My nature, Your Nature

A critical analysis of natural environments through contemporary perspectivism in art and theory


“Animals have a standing presence in the history of art, whether in domestic genre scenes, pastoral landscapes, romantic painting or natural history photography. However, since the 1960s artists have been reimagining the terms of representation and expression of non-human animals so that not only do animals become living actants that challenge the regimented spaces of art, but the domain of ethics itself has entered into the broader field of contemporary practice becoming integral to its aesthetics and subject matter.” (Boetzkes, in the Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies 2018, p.65)

 Mark Dion’s Theatre of the Natural World exhibition at Whitechapel gallery,displaying twenty-two zebra finches for three months, poses many questions about ethics and animal rights, while Anthea Hamilton dabbles with very different power plays,  and non-human worlds associations in her installation The Squash at Tate Britain.

Let's consider the distinction between natural history and human history, and its effects on social memory and the general sense of responsibility. As historian Dipesh Chakrabarty denotes, natural history encompasses millions of years scaled up from slow processes, whereas human history can only contain what a generation or two can store in active memory, scaling just a few decades up toa couple of centuries. (Chakrabarty 2009, ‘Theclimate of history: Four theses’, Critical Inquiry) Indeed this very idea of scaling, of the epochs of anthropogenic climate change appropriately, is minutely explored by evolutionary biologist Chris D. Thomas, which argues for an optimistic view on today’s successful species.  

Ever since the Industrial revolution, we have been faced with a new notion of nature, and how modern society refers to it. Nature is no longer seen as fragile, evidenced in Clive Hamilton’s view that many ecosystems are more resilient and can adapt to new circumstances. The ethics philosopher Hamilton coined two terms that broke the world down into techno-utopians and eco-Soterians. For some, ever since the first image taken of Earth as a whole (Apollo 17 space mission in December 1972), which showed the blue planet as a total entity, a knowable system, it validated the instrumentalist belief that the planet is there to be manipulated for our own ends. (Hamilton2014) The new Prometheans (techno- utopians) are intent on intervening in climate systems, acting as new humanities gods. By contrast, eco-Soterians (named after the ancient Greek Soteria – the personification of safety and preservation) are cautious and mindful of the environment, and prioritize respect for the earth’s processes, alluding to the fact that this very intervention brought the environmental crisis in the first place. (Demos 2017,p.26)

Taking a more personal stance, historian of science and novelist Daisy Hildyard is considered here for her thinking around globalism and putting things into perspective internationally. Her “second body” reveals about how human beings have two bodies, the physical one they have direct autonomy over, and another, which is “the global presence of the individual body”. (Hildyard 2017) This complements Donna Haraway’s proclaim on recognizing what has been already done, looking at our actions and while “staying with the trouble”, she offers new modes of considering our relations to the earth and its inhabitants. (Haraway 2016)

Lastly, this essay will consider thinking around a defeatist philosophy, with Felix Guattari’s view of the Earth on the brink of ecocide. “After a century of unparalleled scientific and technological progress we have made our presence known to the planet in the most dramatic and self-defeating fashion.”  (Guattari 1989, p.3) The French social theorist is rightly reflecting over the recent geological and environmental fluctuations, of which we are gradually losing control over, and is extending the invitation that we should consider the giant blue rock’s ecosystem and its frailty.

The New Natural

Albeit the biologist Chris D. Thomas opens up his Inheritors of the Earth with a rather grueling mapping of the present state of the natural world, he nevertheless continues into arguing for a positive outlook on the future. “A mass extinction is in full swing, and prognoses for the future seem dire. For these reasons, we have gone so far as to describe ourselves as the scourge of the Earth, and as exceeding our planetary boundaries. […] we consume food and use timber that may have been grown on the opposite side of our planet; and species are being transported in our wake. We need a truly global perspective to understand the ramifications of our own actions.” (Thomas 2017, p.4-5) He largely goes on to analyze the evolution of different species of insects, birds and wild mammals, as well as extinction rates.

