Oct 26, 2011

REVIEW| Animal Instinct: The Photographs of Daniel Lee, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio

Daniel Lee, Origin, Digital C-prints, 1999



     This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the San Antonio Museum of Art. Although it is probably more known for it’s Hellenistic and Asian collections, it currently has a very intriguing exhibit called Animal Instinct: The Photographs of Daniel Lee. At first glance the works of Lee are startling and strange but like most strange art works it helps to have text to go along to explain the purpose of the work itself. Although these images are strange, the SAMA has arranged for a show that evokes a variety of emotions from intrigue to controversy to an uncertain fearful realization of the present.


     As you enter the exhibit you are greeted by an image of three dogs with human heads as if to greet you like a dog would its master upon entering the home. I feel the soul purpose of the image is to startle the viewer when they first walk in and to get them used to the idea that what they are about to see is going to be a strange encounter. As you continue along you pass a large work full of 108 smaller images of transformed faces and towards a video of what appears to be Lee’s interpretation of the evolution of man. You get a since of a beginning with these works, specific to Chinese culture.The 108 images are representations of the 108 creatures from the circle of reincarnation in the universe according to Chinese Buddhist belief, which is then followed up by the origin video of showing how man evolved from all kinds of animals depicted in the Origin image above.

Daniel Lee, Circus, ink jet on vinyl, 2010
     As you continue along you come into contact with an image of circus performers that I find is a turning point of this show. It goes from a sense of origin to an even more relatable understanding of mans relationship with animal. Lee suggests that with this image he is toying with the idea of how man imitates animal and animal is forced to imitate man, much like in a circus. It is interesting to stop and think about such a gesture. At first the images come off as strange but as you look around you really feel an intellectual challenge by the images. I found myself wondering why I thought these images were so strange when we try and imitate animals so much.

Daniel Lee, Nightlife, ink jet on vinyl, 2001
     At the end of your tour around the exhibit, you encounter a large panoramic view of a bar scene. Lee’s Nightlife image is where you end with a feeling of unease. He explains how the image is more or less a social observation of how people act like animals in a group setting. I had noticed that most of the people depicted were “catlike” in appearance and I feel that has a lot to do with the idea of “being on the prowl” when one goes out to meet new people. The uneasy part comes from realizing that this is in some ways quite true of human behavior.

     The entire show takes you on a journey from controversial suggestions about the origins of man from animals, leads you to a reflection as to why we try to act like animals and then to an uneasy realization that we may be more like animals than we think. However there is no doubt (and I am in agreement with an earlier blog post written by Jill Ewing) that these images are weird. But the exhibition is effectively composed in a way that creates an environment that evokes deep contemplation about aspects of our society we may overlook.

- John Hall



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