Rachel Mayeri, Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends, video 2007

The Art of Biology: Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema and the Legacy of Monkey Painting

"Come on you apes! You wanna live forever?"
Lieutenant Jean Rasczak in Starship Troopers

As far back as ancient Egypt, art has been seen as an immortalizing agent – overseen by the priesthood, Egyptian craftsmen of the Pharaonic eras followed rigid iconographic formulae designed to maximize the possibility of a favorable judgment in the underworld, where the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. Chief interrogator and court reporter at this most consequential measurement was the God Thoth – usually depicted as an Ibis-headed man, but in this case taking the form of a Cynocephalus baboon.

The choice of an ape as avatar for the inventor of writing and measurement – in some accounts Thoth is even said to have given birth to himself by uttering his own name – is puzzling, in that one of the primary differences between our species and the less spectacularly dominant primates is the absence of symbolic language. Particularly relevant to the intersection of apes and art is the function that Count Korzybski – the independent scholar who developed the controversial theory of General Semantics – referred to as “time-binding” – the exponential accretion of knowledge and culture over successive generations of human society.

Even before Jean Jacques Rousseau and the advent of Romantic Primitivism, apes were depicted in art as analogous figures for humans before the Fall: unaware of Death, Time, History, or Causality. Now I’m no professional ethologist, but it seems to me that the ideas of those who study animal behavior – specifically primates in the field – had, by the late 1960s, arrived (after a long and circuitous route through the Deus-ex-machina experimental design models of white-coated laboratory-bound Skinnerians) at a similar lost-Eden archetype. This is the version of primatology – the early revelations about Jane Goodall’s playful, gentle tribe of chimpanzees – that captured and continues to dominate the public imagination, and is the fulcrum about which Rachel Mayeri’s incisive Primate Cinema videos and workshops hinge.

Of course this saccharine trope of the hot-tubbin’ free-lovin’ Bonobo is inaccurate – perhaps not fundamentally so, but distorted through an ideologically anthropomorphic lens that shies away from the shadow side of human nature. I remember seeing my first Jane Goodall National Geographic Special in the early 80s and being profoundly moved by the story of the infanticidal cannibalistic mother/daughter chimp team Passion and Pom (note to Rachel: work up feature-length treatment – I’m seeing Meg Ryan/Dakota Fanning) and the brutal Pogrom inflicted on the southern splinter tribe. This was the time of my greatest interest in primatology, when I was reading books by Goodall, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger (& Robin Fox), Melvin Konner and others.

My readings resulted in a bleak sense of our species’ future – as stated or implied by even the most optimistic primatologists, the ever-widening gap between our primate impulses and their technologically expanded arena of action is a pretty compelling explanation for most of the malaises of industrialized civilization: computer brain in a monkey body = Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Not to mention the easily manipulated, unquenchable lust for shiny baubles that is the lynchpin of the global free market society. But maybe that’s just me. Certainly the unlikely emergence of primatology as a hotbed of feminist praxis suggests that the situation is more open than it seems. The transformation engendered by Goodall et al represents more than shift in the technical operational parameters of field ethology, but a fundamental correction of the flawed Enlightenment concept of objectivity, and perhaps more.

While Rachel Mayeri’s exploration of the interface between primatology and the public imagination bears abundant fruit when considered as a feminist political parable on the mechanisms and limitations of human reflexive mediation, I would hold these truths to be relatively self-evident. As an artist and critic, my attention is drawn to her work’s resonance with the no less rich subject of Monkeys in Art History. And I’m not so much interested the use of apes as human surrogates in a pictorialist vocabulary mentioned earlier as I am in the implications of the early work of Desmond Morris and the chimp painter Congo.

Morris’ first and least-known book The Biology of Art was published in 1962, and is given over largely to a detailed and rigorous aesthetic analysis of paintings and drawings produced by Congo over a 3-year period in the late 50s. In his conclusion, Morris emphasizes the self-rewarding nature of artistic practice, which he equates with other primate “activities for activies’ sake” such as playful gymnastics and manipulative investigation of objects. Morris’ position was not ironic or rhetorical; as recently as 2005 he reiterated that “It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists, that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.”

The considerable media attention afforded the work of Congo and other artist apes was unfortunately reduced and twisted into a reactionary critique of then-contemporary Abstract Expressionist painting – a critique that bears reversing, with a renewed attention to the rhetoric of improvisation spontaneity and its implementation in the work of the Action Painters. Jackson Pollock’s “I am Nature” becomes takes on a tone of transcendent humility rather than overweening hubris. The social sculptures of ape society, improvised from moment to moment in a language of gesture, eye contact, touch, vocalizations, pheromones, and other ephemeral physiological expressions suddenly seem like the cutting edge of avant-garde relational performance.

Which is exactly what Rachel Mayeri has translated it into with her How to Act Like an Animal workshops – though the work’s layered presentation through video documentation (as with her slapstick rendition of cloning undermines another misguided bid for immortality in Stories from the Genome) puts it at a critical remove from the encounter-group consumerism of the 70s while acknowledging the potency of its clichés. Nevertheless, Primate Cinema frames the social world of apes as an autonomous creative arena operating outside the conceit of storing up manna for a place in the history books. And that gives me hope.

Thoth, in addition to his permanent truckscale gig at the threshold between worlds, played a crucial role in the most important Egyptian mythological narratives. When Osiris’ covetous brother Set chopped his body into fourteen pieces and scattered them along the Nile, and sister/wife Isis laboriously gathered most of the parts together (she had to make a new penis) it was Thoth who devised the magic formula to resurrect him, restoring balance to the world. The practice of artmaking and the very future of our species depend on a similar reintegration, and unlikely as it seems, our simian cousins are pointing the way.

Doug Harvey is an artist, writer, curator, and educator subsisting in the jungles of Los Angeles.