By Sarah Rose de Villiers
Rats on pedestals. A fish in a sheep’s mouth. A wall dressed in wire. A polished pig mounting another polished pig. It’s not absurdity. It’s art and animals and Slow Violence.
The Slow Violence exhibition is a collection of artworks on display in GUS (Gallery University Stellenbosch), which forms part of the Visual Arts Department at Stellenbosch University. The exhibition is part of a 3-day interdisciplinary workshop, and contributing artists include lecturers of Stellenbosch University’s Fine Arts department, Brett Murray, Walter Oltmann and Wilma Cruise.
The artwork beside the entrance to the gallery is Brett Murray’s bronze sculpture of a pair of humping pigs, At the trough (2011). Rows of black and grey dogs on a white background hang behind the glossy sculpture – it is Carol-Anne Gainer’s digital print, Behind the fence wallpaper (2015).
Other artworks in the room include a massive cement husk, an installation of a sheep with a fish in its mouth and a cow’s pelvic bone standing on a pair of wooden crutches. At the far end of the room, an altar-like display pays homage to rats. And in the backroom, screens showing mice being taunted and killed accompany a mirror-topped table on which sculptures of famous cartoon mice lie.
In the next room, a shadowgram cynotype of an albatross stretches along the wall, and in the following room, a film about returning to a natural state of being is projected onto the wall.
The last room boasts a spectacular coelacanth made of netted aluminum wire. There is also a beaded sculpture of a long-legged elephant and a haunting charcoal drawing of a dog sprawled across a white page.
Though each artwork may seem more bizarre than the next, they all share a common characteristic. Every work on display uses animals as a metaphor for slow violence.
What is Slow Violence?
The entire collection is based on the premise of keynote speaker, Prof. Rob Nixon’s book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. He argues that we need to become aware of consequences that are not immediate or even obvious, but gradual and devastating. We have to understand the reality of slow violence. We need to rethink the effect humans have on the environment, especially on the animals. In the exhibition’s opening speech, Nixon described our slow violence as “ha[ving] shaken the creatures with which we share these finite living conditions”. He outlined the two contexts that explicitly illustrate this notion in the exhibition.
The first focus is on anthropic evidence of our relationship to the environment, and the second examines our relationship with animals as animals ourselves.
Nixon explained how the anthropic evidence shows that “since the beginning of the industrial era, there has been an acceleration of extinction that would normally accompany a major geological event”. He compared our environmental impact to “a meteor [that] has struck the planet and … shaken the ecosystem”, and quoted a geologist, saying “We are the meteor”.
Nixon then referred to Linda Hogan’s paper, The Department of the Interior and discussed how the artworks represent the “remarkable creatures” to whom we have denied our connection. He said, “By denying that [connection], we also often deny what [Hogan] calls the pelvic house of truth – in other words, the very embodiment of ourselves as animals among animals”. The artworks are graphic testimonies to animals and Liesl Brenzel’s sculpture, 06.02.2011 (2014), is both a violent and visual metaphor for this “pelvic house of truth”.
If nothing else, one leaves the exhibition with an appreciation for art as a symbolic statement, and the idea to order lunch from the vegetarian menu for a change.