DENVER — Due to habitat loss around Kyoto, 80 Japanese snow monkeys were sent to a Texas desert sanctuary in 1972. Adapting to life with rattlesnakes and consuming cacti, the monkeys are thriving generations later. Curious if the memory of snow remained, artist Shimabuku brought a pile of it to the desert. The results of his experiment are seen in “Do snow monkeys remember snow mountains?” (2017), currently on view at the Denver Art Museum. Years ago, he traveled with an octopus only to find the creature was hoarding a stone on the journey. What insight might snow monkeys provide?
In 2016, Shimabuku traveled to the primate sanctuary to see the monkey transplants for himself. Their identifying features of pink faces and cloudy gray hair remained, but the monkeys were noticeably larger than their Japanese kin — translating “everything is bigger in Texas” from lore to fact. In an interview with Hyperallergic, artist Shimabuku noted, “Texas people drink so much soda,” which is why he decided to use “a local material, ice from the petro station,” to make a frozen mound. This ‘Snow Mountain’ would test the monkeys’ memory.
“They come one by one. Some monkeys wanted to keep the ice to themselves, then they got bored,” Shimabuku observed of the 22-minute video. “Some shared. Some were bossy … like people.” The snow became a forbidden fruit with many monkeys grabbing a handful and running off. But most of them nervously nibbled nearby with a shifting gaze. “I didn’t expect them to eat it. [In Japan] they eat flowers, trees and insects. But it is new for them to eat rattlesnake and cactus.” When asked why it was important to test if monkeys remembered their place of origin, Shimabuku laughed and said, “maybe it is not important. Memory is a bridge between animals and people.”
Various nonhuman animals appear in traditional Japanese folktales, both real and imagined. According to anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in the book The Monkey as Mirror the Japanese monkey is a reoccurring creature in stories due to its similarity to humans and its symbolic threat “to the human animal boundary.”
When the monkeys became pests to businesses and residents of Kyoto, perforating the barrier between wild and urban spaces, it landed them in Texas. In his book JAPANimals, Brett Walker notes that it was early in the Meiji restoration of the late 19th century when the zoological park first opened its gates in Japan. Urbanization and population expansion made it less likely to encounter animals in a natural habitat. Part museum and part prison, the zoo formalized the divide between humans and animals. By teasing out the human characteristics of nonhuman animals, Shimabuku challenges that divide.
“Memory can be at a cellular level. The monkeys looked at the ice and they grabbed it. Some hadn’t seen ice for generations, and still they reacted spontaneously,” noted Shimabuku. In his 2000 piece with the octopus, titled “Then, I decided to give a Tour of Tokyo to the Octopus from Akashi,” the artist explored the urban landscape, including a fish market, with an octopus companion he obtained himself while fishing. At the end of the video, Shimabuku discovers his traveling octopus was carrying a rock the entire time. “Some octopus carry many small rocks, or a shell, or one big stone. It is like a puppet for a child, or pillow for an adult,” he said. When I asked him why he thinks an octopus would collect an object, he responded, “I would ask people why they collect things.”
“Do snow monkeys remember snow mountains?” observes the navigation of brutal environmental changes while prompting a theoretical discussion of what remembering looks like — both very human actions. While snow is an alien substance to the Texas-born Japanese snow monkey, the suggestion that they covet it may reflect a form of knowing. The spectacle of Shimabuku’s work depends upon what is in view as much as what is hidden.
Do snow monkeys remember snow mountains? by Shimabuku continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 W. 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver) through February 3. This installation is curated by Rebecca Hart, Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.