Entering The Carrion Cheer: A Faunistic Tragedy, a new multimedia installation at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, is like entering some sort of warped, disturbing fever dream. You’re led on a path through nine different tents that take up virtually the entire 3,000 sq. ft. floor space of the Halsey. Inside each tent is a series of haunting images. White silhouettes appear against a black surface on one side of the tent, depicting an animal, perhaps an insect or mammal or bird, being hunted and killed, but in a distorted, abstract fashion.
But your attention will quickly be drawn to the main image in the tent; an apparition of the same type of animal shown in the silhouettes, projected in a ghostly fashion onto a screen of mist. The animals, perhaps a Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) or a Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), or a Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) might not look entirely familiar to you, and that’s because all nine of the animals in The Carrion Cheer exhibit, created by German artists and collaborators Matthias Böhler and Christian Orendt, are extinct. In some cases, no one’s seen one of these animals for over 200 years, in others, it’s only been a few since they vanished.
But what’s perhaps most unsettling in this exhibit is that each of these animals is smiling, and you can hear their cries, moans, and growls echoing throughout whatever tent you’re in. And that’s before they start singing, with traces of their natural sounds still in the air, about how happy they are to be extinct, and how grateful they are to humankind for stomping them out of existence, whether it’s through hunting, environmental destruction, or simple ignorance.
Welcome to the world of Böhler & Orendt, a world where each generation of humans through history has brought forth their own plan or instincts to control the Earth and its perceived lesser inhabitants, and then passed on, largely leaving destruction in its wake. In fact, all of the animals in The Carrion Cheer have become extinct since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
This is the first appearance of a solo Böhler & Orendt installation in America, but they’ve spent the last decade creating work designed to comment on humanity’s relationship with the world around us, typically delivered with a pitch-black sense of humor.
In 2013’s Mehrung, for example, what appears to be simply a cluttered meeting space, perhaps in an advertising agency or architectural firm, is populated with members of a fictitious secret society who have entirely devoted themselves to the idea of exponential growth. As the multi-part performance unfolds, the staff of this “company” works with the tools on the table to repeatedly recreate a graph depicting a sharp upward spike, building monument after monument to unchecked growth. There are shelves around them stacked high with different versions of this graph, yet they keep working on more.
In Blossoms Of Splendor, also from 2013, the top of a large black wooden cube is covered with a layer of compost, topped with over 500 white cross grave markers, each with a playfully decorated acorn cup on top, adding a jarring sense of glee to a stark scene of devastation.
“All of our works have that in common: They are about humans on this planet and the lack of foresight in human activities,” Orendt says. “Humans are doing things for the sake of doing them, simply because they have always done it, without ever reflecting that at some point, a change in the way we do things could be good.”
All you have to do to see evidence of that is look around, Orendt says. “Look at the cutting down of the rainforest, for example. We just go on cutting down because we have done it for years, and in some ways, it works. You get paid for it, you get wood, but at some point, there is no rainforest anymore. Our work is very much about going on and on and on with very little reflection. We have pieces that are more direct; humans doing things in small models, but The Carrion Cheer is more metaphorical.”
“It’s like a leitmotif in what we do,” Böhler says. “All of our works, in a way, refer to the state of the world and the way we see it, which is not super positive about the way the world is developing and changing.”
The Creation of The Carrion Cheer
The conversation about the installation opening at the Halsey Institute actually started in November 2016, when the Halsey Institute’s Director and Chief Curator, Mark Sloan, invited the duo to create something specifically for the Institute’s space. After coming up with the initial concept and presenting it to Sloan and his team, it was enthusiastically approved.
“The proposal was unlike anything I’d seen before,” says Bryan Granger, the Institute’s Manager Of Exhibitions & Public Programs, and the curator of The Carrion Cheer. “I was interested in presenting the Halsey as a place for alternative forms of art, and the proposal really jumped out in terms of creating a way for us to do that. It wasn’t just another show with flat works on the walls.”
Granger was also intrigued by the pair’s track record of past creations.
“I was looking through their exhibiting history, looking at projects they’d done in the past, and they’re artists who always address very serious issues with a very quirky sense of humor,” he says. “I thought that was intriguing as well. I thought the show was relatable both for people who don’t typically go to the museum a lot and those who are well versed in the history of installation art over the last 50 years or so. I thought it was a good combination.”
Once Böhler & Orendt’s idea was approved, they began researching the animals they wanted to use, which took up much of 2017. The actual creation of the installation at the Halsey began four months ago.
“We were looking for animals that could serve as examples for other mammals, insects, fish, and reptiles,” Böhler says. “And also, we tried to find animals that looked interesting, because after all it was going to be a very visual piece. And we didn’t want to have superstars.”
By “superstars,” Böhler means extinct animals that we’ve all heard about for decades.
“The dodo is a very famous animal that went instinct,” he says. “We tried to take animals that weren’t well known to everyone, that weren’t these icons.”
From there, Böhler & Orendt moved on to learning as much as they could about what each animal sounded like, no easy task since many of them hadn’t been around for a couple of centuries.
