Isolation and Landscape

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156
Untitled (buffalo, truck with books)
Untitled (open book with kangaroo)
colour photography, toy animals, assemblage, animal personalities, animal kingdom, comparison, text, still life in landscape, imagination, ideas, categorization, found objects, reference information, book, ecology, animalize, truck, books, buffalo, kangaroo, photograph,
description

These photographic works function in this way. By placing toy animals in and among books, Bill Burns is creating a new world for these plastic animals to live in. He is asking his viewers to reconsider their ideas of what it means to be an animal. To be more specific, the animal Burns is interested in examining is the human animal;  humans take pictures, write ideas, and sort them into books. The books in his photographs also reference the animal kingdom.  Notice the titles of the books in Untitled (buffalo, truck with books), or the photograph in Untitled (open book with kangaroo). What if the photographs had personalities? We could have a conversation with them that might seem silly but can help us understand something about the work. It might go like this:

Why do you show books about animals?

  • In the books are representations of animals; they talk about animals or show us animals, but they don't roar, eat, sleep, neigh, or bleed. They are only ideas about animals that we have put together as a book.

Are they any more or less real than the toy animals in the photographs?

  • The animals in the books are represented through words and pictures. The toy animals are real because they are hard, physical things but they are not real animals, either. The only real animal is the person looking at the photographs.

Does a kangaroo take a picture when it's on vacation?

  • It does if a picture of a kangaroo is "real." If that is true, and if you can look at that picture and say, "that truly is a kangaroo," then why wouldn't a kangaroo take pictures? If a kangaroo can't or won't take pictures, or won't recognize a picture, then how can a picture of a kangaroo be true?

Why do your buffalo jump off of books?

  • Buffalo do not jump off of books; they are chased off. Maybe a buffalo thinks it has nothing to lose by going over the edge. If the buffalo are in the books, and are made of words and ideas, then they can't die, so going over a cliff isn't dangerous. If they can die by going over the cliff, then they are not the same as what are in those books.
additional resources Things to Think About
  • Imagine that these two untitled photographs by Bill Burns are frames in a comic book. If the kangaroo and the buffalo were having a conversation, what might they say to each other?
  • How do images or representations of things stand in for the things themselves? Think about traffic lights and signs, pay phones, pictures or words... what power do we place in symbols or images? Why might we do this?

  • Jack Anderson said about the Safety Gear for Small Animals exhibition, “[i]f sweet environmentalism were the limit of Burns’s exhibition, it would boil down to nothing more than earnest politically correct enthusiasm. Thankfully, this show is about much more than that. With caustic humour, Burns plays with notions of artifice as a means of interrogating our relationship with nature.” (Anderson, undated)  What questions do the two artworks shown here raise for you about the relationship between human beings and nature?
Studio Activity

Asking questions

Look at Bill Burn's Untitled (buffalo, truck with books) and Untitled (open book with kangaroo) again.

  • What questions would you ask the photographs if you could?
  • How do you think they would answer?

Toys

  • Find some toy animals and place them with other objects or in situations that somehow relate to the animals the toys represent.
  • Take a picture of them.
  • Draw them.
  • Write about them.
References

Anderson, Jack. ‘Safety Gear a smart, complex exhibition.’  Regina Leader Post, undated.

Author unknown.  ‘Animal Rites Activist.’ Border Crossings, 2000.

Author unknown.  ‘Bill Burns: Safety Gear for Small Animals.’ Indepth Arts News, AbsoluteArts.com, 2004.  Retrieved from the Internet on August 25, 2008 from:  http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2004/06/25/32151.html

 

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning