Ernest Hemingway loved going to the zoo, but not on Sundays. The reason, he explained, was that, ‘I don’t like to see the people making fun of the animals, when it should be the other way around.’ He would probably have enjoyed Animality, an entertaining exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, Lower John St, W1. It contains quite a few jokes, but generally the laugh is on Homo sapiens.
The humour tends to comes from an age-old ploy: birds, reptiles and mammals wearing clothes. It was the basis, for example, of many works by the caricaturist J.J. Grandville of cats, bears and other such fauna dressed up as early 19th-century French citizens.
The contemporary sculptor Stephan Balkenhol carries out the same metamorphic prank with a couple of wryly weird figures on plinths: one with very hairy legs, shorts, T-shirt and the face of a fox. Yinka Shonibare contributes a life-sized, gun-wielding, beast-headed acrobat balanced nimbly on a tightrope.
Of course, this is Beatrix Potter territory, but even such comforting characters as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle are slightly ambivalent. We find the hedgehog in a dress charming, but there is also the implication that we ourselves are — as Lucian Freud half thought of his non-naked sitters — ‘animals dressed up’.
This exhibition is about the boundary — one that becomes less clear the more you think about it — between humans and other species. It also tinkers with the borders between art and non-art, past and present. Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a Rhinoceros is included, and Walt Disney’s Jungle Book too — along with several pieces of recent video art.
Many of the most striking images are 17th- and 18th-century zoological illustrations — which used to be thought merely scientific, but are also often both strange and beautiful.