Look Back in Sorrow – the Gaze
of Animals in Our Eyes
There is no higher life.
This is the only life there is.
Which we share with animals. 1
When he opened his eyes again, the world had turned into flickering dots. Shocked, he blinked and tried to focus his gaze, and when his sight had cleared, he saw the fox. It was standing on the opposite bank, watchfully sizing up the human being.2
Animals dominate the visual world in Gabriela Oberkofler’s oeuvre: birds, insects, foxes, sheep, and horses—animals that attract the artist’s attention above all when she finds them injured or dead. Oberkofler depicts unspectacular moments, the fateful, quotidian agony in a world manipulated by human beings. Beautiful images with radical subject matter. In that respect they are part of an art historical tradition in which the animal played an important role from the start—though always in relation to humans, in its function for humans, as a symbol of human passions, or as personification of the Other that poses a threat to us. The representation of animals in today’s visual culture has indeed caused the original meaning of the animal in our culture to disappear.3 In the accompanying ideology, 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. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.4
Expressions of this repression include images that play animals down or glorify them but have nothing to do with the real circumstances of animal existence. Rather, such representations have a crucial influence on the reality of animals. That is, the actual circumstances of their lives are obscured in favor of a depiction that satisfies only human interests: as a projection screen or as a justification for one’s own “civilization.” 5 This problematic mixture of reality and representation is the origin of important critical practices in contemporary art of a sort also found in the works of Gabriela Oberkofler.
There sits the cat—with no name—in a drawing that has captured in delicate strokes a life that ended all too quickly. It looks at us—not with reproach, more surprised that everything could happen like this in the idyllic village where the fox and the hare wish each other good night and no real crimes occur. And yet the unspeakable happens every day. The artist captures it in her paintings, which are so beautiful that it hurts. Red and black. Ants on fire. Flies in the fur. A rowan tree of life and death. As if you could wind it all back again—as with a film—the small and large catastrophes, the accident, the fate, the unrelenting cycle of life, which ends in death, the bird that has been run over, the flayed sheep, the starved cat, the dog that fell into the well … All these images and stories from which Gabriela Oberkofler makes her art: Everything back again—buds on the cherry tree, that is in fact no longer alive. Cherry pits as in summer, artfully tied to the dried branches by the artist. An installation in which the memory of resplendent, cherry-sweet life is reawakened, in which the sheep’s fleece is returned, in an act of reparation, to the meadow. What remains is a sheep’s pelt, surrounded by a fence …
In Oberkofler’s drawings and installations, the invisible and the dead return to life so to say, appearing before our eyes—tiny or life-size! Fictional images that understand the animal in its original form as a metaphor 6 and expose the mechanisms that have contributed to the naturalization of its representation.
They are part of the South Tyrolean artist’s efforts to recollect, continually engaging with nature and cultural spaces or their destruction and loss in order to ask, again and again, the question of identity and compulsiveness. Fences and cages appear as symbols of an ideology that, following the Cartesian model, upholds a worldview that presumes a clear separation between body and mind, animal and human being. And because according to this philosophy animals do not have souls, they were reduced to the model of a machine: 7 to be used by human beings to provide meat and leather for industrial production or as sports
Not coincidentally, Gabriela Oberkofler draws attention to those animals whose habitat is limited by cages, fences, and tethers: a bleeding horse, rendered in very delicate strokes, as if the artist had wanted to capture lovingly every single hair. Thus it stands, tied up, bleeding from its mouth and nostrils, with a vacant gaze—a profoundly sad look. Opposite it a sheep behind a fence whose body seems about to dissolve. Especially around the ears, head, and legs, it is rendered only fragmentarily, with holes in its pelt. We recognize the structure of the fence, which has inscribed itself on its body. So Oberkofler’s animals look at us—questioningly, uncertainly—through chain link, through boards and posts.
