Monday, October 19, 2009

In the introduction to Primate Visions, Donna Haraway states that she will use “potent verbal and visual images” to show how primates have been manipulated by human culture to explore relationships between numerous binaries such as nature/culture and sex/gender (2). For Haraway, the symbolic and the real figures of primates become a vehicle to explore these rigid binary distinctions because, as she claims, “Primates existing at the boundaries of so many hopes and interests are wonderful subjects with whom to explore the permeability of walls, the reconstitution of boundaries, the distaste for endless socially enforced dualisms” (3). Haraway’s inclusion of these (visual) representations of primates further elucidates the connections between visuality and the construction of knowledge, yet her inclusion and erasure of certain images leaves me wanting more. Juxtaposing Palmore’s Reclining Nude, a poster created by the Guerilla Girls, and the absent/false image of Carl Akeley’s triumph, I will demonstrate the ways in which Haraway’s argument can sustain itself and erase itself, and by creating a continuum—or rather a triangular relationship—of these images, I aim to show how Haraway’s visual element falls short of producing her desired attempt to make bitter these “enforced dualisms” by forefronting a discussion of absence/presence in these images and their contexts.

“Primatology is Simian Orientalism,” a major segment of Haraway’s introduction, is the only subsection that features a visual image—Tom Palmore’s Reclining Nude. Haraway writes, “Sex and the west are axiomatic in biology and anthropology. Under the guiding logic of these complex dualisms, western primatology is simian orientalism. [Figure 1.1]” (10). This is the only introduction or context for Palmore’s painting. Conceivably, this could be a stylistic move. If “sex and the west are axiomatic” in certain discourses, it is only logical that this statement is suggested in Palmore’s painting according to the text. Yet, the absence of context to this painting suggests pure presence; it just is nothing is needed to buttress its inclusion in this section. Turning to Marx’s phrase—“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (10)—allows for a connection between Orientalism and primatology and the insertion of Palmore’s Nude. The primates cannot represent themselves in art, and thus humanity must do it for them. As a result, Palmore’s painting is “axiomatic” and sheer presence marked only by the absence of context and description.

In contrast to this image of Palmore, I turn to Haraway’s chapter on “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” and more specifically on her discussion of Delia Akeley’s biography of her husband. The discussion and presentation of Delia’s Jungle Portraits is marked by an absence in a similar way that Palmore’s work is marked by presence. Of importance here is the absent photograph of Carl Akeley’s restored morale, a photo that is a lie or hoax perpetuated by Delia: “Delia produced a biographical effect at odds with the official histories; she showed the messiness behind the ‘unified truth’ of natural history museums” (50). Haraway’s investigation of this image seems to compliment her discussion of truth/fiction—another important binary she explores—and yet its “absence” from her text is marked by the complimentary contexts and analysis of its perpetuating lie concerning manhood and adventure. This photo remains a lie/hoax in Delia’s text, but Haraway shows the way in which it discloses a fact: “The accompanying photos in the archive suggest a version of reality, a biography of Africa, which the Museum and its official representatives did not want displayed in their Halls or educational publications” (50).

Palmore’s Reclning Nude and Delia’s absent photo are two instances in which Haraway’s text perpetuates this binary distinction between absence and presence. By including Palmore, Haraway engenders and creates a certain truth/lie—that of the axiomatic West—whereas with the Akeley she creates a lie/truth—that of Museum culture’s purposeful elision of reality to produce particular forms of masculinity. By introducing a third term into this binary distinction I have highlighted in Haraway’s text, I would like to show how the Guerrilla Girls’s poster, Get Naked, uses the binary of absence/presence to be “especially productive and especially problematic” and in so doing complicate Haraway’s binary (Haraway 12).

Get Naked first premiered in 1989 on NYC buses after being rejected as a billboard commissioned for the Public Art Fund. In ways that Haraway’s text and images cannot do, this poster manages to rupture distinctions between absence/presence and truth/lie. The inclusion of the gorilla image on the head of Ingres’s Odalisque creates a fiction. Likewise, the Guerilla Girls “assumed the names of dead women artists and wore gorilla masks in public, concealing their identities and focusing on the issues rather than their personalities.”5 Thus, the Guerilla Girls enact a fiction, and by seizing hold a slippage in language that occurs between the connections of gorilla and guerilla, they are able to “productively” use the image of the primate to further their cause and agenda. This can be contrasted with the factual, which is represented in the words of their poster. In this single, consolidated space, the Guerilla Girls are able to create an absence and presence that marks out the way in which the female body is ever-present—in the form of the nude subject—and absent—in the form of female artists.

By acknowledging how extremely “productive” the Get Naked poster is, I also acknowledge how “problematic” this poster and the position of the Guerilla Girls can be. In fact, this co-opting of the image of the gorilla resembles an Orientalist approach, in which the dominant position uses the subordinate position as a resource for/of power. Thus, the Guerilla Girls can easily adopt a gorilla/guerilla identity because of their position of power over primates and as academics or art critics. Also, the use of the mask and the creation of fictional identities shows how “mobile” the Guerilla Girls can be (Haraway 10); anyone could wear a mask. This position and poster, then, uses the primate in a way that is at once “popular, important, marvelously varied, and controversial” (3). While they are making an audience aware of a deficiency of female artists in museums, they do it at the expense of the gorilla.

Haraway’s inclusion of arresting images is important because it shows how our visual representation of primates has shaped the discourses of primatology and humanity. The silent distinction between absence/presence in Haraway’s text stands in contrast to the poster because of its use of image and text to correspond to one another, something that is lacking in the two Haraway “images.” By introducing a third term—the Guerilla Girl’s poster—into the continuum of Haraway’s images, we can see how Haraway’s exploration of binary opposition creates another one between absence/presence that is elided in her inclusion of the Palmore and Delia’s photo. Haraway’s text and images rely on binaries in order to be presented; thus, her work can be critiqued for the binaries that she overtly overlooks or manipulates in order to explore the primate’s liminal position.

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