The very important point he makes throughout his book though, is the scaling aspect. Invasive species refer to animals that reside in the current location, nevertheless which originate in a foreign land (for example the originally North America native grey squirrel currently invading the UK). When contributing to the larger discussion around invasive species, locally and internationally, C.D. Thomas discusses the matter of perspective: if we were to analyze the biological world in the last few decades, the conclusions would be greatly different as we would be looking at a human history, whereas if we considered the evolutionary changes in the last ten thousand years, we would be really contextualizing things on a natural scale (natural history, Chakrabarty 2009). Instead of mourning the loss of countless animal species that are currently unfit to survive in a human altered planet, we should really direct our attention to successful species, and to prosperous apparitions of new species, such as plant splices.

A new rationale in which humans are seen as part of nature, rather than alongside the natural realm, is avidly needed. “We have to work with natural biological processes, not against them.” (Thomas 2017,p.9) This eco-Soterian view on the natural world draws on closing the gap between the separation of nature and humanity, and questions the very fundamental sense of ‘otherness’ that we have attributed to nature, ever since Darwin. While mainly interested in conservation and observation of rapid biological developments in nature, Thomas considers the implications of people’s worries about how things should be, indicated by a looking towards the past, at how the world was; as such, he tries to conduct our attention to a dynamic ever-changing, resilient nature, and shift our stasis from being fearful of past consequential actions, to a new future.

While T.J. Demos maps the two terms in his Against the Anthropocene book (techno-utopians and eco-Soterians, Hamilton 2014),the author comes out surprisingly eco-Soterian in thinking, equally criticizing a “carbon fueled capitalism and its techno-utopian ideologues” (Scranton, Learning to die in the Anthropocene). Together with Donna Haraway, he analyzes an irresponsible(non-response-able) looking away thinking that, with an exterminist Capitalocene, [composts] “piles for still possible pasts, presents and futures”. (Haraway 2016)

Empathetic Dissociation

 “Critical theory has debated the status of empathy in historical witnessing, but also in new materialist (and non-human) forms of agency that are motored by affect rather than intention.” (Weil 2018, p.126) Feminist thinkers have taken the role of emotions and empathy seriously, with Lori Gruen writing in the special issue of Hypatia on Animal Others, about her coined term entangled empathy, which describes the recognizing of the empathetic feeling, as well as an effort to analyze the situation at hand with its similarities and differences “between her situation and that of the fellow creature with whom she is empathizing”. (Gruen 2012)

In this context, as well as that of the biologist’s Thomas’ writing and his observations on invasive species, with his empathetic remarks on how little the animal world interferes in our human sand box, it seems interesting to compare it with Daisy Hildyard’s views on the matter. Her coined term the second body forces us to confront the recent disruption of our climate and ecology. The title surely enough refers to it being a symbol of agency and displacement.

Instead of falling into the pit of anthropomorphising, she is thinking about the human body and its angles, and how inflexible and fable we are, “humans are not the best creatures”. (Hildyard, p.86) In her essay, she is gradually exploring how the human is a part of animal life.

Throughout the book, Hildyard details several interviews with Richard the butcher, Gina the American zookeeper turned prison officer, that tells her about leopards and silver foxes kept as pets in luxury apartments; and three academic biologists, Luis, Nadezhda and Paul. Nadezhda teaches her about fungi, Luis about the origin of life. This is interesting to consider, as we find ourselves in all of these different minds, with their own interpretations and equally excuses for being an omnivore, contributing to animal suffering, and even just lacking empathy by being an objective and distant scientist. Richard’s story teaches us about the realities of meat-eating, about working in a butcher’s, and about brutal matter-of-factness: the hardest part for him is finding new recruits for the job, as no one wants to be a butcher anymore.

Later in the book though, the author herself does not seem to be more mindful of the consequences of her own actions, as she confesses to contributing to wastefulness and air pollution: “I enjoyed throwing out my things” and “I booked cheap flights to an island in the Mediterranean.” Due to this, towards the end of the book, the author fails to completely convince us, though the second body metaphor is alluring.

