceived by) the visible world around it before turning back into the dark. This is a world that operates without the visual sense—the vampire squid lacks ink pouches. It lives in an indeterminate state of darkness and light that, like Graham Harman’s concept of allure, allows for a momentary disconnect between the object and its properties. Novitskova’s disassembles the divide between humans and nature not to promote a new monadology of the Anthropocene, but rather to underscore the equality of man and nature on the visual spectrum. In a state of pure chaos, light shines back and forth between these two terms, an indeterminate state of brightness in which we become visible to one another for a moment, however brief.
Text by Venus Lau
Translated by Frank Qian