Eco-performance artist Hallie Abelman reflects on the meanings of animal objects that can be found around us in our homes.
I often return home from work to discover that my canine companion has rearranged the couch cushions in a manner that I can only describe as queer. By this I do not intend to draw a comparison between my dog and Bobby, the interior decorator from Queer Eye. Instead I see this re-imagined fortress as a radical rejection of domestic tranquility and feel like a lucky roommate. Though I flop down beside her I struggle to unwind. My horizontal perspective tilts my gaze just enough to scan the room and I am bombarded with a variety of representations of animals – objects and imagery that are the commodified versions of the bodies I work to liberate outside the home. On my bookshelf are twenty-three PenguinTM books- a small white penguin floating inside an orange oval marks the spine of each. Pictures of my deceased dogs are held up by magnets on the refrigerator. Clothes hang from hooks, some embroidered with a male polo player on horseback. A fuzzy brown bear is stitched into the pencil case on my desk. In the kitchen a bag of Arabica coffee beans is emblazoned with a front-facing African elephant, the words “juicy and complex” above its head. I sport ladybug socks.
As my awareness of my own animal objects increased, so too did my fixation on the animal objects in my friends’ homes. This curiosity led to Home Tours, an ongoing participatory artistic research project that engages home-owners with their animal objects in unpredictable ways. By “animal objects” I mean anything that represents or portrays an animal, such as an image, a statue, a knick-knack, decor, clothing, or art. These objects enter our homes for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to gifts, collections, teaching tools, branded household necessities, toys and souvenirs. Just as fetishes, totems and kitsch have occupied the minds of scholars for centuries, these household objects communicate where we as inhabitants place value. What stories and subjectivities can these animal objects invoke? And what bodily movements are enacted with them? While some skeptics have claimed that their home is devoid of any animal objects, I have never failed to prove them wrong. Originally the tours were my methodology for documenting household collections of animal objects – noting, counting, mapping and describing each of the items that I observed.
Eventually this led to more spontaneous sessions with friends, family and colleagues. Depending on the resident’s desire, we might sketch an object, place one in a very unusual spot or put two objects in conversation with each other. Sometimes we write poems about them or share touching memories that they evoke. By asking how to make strange the daily rituals conducted in the comfort of my home, I can begin to enact an essential reconciliation between commodified animals and real animal livelihoods.
Observing and thinking about these animals within the home creates awareness of how we might bypass them in our daily lives. In other words, many people do not have the time or energy after a long day to sit and analyze the meaning behind the whale used for the logo on the salt shaker. Nevertheless, I contend that human ambivalence towards animal objects requires a measure of denial, as “There are certain things we cannot afford to register if we’re to continue to lead contented lives” (Taylor, 18). This attitude is then mirrored towards the living animals out in the world that they seemingly represent. As you might have gathered, my salt shaker has a whale on it. It’s the La BaleineTM brand that comes in a tall navy-blue cylinder with a white top that allows for both sprinkled or more generous salt pours. Whales such as the baleen used on the logo of my La BaleineTM salt shaker face grave realities in their own habitats. As a result of the extreme acoustic volumes of sonar technologies and seismic prospecting for oil and gas in the ocean, real baleen whales are beaching themselves and dying from brain bleeds and severe ear injuries. Air guns used for seismic prospecting are particularly loud, interrupting whale feeding patterns that rely on sound to hunt (Dougherty, 2016).
Japanese clutter consultant and writer Marie Kondo encourages her clients to hold up each of their household items and ask, “does this spark joy?”. If the answer is “yes” the item should remain in the home. All other items must be given away. How might this strategy apply to objects that confront us with our human exceptionalism and disguised realities of vanishing species? Does my salt shaker bring me joy or utter despair?
Of course, these questions must also consider who is living in the house, if they even have or desire a house, and if they have the extra time to lie around thinking about representations of animals. Domestic products that depend on animal likeness often serve purely anthropocentric desires, creating comfort in a moment when we need to be aware of growing threats to animal livelihoods. I am here to advocate for the objects, whose presence can contribute to enhanced awareness of animal lives. It is my hope that those out shopping for knick-knacks or gifts, selling old things at flea markets, or even sitting in bed confused are inspired by some animal object to consider what inspired its creation how it speaks to the world at large.
This post was written by Hallie Abelman. Hallie is an eco-performance artist committed to intersectional environmental justice and critical approaches to animal-centric representations in popular culture. She is an M.A. Candidate in the NYU Tisch Performance Studies department. For more visit her website: https://ecoterror.hotglue.me or instagram: @speciespieces
Dougherty, Michelle and Daniel Hinerfeld, directors. Sonic Sea. Imaginary Forces, 2016.
Kondō Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Leopard Books, 2016.
Taylor, Diana. Dead Capital. Forthcoming 2019.