In linguistics, “displacement is the capability of language to communicate about things that are not immediately present (spatially or temporally)”. Quoting Ted Chaing, author of Stories of Your Life: And Others, the act of displacement is a human-only cognitive action, whereas a chimpanzee would not be able to think about a leopard in its absence, non-human animals acting only on reactive behaviour. (Chaing 2018, The Shape of the Circle in the Mind of theFish symposium, ZSL Zoo London) Drawing parallels from this, humans’ inability to empathise outside of their species might be linked ironically to our very ability to displace, or inability in certain cases. Of course, this displacement is by no means universal. Thanks to many scientists’ and thinkers’ bodies of research, the species gap is closing in, with inter-species collaborations and technological tools for communication.

Ethical Art-making

Mark Dion’s exhibition Theatre of the natural world opened its doors on 14 February 2018 at Whitechapel gallery. The exhibition was an extensive body of the artist’s work that explored the transcendence of nature from science, to art, to everything else. You were taken into numerous spaces,and there were several hundred objects to explore, however the most central installation, and avidly appropriate in this context, was the stand-out The Library for the birds of London.

The installation consisted of this mammoth birdcage you were presented with as soon as you entered the first area of the exhibition. There were twenty-two zebra finches persuaded into residing at the gallery for the whole three months of the exhibition, without seeing the external world, or having any privacy.

Mark Dion himself acknowledges that “science doesn’t hold a monopoly on what gets to be called nature”. In a sense, species boundaries do not exist, speaking from evolutionary terms, the edges are blurred, and changes have happened slowly, over millennia. It is curious to hear how he admits to the birds’ alienness: [being welcomed by these things] that are sharing your space, things that don’t belong in a gallery space; […] you can kind of share this space [with them]”.

Though the artist chooses to have these birds in the gallery space, and while they do invite visitors to enter and share their sanctuary, they are listed under art materials, alongside the sanctuary’s other components: steel, wood, books,zebra finches, and found objects.

Even as there is a well-constructed library there, containing ornithology, literature, philosophy, geography and history books, they become quickly ignored. The birds are clearly unmoved by the human artefacts around them, which only further underlines the irrationality of this anthropocentric setting, and the artist’s failure to bridge the gap between other species and us, as well as giving away his perspective of the natural world.

Mark Dion is creating the perfect viewing gallery (a circular 360 degrees view), emulating the galleria of a zoo, with the added aspect of access inside the very habitat of the animals. It is interesting to consider this alongside John Berger’s thinking around the inception of the notion of domestication: “[…]to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia.[…] the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat.” (Berger 2009) Would Dion’s gesture be an attempt at experiencing again inter-species co-habitation? In the last two centuries, animals have increasingly disappeared, we no longer live with them, and their numbers are dangerously becoming thinner. Nevertheless, it seems to equally be a comment on domestication at large, and an analysis of how we reference ourselves in relation to nature.

“The unwitting process of absorbing animals so that they become a dormant presence that haunts visual culture is evident in the standing preoccupation with the preservationof animal bodies.” (Boetzkes 2018, In the Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies, p.65) The artist’s choice of including the twenty-two zebra finches in the installation, as well protected as they are, with an on-call veterinarian and a complete team of trained staff at hand, does not seem sufficient. With Joseph Beuys paving the way in the seventies, beginning with his How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare performance, artists started to incorporate animals into social systems. Such works erupted a new ethical turn towards thinking with the animal in visual culture. Was that a considered act, or another step towards instrumentalizing the natural world? Perhaps one way of avoiding that would be to understand what would exactly aid an egalitarian approach.

