One of the joys of mooching around art galleries – something that State of the Art spends a fair amount of time doing… in a professional capacity, of course – is the fact that you might stumble unexpectedly on something really good. So it was that I found myself at the Australian Center for Photography in Sydney a few months back – wandering about, looking for something of interest.
I happened across an exhibition called Domesticated by New York-based photographer Amy Stein, which turned out to be one of the most fascinating photographic works I’ve seen in quite some time. As the name suggests, Domesticated explores the relationship between humans and animals. Specifically, it depicts situations where the world of humans and the world of animals overlap – a girl peers out a window at a wild deer, a farmer aims his rifle at a turkey, a wild dog howls… not at the moon, but at an electric floodlight. The setting Stein has chosen for the photos emphasise this sense of being on the border of two worlds – it’s a quintessentially American small town in northern Pennsylvania that sits right on the fringes of a state forest.
The result is a constant sense that you’re looking at a civilised outpost on the edge of a wilderness. Stein emphasises the metaphorical implications of this in the exhibition’s accompanying artist’s statement: “Within my work I examine the primal issues of comfort and fear, dependence and determination, submission and dominance that play out in the physical and psychological encounters between man and the natural world.” It’s a fascinating concept, and Domesticated realises it wonderfully well.
Some of the situations depicted are startling in their clarity and sense of drama – the farmer about to shoot the turkey, for instance, or another image where a bear peers through a cyclone fence at a girl on a diving board. There’s something hyper-real about them – the human influences (everything from American flags and discarded McDonald’s containers to clothing and drapes) are rendered in bright, vivid colours, and the light that streams from windows is warm and welcoming, almost comically so. The wilderness, by contrast, is somber and immutable. And the animals themselves… They’re almost too still, too perfect.
It turns out that the images often use stuffed animals, and are based on a series of true stories that Stein encountered while researching the exhibition. This gives the whole thing an extra layer of meaning – as well as exploring how we treat animals and how we treat the wildness within ourselves, it also examines how we actually go about looking at such issues. In constructing her images and the settings they depict so carefully, Stein has created scenes designed to evoke a reaction – and evoke a reaction they certainly do.
All in all, Domesticated is one of the best exhibitions that State of the Art has seen in quite some time, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of Stein’s work soon. In the meantime, it’s back to wandering around galleries, looking for the next unexpected wonder. Life could be worse.
You can see the entire Domesticated exhibition, and more of Amy Stein’s work, at her website, which is at http://www.amysteinphoto.com.