SALEM — Anyone with a four-legged friend knows that humans and animals communicate. Anyone halfway awake to the animal world knows that humans and animals can collaborate to great effect — think of dogs who hunt, or sniff out drugs or explosives.
But can people and animals partner to co-create a work of art? “Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations,” the inaugural exhibition in the newly redesigned and expanded Art & Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum, posits that they can.
The Art & Nature Center is a busy place, with interactive projects to captivate young minds, art studios, and didactic panels crackling with fun facts. Did you know that a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 times better than yours and mine? Plus, there’s a spectacular, if hoary, display of taxidermy birds from the museum’s collection.
Art is a prime entry point for lessons about nature — it’s eye-catching, often clever, and not bogged down by scientific jargon. But the Art & Nature Center is a better place for learning than it is for looking. There’s too much going on for quiet contemplation. It’s geared to the attention span of the younger set. The art serves education here, but the education does not serve the art.
Many kids love and relate to animals, so an exhibit about how humans and animals work together is a natural for this gallery. The idea of being able to collaborate with an animal teases our innate sense of what we have in common with other critters.
But “collaboration” implies equal partnership, and we’re just not similar enough, even to orangutans, to be equal. The most engaging paintings here are Mary Jo McConnell’s bowerbird canvases. She travels to Papua New Guinea to study the birds, which she considers fellow artists. The male birds sort berries and flowers in brilliant groupings — they seem, indeed, to have an aesthetic aim — and McConnell paints the remarkable results. She doesn’t partner with the birds, though, so much as witness their work.
Unfortunately, the idea of collaborating with animals is more compelling than the product. Just look at the lackluster paintings on view by cockroaches, beetles, elephants, and that orangutan. Humans provide the paper and paint.
Can we really ascribe even a shred of aesthetic intention to the beetles wrangled by Steven R. Kutcher? He painted their tiny feet and put them down; they walked away, leaving itty-bitty footprints moving in arcs along the page coated in yellow watercolor. It’s called “Sunrise No. 1” and it’s pretty. That doesn’t make it art.
Some animals may have a sense of aesthetics, but it’s not going to be the same as ours. Their instruments of perception are different, as are their priorities. Those beetles don’t care about “Sunrise No. 1.” They’re not walking with beauty in mind.
Many artists build works of art entirely on chance, and animals certainly contribute that element. Daniel Ranalli does exactly that in his incisive work here. Like Kutcher, he lets the invertebrates draw the lines.
Ranalli’s “Snail Drawings,” black-and-white photographic diptychs, feature before-and-after shots of snails in the sand. In the first images, Ranalli sets the snails in his own designs — a spiral, for instance, or a word, “chaos.” In the later shots, they’ve wandered, leaving their paths traced behind them. Ranalli acknowledges that snails do not share our sense of form and pattern.
It’s the tension between his design and their refutation of it that makes his work sharp. That level of awareness takes the art several steps beyond the “watch the animals paint” approach to too many works in this show.
Corinna Schnitt takes a similar path, positioning nature within culture to see what havoc ensues. Her riotous video “Once Upon a Time” has the camera rotating at floor level in a well-appointed living room, capturing the scene as pets and barnyard animals take over the place. It’s a particularly choice video for the Art & Nature Center, which has a demographic still learning the rights and wrongs of living room behavior.
For her bizarre and uncanny performance videos, Julia Oldham studies insects and appropriates their behavior. In “Pull,” she fills the center of the frame with a glowing orb, and she flutters and bats against it like a moth. The video is sped up, and she appears as if she’s frantically trying to embrace the light, like a panicked soul searching for God.
The best work in this show comes from artists such as Oldham, whose scrutiny of non-humans sheds light on us. Photographer Catherine Chalmers is another; for her funny, unsettling “American Cockroach — Imposters” series, she examines our abhorrence of roaches by dressing them up as more likable insects, such as a bumblebee.
Then there are our eagerest collaborators, the dogs. The show includes a couple of disappointingly small William Wegman prints of his Weimaraners. The size does him a disservice; Wegman’s photographs have a lush formality that’s lost on a small scale, at which point they give way to sideshow stories.
The savviest partnering in any of the work here is sonic, not visual. Jim Nollman conducts interspecies jams with dolphins (jazz guitar), whales (blues guitar), and wolves (Japanese flute). In each, the haunting communication resounds as instinctual, deeply felt, and fluid — like any really fine call and response among musicians, albeit within strict parameters.
Forget the visual art. Nollman may really be on to something here.