Though in 2018, what does it mean to communicate with another species, and to pass the controller, in order to balance the scales? Diana Reiss, a speech and communication scientist, has developed extensive research on marine animal cognition and communication, particularly working closely with dolphins for over two decades. During her talk at The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish symposium, questions of ethical researching were raised: how can we make sure not to anthropomorphise what the animals feel and need, in relation to the scientific experiments they are involved in, and whether we could provide them with some control over their captive conditions (changing the temperature in the pool for example). Significantly, the very question of captivity was extended. Events such as Serpentine Galleries and Filipa Ramos’ joint symposium at ZSL London Zoo do try and bridge this very gap, between displacement and language, culture and science, though how impactful can such a benign event be? John Berger was questioning the position of zoos since the seventies: “public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life.” (Berger 1977)

With these questions about the very morality of zoos in mind, would it thus not be better to pursue scientific experiments in the wild, as to not detriment the very being’s quality of life? Reiss affirms that we are not there yet, that the experiment’s conditions have to be highly controlled in order to result in accurate observations, and these environments can equally serve towards conservation efforts. “Out of sight out of mind” seems to be her thinking, and she urges to the fact that zoos are still relevant for precisely their popularity, reaching and equally educating society by the millions. (Reiss 2018, The Shape of the Circle in the Mind of the Fish symposium, ZSL Zoo London)

Mark Dion occasionally selects to work with live animals, such as canaries and fish,and he declares that it often results in contradictions, from showing they as they are, to sometimes anthropomorphising them or symbolizing them. He states :“I feel no obligation to resolve the contradictions. In the western world we are immersed in an animal world from our very first plush toy. Animals teach us lessons, share space and time withus […]. Flesh and blood animals also go about their business all around us, at all times and scales, without interaction or thought about our world of ideas.”(Dion 2018, in Theatre of the Natural World, p.11-17) Be that as it may, there still lingers a feeling of responsibility over the active choice of locking that birdcage, or cutting into that skin. Being an artist, he is indeed free of having to “represent the truth or objectivity”.  Though such actions only result in perpetuation of an existing problem.

By contrast, the artist Anthea Hamilton chose to simply allude to the being of and being as a squash, in her installation at Tate Britain. The commonly assumed non-existence of life in squashes, or implications of animism aside, the artist is successful in getting us to imagine how would it be like to be a vegetable. The artist might not have intended to attribute a living soul to an inanimate object such as a squash, nonetheless it might be more about humans making space for a different kind of thinking,for imagining a condition of inter-species equality.

Being a pumpkin, imagining life as other. For this commission to be so widely celebrated in one of the country’s most respected galleries – Tate Britain, and created by an artist of such a calibre as Anthea Hamilton, it is surely an indicator of change. Only that, looking at nature, and positioning the self as part of an ecosystem has always happened. The very Squash installation is based on a sixties choreography piece by Erick Hawkins. Nevertheless, the re-imagined native-American inspired piece is even more relevant today, in the capitalist context. And even more so, it is good to consider further peeling off the squash, as this is an appropriation of an appropriation. (Pratt 2018) Hamilton’s The Squash is inspired by Hawkins’ 8 Clear Places (squash), (NewYork 1960) that in turn is an appropriation of Amerindian rituals, as engaged by the Squash Kachina of the Hopi culture.

Not too dissimilar to Mark Dion’s installation, the Squash commission sees various performers inhabiting the space, every day for over six months. The difference being the fact that the performers have employed language to give consent to their presence in the performance, and are being paid for their ‘services’. Even so, their own identities are left behind, once they enter this new stage, specifically built on the ground floor of the gallery to create a new environment.

Hamilton’s performances shift the dynamic, in which a human dressed as a pumpkin is the observed, rather than the fruit itself. For Berger, “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.”This dire ‘it - him/her’ - animal as object - paradigm is emphasised in his writing, and we come to contemplate on this passive stance. (Berger 2009, p.16)

Eco-soterian in thinking, Mark Dion’s perspective of nature is ultimately pacifistic, as seen in his Wonder Workshop installation. While engaging intensively with plants and animals, he leads the life of a twenty-first-century amateur naturalist. Dion’s trophies do not wish to possess an animal completely, instead they become a sad reminder of urgent ecological questions. “Above all, his expeditions take aim at the cultural institutions that determine how notions of animals and nature have been manifested and perpetuated in western society for centuries[and] he investigated cultural representations of animals.” (Lange-Berndt2018, in Mark Dion: Theatre of theNatural World, p.201)

The final display in the exhibition is a testament to “the abstraction, destruction and metamorphosis that human beings enact on the natural world.” (exhibition booklet)

The artist therefore attempts to re-imagine species’ hierarchies and identities. For Dion, nature should not be dominated, and instead he builds on previous systems of representation, triggering new perceptions. When writing about Dion’s work and co-existence, Petra Lange-Berndt addresses his ability to “sensitise his audience towards more productive relationships with non-human creatures.” (Lange-Berndt2018) The artist considers us equally part of nature, alongside our kin, the non-human animals.

