Art

When Hens Look Like Maleviches

Laura Lima, "Gala Chickens and Ball" (2015). A Performa Commission. (Photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Laura Lima, “Gala Chickens and Ball” (2015), a Performa commission (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There is no perfect word or glossary to describe where Laura Lima takes art. But taking chickens into such uncharted territory with brightly colored, Kazimir Malevich-inspired feathers makes this Performa 2015 commission a not-to-miss.

Here are the facts: Lima has turned the raw space of a vacant, ground-level storefront into a chicken coop. The artist and her team have adorned hens and a rooster with brightly colored feathers used in Brazilian carnival. Just as Kazimir Malevich painted stark color contrasts, the artist was inspired to fashion strident color contrasts between the bird’s natural plumage and the artificially colored feathers.

But then things get sexual. Hens start acting attracted and dancing amorously towards hens adorned with these colorful feathers. Are hens perceiving other hens as roosters? Or do they just think their girlfriends look fabulous?

Pedestrians stare at the chickens through the windows, struck by the shear uncanny sight of adhering colored feathers to birds that already have feathers. Some viewers are drawn inside, and many are unaware of how the colors are inspired by Malevich or how feathers can activate the gender-fluid and sexually-fluid chicken behavior that the artist is observing. Let’s face it — most of us don’t know chickens well enough to decode their fluidity. But this artist knows animals well enough — let’s take her at her word.

Laura Lima, "Gala Chickens and Ball" (2015). A Performa Commission. (Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa)
Laura Lima, “Gala Chickens and Ball” (2015) (photo by Paula Court, courtesy Performa) (click to enlarge)

“Animals are a mystery …. We’re giving meaning to them … We don’t understand animals,” Laura Lima explained to Hyperallergic. Her point was that animals are beings whose consciousness humans can never full access. All we can do is observe and wonder. But we often ascribe meanings that we can’t substantiate.

“Humans and animals are the same,” Lima went on to explain to Hyperallergic. She invites visitors to observe this special coop and contemplate just what humans might have in common with chickens. So often we tend to think of ourselves as superior and different than these birds. But we are both made of matter and breathe. And both of us feel and act differently about our sexuality in a colorful outfit.

The famed Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac once wrote of carnival that “there existed places where the prudent bourgeois could not go without inciting a grave scandal … But with the arrival of carnival, the serious man hid his seriousness inside a domino costume, tied a mask to his austere face and good-bye prudence.” In a similar way, the hens appear to be having their own form of carnival. Activated by the costumes, the animals enact sexual gestures towards one another that serve no procreative function. This work begs the question of whether costume play and taking on personas is limited to humans.

Laura Lima, "Gala Chickens and Ball" (2015). A Performa Commission. (Photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Laura Lima, “Gala Chickens and Ball” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The coop itself is a large geometric structure, which was custom-built to separate viewers from the birds. The wooden beams create these triangular and zig-zagging forms that are reminiscent of the geometric forms of Brazilian Neo-Concrete art, which is a movement in the 20th Brazilian avant-garde that on the surface might look like Minimalism but actually imbues geometry with radically different ideas about sensuality and poetic feelings. Although the coop is geometric, it doesn’t have the chill of Minimalism and owes more to the dynamism of Neo-Concrete.

In order to get the most out of Lima’s invitation to experience these colorful birds downtown, it’s crucial to introduce some key figures and ideas of Brazilian modernism, whose movements and ideas can’t be expressed by standard New York labels like conceptual art, performance art, and Minimalism.

One of Laura Lima’s greatest influences is Lygia Clark (1920–1988), who had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last year. Clark famously abandoned the idea of art after 1966 although many of her “works” continued to be displayed in avant-garde spaces. Her Wikipedia entry was recently enlarged at the 2015 Art + Feminism edit-a-thon and is now one of the most well-referenced places online to read about the artist in English.

Clark once wrote that art should not be conceived of as a machine or object but instead as an “almost-body,” which can only be made whole by viewer participation. Interactivity was essential for many Neo-Concrete artists, who believed when art was manipulated and affected by its viewer, it would provide insights into human nature that frozen, static non-interactive art can’t.

In this vein, Lima’s work is about the insights gleaned from viewers interacting with live, adorned chickens. Although, the geometric coop and windows could be seen as divisions between humans and animals. Regardless, the chickens keenly sense they are being observed and respond or ignore as they wish. Some of the most precious moments come when the birds and human interact. For example, in the GIF below, the hen jumps off the hay as she senses a man walking down the street.

Laura Lima, "Gala Chickens and Ball" (2015). A Performa Commission. (animated gif by author for Hyperallergic)
Laura Lima, “Gala Chickens and Ball” (2015) (animated GIF by author for Hyperallergic)

“This is not performance art,” Lima explained to Hyperallergic. Her intent is to clarify her connection to a different lineage of ideas than the European avant-garde. While Lima is not the first to incorporate live chickens in her art, she has little in common with the aggression and violence of recent performance art, which is more in sync with the shock and awe of the futurists who pioneered the European performance art genre.

To cite some examples, in 2014, Steven Cohen, danced near the Eiffle Tower with a rooster tied to his penis with a leash.

In 2013, an art student Miguel Suarez presented a performance at the Alberta College of Art + Design in which he slit a chicken’s throat and stuffed its feathers and innards into a pot.

In the early 1980s, food critic and former performance artist Jonathan Gold put several live chickens into a warehouse in Los Angeles, assembled an audience in the space, and then wearing nothing but a blindfold, went through the space with a machete attempting to attack the chickens. The birds deftly avoided their blindfolded assailant.

Laura Lima, "Gala Chickens and Ball" (2015). A Performa Commission. (animated gif by author for Hyperallergic)
Laura Lima, “Gala Chickens and Ball” (2015)(animated GIF by author for Hyperallergic)

In 1969, feminist performance artist Linda Mary Montano showed nine chickens in three wire cages on the roof of a building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She recreated the piece in October 2015 at the university.

No definitive history of live chickens in avant-garde and performance art has yet been written. But the point is that Lima is far away from the brutality and entrapment many performance artists have inflicted on chickens as an aesthetic gesture. She is even collaborating with the City Chicken Project to source and care for the chickens.

Some animal rights activists may question whether this project is ethical. However, the chickens are just as captive and well fed as they would be on a farm in preparation for eventual slaughter. And they are even given some freedom of motion, which is a step up from the cages many chickens get locked in to produce eggs factory-style.

Maya Angelou once quipped: “I like chicken a lot because chicken is generous — that is to say, it’s obedient. It will do whatever you tell it to do.” And the hens are certainly generous in allowing Lima to adhere carnival feathers to their plumage and to interact with the humans watching them. What the entire experience can teach you about costumes, color, and courtship is up to how much time you spend getting to know the birds.

Laura Lima’s “Gala Chickens and Ball” is a Performa 15 commission at 350 Broadway, Tribeca, Manhattan. The installation is open to the public from 1pm until 7pm through Sunday, November 22. A special finale event on Saturday, November 21 is already sold out. The project is curated by Adrienne Edwards.

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