Looking at Them
There are high-budget films, such as Water World and Avatar, that tell about the destruction of human civilization. Why do so many people like stories about the destruction of civilization?
Sindhunata, in his forward for the special edition on Basis concerning Climate Change, proposed that the basis of Christian theology that condemns the veneration of nature is partially responsible for the destruction of nature. Because nature is no longer venerated, it is exploited. Humans are arrogant towards nature. With this premise in hand, I now propose that the heart of the matter is perspective.
When was the last time that you watched the animals around you? Take, for example, John Berger’s essay, 'Why Look at Animals?'. I propose here that the word 'look' in the title indicates distance. This distance will increase if we make a distinction between domesticated animals and wild animals. If you have watched groups of rare animals—either domesticated or wild—then you can imagine that the people who are used to living amongst wild animals (not just watching them) are far away, in the past, or in places that have not yet been reached by (many) in our civilization.
Berger states that the split between humans and animals began in the 9th century and completed by capitalism in the 20th century.
At the present the animals I am closest to are my pet dogs. I vaguely remember watching a television broadcast years ago that revealed that the one thing that is present in every presidential campaign in the United States from era to era is a dog. It is as if a dog is an important element in a positive image of the presidential candidates’ families. Perhaps I have been influenced by this urban middle-class habit or by other matters; clearly there is a sensation of its own—as James Herriot says: dogs venerate humans. In the past, there was no one to greet me whenever I came home. Now, whenever I come home, I am greeted by two creatures that truly appear to be joyful, and they are joyful because I come home. Dogs are the most expressive animals in showing their joy. I watch them; they also watch me. I have feelings, so do they.
Dogs that are close to humans are domesticated. The relationship is hierarchical. This is embedded in the long history of the relationship between humans and dogs. Berger compares zoos with art galleries: visitors walk from cage to cage, watching the animals; similarly visitors in an art gallery walk from one painting to the next viewing each one. There is no longer any mutual viewing. The action of arriving and viewing is from only one perspective: the human.
A current news story featured in our mass media regards the torture of animals in slaughterhouses. The torture of the animals has disrupted trade relations between Indonesia and Australia. This news, besides bringing up questions about how much we know about how our food is produced also brings forward another question: is viewing animals as food something that is reasonable or is it a downgrading of perspective?
Have you seen plastic plates decorated with the motif of a banana leaf? Formerly, food was wrapped in leaves, especially banana leaves. These leaves were also used as plates. The Sundanese call the banana leaf plates 'pincuk'. The word pincuk refers to both the object as well as the act of wrapping the food in the leaf. Currently there are many kinds of plates made from paper and plastic that are very inexpensive and practical. Pincuk are disappearing. The plastic plates with the banana leaf motif indicate both a yearning for nature and a betrayal of it—we know that plastic is very non-environment-friendly. Nature is longed for, nature is exotic; enticing, but at the same time, mysterious and distant.
It was Alfred Russel Wallace who first proposed the theory of the movement of continents. He marveled at the profound differences in the flora and fauna between Bali and Lombok despite their physical proximity. This contrast can be explained if we accept the radical proposition: in past times, these two islands were not close to each other. For scientists such as Wallace, observing flora and fauna is one way to improve our understanding of the world.
Scientists like Wallace are explorers. Wallace lived in the era when the route to the 'new world' had been established and allowed for subsequent explorations to be more varied. At this time, many people became famous for their 'discoveries'. Various explorations brought riches to the heart of European civilization. Museums became filled with exotic objects from the East. Besides exotic objects, animals were also taken to Europe to satisfy the desire of a society that was eager to witness the wonders of the new world. Zoos became famous at this time. The zoo is also a museum: a place to store elements of the past that are disappearing.
There have been recent reports concerning torture occurring in several slaughterhouses in Indonesia. The report are probably true, although possibly not completely. It is probably true that the animals there are tortured, however their suffering is probably not worse than the suffering of livestock at the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). None of the workers at CAFO have emotional relationships with the livestock. This is a very curious situation: the animals are pampered and then eaten. At CAFO this ambiguity is not recognized. CAFO is not a farm; it is a factory. The action of mutual observation between humans and animals is lost.
The opening scene in the film The Last of the Mohicans is a deer hunt by three Mohicans who are almost extinct. Before the deer is slaughtered, the Indians praise it for its speed and strength. The food industry today has increasingly less time and space for the honoring of animals.
Do we remember ever viewing animals as nurturers? Or are we too accustomed to viewing them as food?
An art exhibit that explores the relationship between humans and animals can represent how humans perceive animals or become a statement of a certain perspective. It appears that no one can challenge the success of Raden Saleh in portraying the majesty and strength of animals. That is not all there is; there is also wildness. Wildness is outside the control of humans. How do we, the artists of today, view animals?
Heru Hikayat, art curator, lives in Bandung.