- “Fly [the dog] decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid and no one would ever persuade her otherwise….The sheep spoke very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves [what the sheep called dogs] were ignorant and nothing would convince them otherwise.” (Babe, 1995)
There are a number of factors that make Lucia Lakatos’ works, currently on display in downtown St. Catharines at Beechwood Donuts, eerie. I use that term both in a more superficial reading of the works, but also in the more historical context, of pieces that suggest more disturbing tones that you take away with you, and think about later.
Installed to the left side of the space on sparse brick walls, this industrial setting meshes well with Lakatos’ works: the “portraits” are life sized, several employing blank, light coloured backgrounds behind the subjects to privilege them more, whereas others have backgrounds that suggest a less formal, more ‘captured in the moment’ aesthetic.
Before I speak to the works as installed, the accompanying statement is as follows: “[Lakatos’] current work is inspired by the relationships between humans and animals. She focuses on animals that are mistreated and most impacted by pollution, global warming, and environmental changes.” The simplicity and the directness of Lakatos’ words is appropriate to the works. Three works – portraits, in both their style and execution – present human busts / torsos (and we can safely project that the rest, off canvas, is equally “human”) with animal heads: a chicken and pig, bracketing, facing inwards, respectively, and a cow, in the middle gazing out at us. Their clothing is banal, un extraordinary and is likely the same as that worn by people standing in line to purchase doughnuts at Beechwood, Perhaps both the subjects and the customers are waiting expectantly..
Lakatos’ work is clearly political, but like a number of artists whose ideas have an existence in both popular culture and ongoing “current” affairs, she guides more than lectures, and the installation of the works in a space where people consume is a subtle nudge. When I first encountered these works, the words of Orwell that closed the contemporary fable Animal Farm came to me: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. But that’s also looking at it from a very human centrist position (like those mad Evangelicals who believe that we might use and abuse the planet as “god” made “us” – well, if you’re white, straight and ‘merican – “stewards of the earth”, which they seem to confuse with rapacious plunder. May I suggest some of Burtynsky’s horrifyingly beautiful images of where that “belief” has taken, and will take, us?).
To give more deference to Lakatos’ original ideas, I’d return to Orwell again: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Now, I cite this not to just to point out how some animals are considered more worthy of our care and respect (cats, dogs) than others (pigs, cows, chickens) and that these “value” distinctions are arbitrary, and – like most socially ingrained customs – sit unsteadily on shallow or non existent factual basis. Pigs, for example, are quite intelligent (more than some people I can name, frankly); but if I mention cultures around the world that consider dog a delicacy, I’ll be considered…well, an animal, ahem.
But that’s a bit easy, to point out the inconsistent framework of what’s to be loved, and what’s to be used (I must reference that reluctant philosopher, Ferdinand the Duck, from BABE: animals with no [perceived] use have the most important use of all.…). What is striking, on deeper consideration of Lakatos’ work, is that we – humans – like to forget that we’re also animals, that we are part of the [eco]system, dependant and inextricably woven into it, and cannot survive without it (whereas it could survive – and perhaps prosper – without us….).
Perhaps the subject of one of the portraits is less about an idea than to offer us a reflection of being “pig headed” (this allusion to wilful ignorant stubbornness, typically, seems to insult pigs unfairly when it is, in the end, about “us” as humans…).
Other works (the angry looking chicken, the sad eyed and seemingly disappointed bovine centrepiece, the regal and “exotic” tiger) suggest other ways in which the artist’s concerns play out in society. Sadly, I can mention many recent news stories regarding the mistreatment of animals to ‘feed the machine’, from the stories of abuse of chickens in massive factory farms to the ongoing grotesque production of veal (and for the record, I’m NOT a vegetarian or vegan, but I know from my time in rural spaces on the prairies that consumption need not equal cruelty…but that might lead to a discussion about capitalism, and how it, in its worst forms, echoes that evangelical blather I cited, that just “because you can, means you should”…). The tiger headed portrait (or human bodied tiger?) reminds me of a documentary I saw the other night about ongoing extinctions and encroachments into habitats, and let us all note that the new President of Brazil seems to think Climate Change is a communist, anti christian plot. This is your “steward” of the rain forest.
However, I want to end on a different note: perhaps its because when visiting an exhibition in the VISA Gallery I saw that in conjunction with Emma Mary Sked’s delightful clothe animals, she interspersed books in the gallery, including Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. The final in that trilogy (MaddAddam) sees the escaped, scientifically enhanced Pigoons start to be seen, and acting, as equals to the surviving humans (they will not tolerate being made into “smelly bones” anymore, and see the humans as necessary, if ignorant – to quote Babe again – allies). So, perhaps describing the Oryx / Year of the Flood / MaddAddam trilogy as dystopia is only true on one level – for humans – and is closer to a utopia for those beings whom only can hope for better.
Lakatos’ pieces are a mixture of mediums (captured and created, with lens and with brush), and she’s a photographer and painter currently studying at the University of Waterloo. These works are on display at Beechwood Donuts on at 165 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines, into 2019.
All images courtesy the artist and more of her work can be seen here.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.