Thursday, November 19, 2009

Monkey Do

In Diana Zlotnick's bedroom, I was surprised to to find that the video of primate mating rituals on the TV was in fact an artwork by Rachel Mayeri, whom I knew from the MJT and Super Super 8 Festival. In Primate Cinema she restages a primatologist's field video of baboon behavior using upscale hipsters in a Chinatown bar. It is priceless, and perfect. For her Project Series #39 show at Pomona (Rebecca McGrew's long-standing outpost of curatorial awesomeness), I wrote a short essay touching on a number of my favorite topics, including Death, the monkey paintings of Desmond Morris protégé Congo, and Jackson Pollock's claim of "being" nature.

"As far back as ancient Egypt, art has been seen as an immortalizing agent – overseen by the priesthood, Egyptian craftsmen of the Pharaonic eras followed rigid iconographic formulae designed to maximize the possibility of a favorable judgment in the underworld, where the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. Chief interrogator and court reporter at this most consequential measurement was the God Thoth – usually depicted as an Ibis-headed man, but in this case taking the form of a Cynocephalus baboon.

The choice of an ape as avatar for the inventor of writing and measurement – in some accounts Thoth is even said to have given birth to himself by uttering his own name – is puzzling, in that one of the primary differences between our species and the less spectacularly dominant primates is the absence of symbolic language. Particularly relevant to the intersection of apes and art is the function that Count Korzybski – the independent scholar who developed the controversial theory of General Semantics – referred to as “time-binding” – the exponential accretion of knowledge and culture over successive generations of human society.

Even before Jean Jacques Rousseau and the advent of Romantic Primitivism, apes were depicted in art as analogous figures for humans before the Fall: unaware of Death, Time, History, or Causality. Now I’m no professional ethologist, but it seems to me that the ideas of those who study animal behavior – specifically primates in the field – had, by the late 1960s, arrived (after a long and circuitous route through the Deus-ex-machina experimental design models of white-coated laboratory-bound Skinnerians) at a similar lost-Eden archetype. This is the version of primatology – the early revelations about Jane Goodall’s playful, gentle tribe of chimpanzees – that captured and continues to dominate the public imagination, and is the fulcrum about which Rachel Mayeri’s incisive Primate Cinema videos and workshops hinge.

Of course this saccharine trope of the hot-tubbin’ free-lovin’ Bonobo is inaccurate..."

Read the rest of The Art of Biology: Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema and the Legacy of Monkey Painting here, then order the catalog (with copious illustrations and additional essays) from the PCMoAMAC here.

Images: Anon. Thoth as Baboon, King Tut's sarcophagus; Congo painting; Chardin The Monkey Painter; not actually a frame from Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Baboon Friends

Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema Project Series exhibition is on view through december 20th, 2009.

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