Book Review: Animals: Documents of Contemporary Art

Art Historian and friend Jean Marie Carey reviews Animals: Documents of Contemporary Art

Animals: Documents of Contemporary Art

Edited by Filipa Ramos with essays by Giorgio Agamben, Steve Baker, Raymond Bellour, Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Jonathan Burt, Ted Chiang, Simon Critchley, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, David Elliott, Carla Freccero, Maria Fusco, Tristan García, Félix Guattari, Donna J. Haraway, Seung-Hoon Jeong, Miwon Kwon, Chus Martinez, Brian Massumi, Thomas Nagel, Jean-Luc Nancy, Ingo Niermann, Vincent Normand, Ana Teixeira Pinto, Will Self, Jan Verwoert, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Animals (2016) is published jointly by London's Whitechapel Gallery, Arts Council England, and the MIT Press as part of the Documents of Contemporary Art Series;

239 pages with a few text-based illustrations; referenced artists include Allora & Calzadilla, Francis Alÿs, Julieta Aranda, Brandon Ballengée, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Lygia Clark, Marcus Coates, Jimmie Durham, Marcel Dzama, Simone Forti, Pierre Huyghe, Natalie Jeremijenko, Joan Jonas, Eduardo Kac, Mike Kelley, Henri Michaux, Robert Morris, Henrik Olesen, Lea Porsager, Julia Reodica, Carolee Schneemann, Michael Stevenson, Rodel Tapaya, Rosemarie Trockel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Haegue Yang, and Adam Zaretsky.

Animal studies has emerged over the past 25 years as an academic field whose interdisciplinary nature has afforded exponential growth, with contemporary art as one of its principal points of interest. This very mobility leaves open the question of what, in the 21st Century, “animal art” is, as the theme of disenfranchised sentiency is one that is easily subsumed by strictly human interpretations of gender, race, disability, and the post-colonial.

Thus Animals, the most recent in the collaborative series published by the MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, is a welcome tonic in decluttering the conversation. Editor Filipa Ramos, in an accessible introduction geared toward all readers, explains her rationale in selecting essays and artworks for inclusion that, while subtle and complex enough to stimulate a range of associations, focus on the expression and experience of the animal.                 

Though an excellent primer on foundational animal studies readings such as Donna J. Harraway’s Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (2003) and John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? (1977), the book is also much more, inclusive of Walter Benjamin’s charming radio play for children, True Dog Stories (1930) and reflections on how her pets have informed her work in Some Animals (2016) by Joan Jonas. Of course Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s Percept, Affect, Concept is as impenetrably post-modern as when it was first published in 1991. This fortunately points up another of the compact volume’s strengths, in that no one essay is overly long, with many only two to four pages.

Especially delightful is artist Marcel Coates’ 2014 text-art representation of Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay What is It Like to Be a Bat?:



Coates then goes on to give instructions (putting on a blindfold, making a high-pitched noise) on how to more fully realise this proposition, offering a meditation on difference and ability that is amusing…and just a bit melancholy.

– Jean Marie Carey (


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