“We researched the animals by looking for similar sub-families,” Böhler says. “For example, we researched similar types of Caribbean tortoises for the Pinta Island tortoise. And then we tried to mimic their sounds using friends of ours who were singers. We were trying to find ways to express words through the tongues of these animals and their families. These are apparitions of the animals’ spirits on this mist screen, and those spirits will babble, growl, scream, grunt, and sing.”
Then the duo worked on laying out a path for the installation, each section of it housed in a battered-looking tent meant to represent one of our more unpleasant current political realities. Even though it isn’t the main focus of The Carrion Cheer, Böhler & Orendt mean to call to mind the growing human refugee problem with the tents.
“The tents are a bit of reference to refugee camps all over the world,” Orendt says. “It’s more about those animal spirits being stuck between the other side and this world in some kind of limbo situation, but that’s similar to the situation with human refugees and refugee camps.”
The tents will also serve as a further extension of each animal’s world, with versions of the animal’s head on top of each tent.
Once you enter, everything inside tells the story of an animals’ disappearance from the Earth in an unsettlingly cheerful fashion.
“On one side, you see white shapes on a black surface, which are like cutouts or shadow silhouettes which create an impression of the way the animal became extinct,” Orendt says. “There are hunting scenes, for example, or a dolphin caught in a net. But all the silhouettes are smiling. Even when they’re pierced through with a spear, they’re still smiling.”
The grisly humor, which both men talk about with audible relish, came naturally to two artists who enjoy toying with people’s perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable.
“What we wanted to do, starting with the title, The Carrion Cheer, was create a different notion,” Orendt says. “Normally, when people are talking about animals becoming extinct, they talk about what a tragedy it is, or whatever, and people are over-fed with that approach. It’s actually more touching when people are rebelling against our way of putting things: ‘You can’t show extinct animals like this, happy and thankful!’ But that’s kind of the idea.”
“The animals are thanking humankind for eating them,” Böhler adds, “for taking them and using them. For taking their feathers to fill their cushions or for shooting them. There’s a weird irony going on because all of the animals are very, very thankful for becoming extinct. You don’t joke about dying animals, but we do!”
It might sound as if Böhler & Orendt are using this installation to advocate for animal rights, or to pass specific judgement on the follies of mankind from the position of people who live their lives in a more altruistic fashion, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, both men gleefully identify themselves as “meat-lovers” and add, with an almost defiantly playful sense of nihilism, that they’re not trying to pass as any sort of moral arbiters.
“In the ’90s when I was watching a lot of TV, there was always someone at the end of the show saying, ‘OK, children, in the end, the moral of this was … whatever,” Orendt says. “We want to skip that part. We put something in front of people and leave it to them to decide what it should be.”
“There are hints about one thing or another but putting all the things together and making your own morals from the tale is up to you,” Böhler adds.
Granger says the duo’s viewpoint might just change some minds, whether they mean to or not, and that’s part of why he loves the installation.
“Our mission at the Halsey Institute is to provide a platform for artists to create and disseminate ideas for alternative ways of looking at the world,” he says. “It was kind of a natural fit when we realized this installation could do just that. You may walk out with more questions about your own relationship with the world, and humanity’s relationship with animals than you had coming in, so I think to create an instance where people have more questions than they did when they started is really fascinating for me and for the Halsey.”
Two Of A Kind
If it sounds like two men behind The Carrion Cheer are completely in sync with one another artistically, that’s more or less the case. When they first began collaborating 10 years ago, it was out of an urge to do something other than the typical exhibit of their respective works.
“The first thing we did together was a show where Matthias showed his work and I showed mine,” Orendt says. “And we thought it was too boring to put our work into two separate spaces, so we ended up doing an installation together. And after that experience we thought it would be nice to do something for another space with a common concept, and step by step we kind of slipped into working together.”
Quite early on in their collaboration, Böhler and Orendt realized that they had a shared fascination with humankind’s attempts to shape or alter their reality into some form of perceived perfection, even though the idea of “perfection” was in constant flux, changing with the times. During one era, there might be a focus on mathematical precision. During another, there might be a trend towards nature. And regardless, all of these attempts to re-design or re-conceive the world were doomed to failure because reality cannot be controlled, which created a fascinating tug of war that both men loved to study, reflect, and mock in equal measure.
Their collaboration has been a fruitful one in many ways. Whether working concurrently or together, Böhler and Orendt have received a plethora of grants and awards, most notable among them the Bavarian State Award for Visual Arts, and they’ve had their work shown at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Moyland, and the Institute for Modern Art in Nuremberg.
“We both like narrative approaches to contemporary art, whether it’s sculpture, installations, drawings, film, or music,” Böhler says. “In the end we are both into similar things even if we do them differently or have different approaches. One of us might be more rough and the other more pedantic, with the roles changing from time to time. But there’s a shared humor and shared way of telling stories.”
That last sentence is key for this duo. After over a decade of collaboration, both men cite their shared sense of humor as their strongest artistic and personal bond.
“That dark, ironic, sarcastic sense of humor, we can’t do without it,” Orendt says. “Even when we try to leave it out, we can’t. It’s like when you form a band with other people. You have a shared taste in music and you start playing with those guys and seeing if it works out, and it’s been working out for 10 years now.”