“Do we really understand the universe better than animals do?”
--The Lives of Animals, J.M. Coetzee
Our relationship with what we refer to as “the wild” is an odd one. Humans go to great lengths to arrogate superiority over the animal world, often citing language as the great civilizing divide. Our intellectual history is rife with philosophies about the inferiority of non-humans, in fact: Descartes famously referred to all animals as “automatons” while Kant and Aquinas denied moral status to animals. And yet recent research has clearly established that many non-human creatures not only exhibit behavior that implies a sense of moral code, but, in the words of animal rights activist Tom Regan,
[animals] want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of … animals … they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.
Among animals, birds in the corvid family tend to invite a particular polarity. They are loved and despised, and most every culture has positive or negative myths, legends, beliefs and superstitions around these creatures. Native American and First Nations tribes regard ravens as the bringers of light and life, shape-shifting tricksters and thieves (to name but a few attributes). In contrast, the Japanese Bureau of Environment launched a multi-million-dollar campaign more than a decade ago to annihilate jungle crows in that city (where the ‘avian pests’ are eventually gassed). Having penetrated the human psyche, corvids appear in myths, stories and beliefs as spies, procrastinators, prophets, troublemakers and heroes, and invoke a full range of human perceptions and emotions.
The employment of such animals in my work is a means for me to explore the territory between humans and non-humans, and a way to (often humorously) put myself in the pelt (or feathers) of another. Having spent the last several years and countless hours observing birds generally (both in the wild and in captivity), and being smitten with corvids specifically, I am increasingly aware of the extent to which these gregarious creatures have become co-conspirators in my work, and the degree to which I have allowed that to happen. I continue to follow their lead.
I am also keenly aware of my human limits in understanding these remarkably complex beings, the perils of anthropomorphizing and the futility of efforts to grasp the true essence of corvid-ness. The birds in my artwork are, however, ultimately and inevitably surrogates for human presences. By evoking the intricacies of human and animal relations, I aim to stir a sense of empathy, particularly given the extent to which humans have come to dictate the terms of co-existence. These creatures often exist only at the periphery of our world, highlighting the reality that their survival plays out under human direction, with our constraints imposed on them. I’ve often been struck by the hurdles that non-human species must face in order to survive; in this, I typically find myself squarely in the cheering section for the underdog.
Even if we believe we understand the universe better than animals do, have we not a moral obligation to act as responsible stewards to our non-human kin?
“What we see is not what we see, but what we are.”
The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa
Karen Bondarchuk, a Canadian visual artist living and working in the United States, has exhibited widely in the U.S. as well as Canada, England, France, Italy and India. She has received numerous national and international residencies including: Stadt Salzburg in Salzburg, Austria; Moulin à Nef in Auvillar, France; VCCA in Amherst, VA; Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, among others. She has received honors and awards for her artwork in the United States, including Master Artist at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI, and her work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Woodson Art Museum and many other public and private collections. Bondarchuk received her MFA in sculpture from The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and her BFA in sculpture and video from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Canada. She is a professor and foundation coordinator in the Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI.