The Human Animal, 2021

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic a core strand of Backwater’s 2021 artistic programme will examine humanity’s relationship with the natural world and take a closer look at ‘the human animal’ in this context. The programme will include solo and group exhibitions and an Art Shorts series comprising exhibitions, events and screenings.

The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species is a 1994 television documentary series written and presented by zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris. He described the series and accompanying book as “A study of human behaviour from a zoological perspective”. According to Morris this approach “[puts] us in our place as part of the scheme of nature on the planet earth”. He sees us as one animal amongst many.

The emergence and spread of COVID-19 led to a frantic search for the source of the virus and in turn this drew attention to the relationship between humans and the wider animal kingdom, particularly in relation to the illegal trade of wild animals. The virus is thought by some scientists to have been carried by bats and passed on to humans via an intermediary host thought to be the pangolin, reputedly the most illegally traded mammal in the world.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 there had been a notable surge in the global campaign to highlight climate change and the broader impact of humans on the environment. However, it appears that it is not until nature seemingly bites back and humanity is under immediate threat that anyone of consequence and power really takes notice. For those of us who will thankfully survive the pandemic it is an opportune and appropriate time to take stock of our individual and collective impact on the natural world and scrutinise ourselves as animals with agency, determining which of our behaviours can be changed or improved for the greater good of our living planet.

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The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, BBC TV series (1994), written and presented by Desmond Morris.

The opening exhibition Below, and Time Between features an experimental installation by artists Carol Anne Connolly and Fiona Kelly that deals with unfolding landscapes and methods of mapping, considers geological and political themes within the contemporary narrative of land use and deep time. An awareness of deep time brings us to consider our historical legacy, what we are leaving behind for the aeons and for the beings that will follow us.

In the Art Shorts series Carolyn Collier explores how artworks have the capacity to record the human experience, including aspects of the lived experience that reference space, time and movement. Helen O’Shea’s research focus explores the transformation of used plastic in the making process; to look at the agency of art to effect change, and to open dialogue for already existing plastics. Natureculture reading is a semi-nomadic group dedicated to cross-disciplinary research between art and ecology. Paul Carroll’s series of photographs explore how people and communities in Ireland interact with waterways. He will be joined in conversation by Chris Moody, a local activist, cartoonist and photographer who is known for promoting biodiversity of urban waterways. The Art Shorts series will also feature lunchtime screenings of selected episodes of the TV series The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species (BBC, 1994) written and presented by zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris.

In his exhibition The Engineering of Consent Padraic Barrett focuses on the imperceptible forces of surveillance capitalism and its role in the gradual deterioration of the human condition. The prevailing theme in the work of Katrīna Tračuma is humankind’s estrangement from nature, as viewed through the lens of our relationships with other species. Her exhibition Beasts presents work that is political in nature and will engage the viewer in philosophical considerations towards the daily acts of speciesism. The exhibition The Human Animal will feature artwork by Backwater studio members David Barrett, Lorraine Cooke, Stephen Doyle, Megan Eustace and Eileen Healy, and will be curated by Brian Mac Domhnaill. The exhibition will consist of paintings and drawings derived from the practice of life drawing and portrait painting, and focuses on the materiality, vulnerability and strength of the human form.

Backwater will present an exhibition by Deirdre Frost, the 2020 recipient of the Ciarán Langford Memorial Bursary from Backwater. This exhibition will form part of a partnership exhibition trail with Sample Studios, who have also awarded a graduate residency to the artist. Deirdre will show work in both Studio 12 and St Luke’s Crypt simultaneously and both exhibitions will offer two different and distinct aspects of her practice across the two venues. Deirdre’s work is rooted in a phenomenological investigation into the experience of the individual in a man-made environment and their relation to the natural world through this prism.

Beyond Survival, an exhibition by Cork Printmakers will feature work by its members Eimearjean Mc Cormack, Lynn Marie Dennehy, Peter Nash and Hehir & Noonann, in response to ‘The Human Animal’ curatorial premise.

‘The Human Animal’ programme will conclude with the exhibition Fetter featuring new drawings and paintings by Helen Farrell. This recent work has evolved out of a desire to create a creaturely realm that references actual living things but that also makes an allusion to forms of life that have become mutated and fragmented by the process of their making.

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