Staying with the Ecocide

Mark Dion builds his installations due to his preoccupations into human relationships with other creatures, meanwhile Donna Haraway takes inspiration from quotidian activities, developing some of her most important research, as a result of her walks with her dogs. The multispecies feminist theorist wrote extensively about companion species and how to stay with the trouble – the troubles of the present Capitalocene. “Learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying together on a damaged earth will prove more conducive to the kind of thinking that would provide the means to building more livable futures. “ (Staying with the Trouble 2016)

While Chris D. Thomas presents a relatively positive outlook on the future of the inheritors of the earth, and presents an extensive lexicon of successful species that will still be standing after an impending changing natural environment, Donna Haraway rushes our imagination further on the scale of impending doom. In Staying with theTrouble she is plainly stating the facts, by observing Gaia’s present state and thinking of facing the consequences of what we have provoked, with a note of spent finalization.

Eco-soterian in thinking, Haraway refers to our environment as a ‘damaged planet’, and indeed this is not a new concept. Disaster, in the form of genocide or natural catastrophe, is an ever-recurring anthropomorphic concept. If the beginning of this text was considering time scaling in a natural history systematic deliberation, Donna is thinking laterally, through sympoiesis, scaling the perspective looking at matter. “Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means ‘making-with’. Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoetic or self-organizing. […] Earthlings are never alone. […] Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems.It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.” (Haraway 2016, p.58) This notion of mutually beneficial inter-species intersection undermines the singularism promoted by postmodern political systems at play in the human world.

Felix Guattari seems to similarly support a move towards a new solidarity: “new ecological practices will have to articulate themselves on these many tangled and heterogeneous fronts, their objective being to processually activate isolated and repressed singularities that are just turning in circles. […] it seems essential to organize new micropolitical and microsocial practices, new solidarities, a new gentleness,together with new aesthetic and new analytic practices regarding the formation of the unconscious. […] this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic Universe.” (Guattari1989, p. 34)

In The Three Ecologies Guattari was making observations about just how much we have impacted on Earth, more than two decades before the plastic crisis.

But how about the animal? Matthew Calarco argues how fundamental it is to really grasp how “anthropocentric much of our thinking about animals and other forms of nonhuman life is”. (Calarco 2008, p.10) He makes a case for an intersection of animal rights with identity politics, which is pertinent to the extent that it provides animals with avoice in the political and legal spheres, by assuming that specialist language. Both Calarco and Guattari hint at a new inter-species intersectionality, not too dissimilar to Haraway’s thinking. Haraway’s intra-action, a term coined via Karen Barad’s byname neologism denoting entangled agencies - a move from the conventional understanding of interactions, refers to multispecies ethnography. Equally concerned with thepolitics of nature, Haraway is concerned with how to live well on the still vulnerable planet.

My Nature, Your Nature?

To conclude,I am aligning with Haraway’s thinking around ‘making oddkin’; “we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles.” (Haraway 2016, p.) For her, the work of building more livable worlds is subsequently partial, as we need each other to work in sympoiesis. By ‘making together’, through writing and thinking, art-making and curating, we can only try to do better by our kin. (Kenney 2015, in Art in the Anthropocene, p.255)


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Theatre of the Natural World(2018) Mark Dion. Whitechapel gallery, London. 14 February – 13 May 2018.

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The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish,Serpentine Galleries and Filipa Ramos, ZSL London Zoo, 28 May 2018 (Part 1:Language)

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