Fran Benton
Feb 5 — Feb 23, 1991

Brochure Essay by Laura Lamb


How should human beings relate to animals? Anglo-American society has developed the ethic of “humane” treatment. To be humane towards animals involves taking responsibility for the living creatures which come under our dominion, and includes minimizing their suffering – to a certain effect identifying with them as fellow human beings – while remaining confident that we have the right to exploit them in any way that will benefit our own species (as long as we do it without unnecessary cruelty). The objects Fran Benton has reproduced come directly out of this ethic. They are pure in their adherence to rationality, and, although anthropocentric, they reject the anthropomorphism and sentimentality that often seem to cling to any discussion of animals.

Benton’s work seems ambivalent about the paternalistic, some would say exploitative relationship we have developed with some creatures that are “other” to the human species. There is nothing in her reconstruction of these carious controlling devices that suggests that they should not exist. Or does she, by drawing our attention to certain facts of this relationship, at least entertain the critique of anthropocentrism embodied in the idea of “animal rights”?

Are we being directed, perhaps, to imagine ourselves into the devices reproduced in this exhibition, thus having our attention drawn momentarily to the truism that humans are animals too?

Unlike similar objects that we use on each other, however, these objects are not designed to torment, humiliate, torture or harm the animals. Consequently neither are they designed to provide pleasure or excitement for either the subject or the user of the devices.

Above all, these objects seem to be about technology, and our use of technology to find practical solutions for any problem we may encounter while attempting to gain control over our environment.

They are articles of absolute practicality, and therefore the antithesis of art according to some definitions. (Again, unlike similar objects we use on each other, which could be said to have an aesthetic aspect.)

What happens when such purely functional devices are reproduced as art objects? Are we looking at them here in the art gallery in order to “appreciate” them as part of the modernist “form follows function” aesthetic? Certainly, the denial of comforting illusionism and the dedication to plain truth that are basic to high modernism are similar to the hardnosed rejection of sentiment contained in these devices of animal management.

Fortunately we are prevented from ascending again the lofty moralist tower of modernism, with its crumbling reductivist foundation, by the undercurrent of absurdity in this collection. There is an awkwardness perhaps inherent in these modest endeavours to manage objects as annoyingly complex as living beasts. The irony is highlighted by the bizarre nature of some of the problems faced by the inventors of these devices (how does one prevent a Ringhal cobra from spitting in one’s eye? how does one apprehend an ostrich?) coupled with the banality of solutions.

It is tempting to see this work as a kind of moral allegory (after all, in our culture that’s where discussion of our relationship to animals always seems to settle). Benton’s work seems able, through irony, to resist such interpretation.

- Laura Lamb

Fran Benton is a 1989 graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, in sculpture. She is currently completing a M.F.A. at the University of Victoria. She will be showing new work at the MacPherson Library Gallery at the University of Victoria in late May 1991.

Laura Lamb is a Vancouver artist and teacher. Her opinion on current cultural events and phenomena can be heard occasionally, Sunday mornings, on Co-op radio.

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