No matter whether it is a cat, a horse, or a sheep, its gaze is always that of a “misunderstood” and perhaps also suffering creature. That is how we must understand the pictures of Pauline, a little Jack Russell terrier, and the black cat with no name as well. The latter’s coat is dull, looking moth-eaten, full of holes, as if it had been lying dead on the balcony for some time. If not for its gaze! Pointed directly at us, yet at
the same time indifferent, resigned to its fate, as if things had to turn out this way …
In his famous essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger analyzed the gaze between animal and human being: The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. The animal scrutinises him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.8
We assume that human beings regard themselves as the center of their environment, and everything they see refers to them. More precisely, that they form their reality in the act of seeing.9 That also means that we can succumb to illusion at this point: the things we see are created for us, indeed only for us and the order of our world. Conversely, according to the associated ideology, animals are always the ones being observed. It doesn’t matter that they can observe us. Unlike the gaze of another person, theirs has no consequences for us: No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed and eaten […]. The animal can be tamed, so that it supplies and works for the peasant. But always its lack of common language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man.10
It is the good, useful, cultivated animal, that helps us and yet remains invisible, insignificant in its needs. Regarding its existence as a matter of course and disregarding its pain means nothing other than a dubious understanding of civilization that places humans above the natural world and gives them the right to exploit it: The idea of the animal’s comparative worthlessness has been (and still is) enmeshed in most notions of what it means to be civilized […] a dividing line can be drawn between human hurt and animal hurt.11
Gabriela Oberkofler has developed a strategy for drawing that undermines the visual culture based on this ideology. In her almost pointillist-looking drawings, the artist creates her motifs from tiny dots, which often seem to break up precisely where the body is demarcated from its surroundings: insect wings and legs that crumble into dust, fox fur filled with flies, wounds of red paint on black animal bodies, holes in pelts. Her depictions of dead and wounded animals do not conform to the usual Western art historical repertoire of animal paintings, much less to pop culture images, in which animals are primarily presented as entertainment. They radiate an uneasiness manifested in animal bodies to which something terrible has been done or that happen to have suffered an accident; wherever they appear, they somehow seem out of place. Not coincidentally, the artist illustrates what disturbs and distresses: a vitrine full of beetles, flies, small snakes, and salamanders—accident victims—presented like precious objects. What we find in these images is the beauty of decay, which is just as much part of earthly existence as the beauty of thriving life. Both things are echoed in Oberkofler’s work, which therefore always has a bitter taste. Even so, the world she draws is in motion, on the verge of dissolving—even the fence has its holes …
This fence is nothing less than a central design element and motif in Oberkofler’s oeuvre. It structures the picture plane and space, is a prison and protection, marks its own terrain, and demarcates the living space. At the same time, the fence marks precisely the ambiguous state—between protection and imprisonment—that dominates life in the countryside. In the metaphorical sense, it stands for the dichotomies of a system of representation that is under attack, in which good and evil, animal and human, body and mind are no longer clearly distinguishable ever since current artistic strategies have questioned their validity. So in Gabriela Oberkofler’s beautiful drawings the fence symbolizes not only constraint but also the possibility of overcoming it. It is the line between proximity and distance, between us and the Other, between outside and inside, between protection and freedom. Anyone who dares to go too far out runs the risk of being eaten. Those who remain home carry the fence in their head.
The artist knows all about those who remained home: She has researched the history and stories of those who were forced to leave their country in 1939, when Mussolini wanted to get rid of the Southern Tyroleans and Hitler generously encouraged them to defect. Those who remained lived a life under a false name. What remained were repression and a false idyll that repeatedly appears in Oberkofler’s works.
Against this backdrop, the animals become a metaphor for the loss of their own identity: As little as they fit into the landscape here—the cats and dogs, sheep and horses, who are locked in or tied up, who have internalized the fence or even forfeited their bodies—so little do the people seem at home in this idyllic place, which for its part is a projection screen for city dwellers and ski tourists, the non-natives who view the overpowering nature of the mountains as an amusement park, always at their disposal for their pleasure. The sublimity of the Alps, which earlier generations met with respect, has shrunk to a tolerable scale: People couldn’t bear to look at the mountains. Now they are used as gym equipment.12 Such sublime landscapes no longer even appear in Gabriela Oberkofler’s work. The meadows and trees stand isolated against a white background—the paper offers them no foothold, nor does the fence, the hut, or the field. Their freestanding position on the paper emphasizes all the more the void that surrounds them. The artist depicts what is missing. By leaving out the most important thing, she challenges us to think the motif through to the end: the horse legs without a body, the wheat field without a landscape, the meadow without a horizon, the geraniums without flowerboxes, without windows, without a house … These are metaphors for a brutal approach to history, for radical life changes, loss, and pain. The things have lost their context and hence their identity, like the people who have been torn back and forth in the eventful history of the South Tyrol by political events, decreed affiliations, a foreign language.
It seems as if the animals in Oberkofler’s works are like the fox, standing on the opposite bank, watchfully sizing up the human being 13 in all its strangeness, isolation, and distance from nature.
1 J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999), 74.
2 Henning Ahrens, Lauf Jäger lauf (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2002), 31.
3 John Berger, “Why Look at Animals,” in idem, About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1991), 15: “The cultural marginalisation of animals is, of course, a more complex process than their physical marginalisation. The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed. Sayings, dreams, games, stories, superstitions, the language itself, recall them. The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance.”
4 Ibid., 16.
5 See Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001), xvii–xviii.
6 Berger, “Why Look at Animals” (see note 3), 7: “The first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood. Prior to that, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal.”
7 See ibid., 13.
8 Ibid., 4 – 5.
9 See Walter Biemel, “Der Blick,” in idem, Sartre (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991) S. 43.
10 Berger, “Why Look at Animals” (see note 3), 5 – 6.
11 Baker, Picturing the Beast (see note 5), 216.
12 Nina Bußmann, I can’t forget this story anymore, radio play, 2013, see catalog page 62.
13 Henning Ahrens, ibid., 31.