The Reality of Death & Dominion

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Evan Eisenberg, the author of “The Ecology of Eden,” accompanied me to the “Ecotopia” press preview at the International Center of Photography last week.I hoped his passion for the environment would balance my indifference, but he too thought that there was something off about much of the show. One of the photographers he did like, however, was Alessandra Sanguinetti because, he said, her work was “real.” Mr. Eisenberg did not mean simply that Ms. Sanguinetti’s work was “realistic” (although it is, in fact, that), but that the material her photographs deal with and the seriousness with which she approaches it is real. I agree.

Most of the pictures from ICP and many more are included in “On the Sixth Day,” an exhibition of Ms. Sanguinetti’s work currently at the Yossi Milo Gallery. According to the Bible, it was on the sixth day of creation that God made man “to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26, Robert Alter’s translation.) Ms. Sanguinetti’s theme is the relationship between humans and domesticated animals in the country outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, a terrain that looks much like parts of the American southwest: There farmers, ranchers, and the dogs that respond to their commands hold sway over cattle, horses, hares and rabbits, sheep, chickens, and pigs.

All the photographs in “On the Sixth Day” are 29-inch-by-29-inch C-Prints mounted on black mats and labeled “Untitled” (1996–2004). They will be referred to here by their numbers in the image list.

Picture 10 smacks of the “real.” Although no humans are present, the hand of man is certainly evident: A dead, skinned hare hangs upside down from a fence post. It is a striking image.The picture was taken with a flash, or some other artificial light, which separated the carcass of the hare from the nighttime scene behind it in the same way that Weegee’s flash separated the corpses of gangsters lying on city sidewalks from the urban scenes behind them. As the light diminishes, the succeeding fence posts recede in the distance. The naked, red flesh is stark in its testimonial to the awfulness of death.

The hind legs of the hare are attached to the fence with a crude metal pin, and some of the fur near the paws has not been removed. The legs are stretched out by the weight of the body, the chest cavity looks disturbingly human, the forelegs seem bent in supplication, more pitiful because the paws are missing, and the skinned head has been deprived of whatever personality it once had. Ms. Sanguinetti says, “To portray an animal is to name it. Once named it acquires a new life, and then, is spared death.” I do not know what she means: This hare is forever dead. It is a matter of adjusting D.H. Lawrence’s dictum, “Trust the tale, not the teller,” to the circumstances of photography.

The image in picture 10 is a long way from “Pat the Bunny” or Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and his sartorial improbable siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. But farmers and ranchers know meat does not come naturally packaged in Styrofoam trays with plastic wrapping. There is nothing in picture 10 to suggest the animal was killed gratuitously or that its remains will not be put to use. The image is disturbing but, because there is no evidence of unnecessary cruelty, I do not find it gruesome: It is simply what a dead hare looks like when it has been skinned. And not all that different from the posters for “Bodies: the Exhibition” that travel around the city on the sides of our buses.

Picture 6 similarly shows the flayed head of a horse. It is lying on the ground, blood-spattered, an empty hole where its eye once was. Some of the skin with bits of fur showing is still attached to the top of the head. Again, the intricacy of flesh and muscle is shown, miraculous in its delicacy. In picture 3 two dead pigs hang mounted back-to-back on opposite sides of a heavy wooden board. All we see of the pigs are their heads bound to each other with metal pins through their skin, their eyes shut, the two snouts just off the ground as if balancing in defiance of gravity. In picture 2, we see in the foreground a pair of human hands covered with blood, held over a bowl filled with blood. A dog sits placidly watching the hands, and in the background beyond a clearing is a strand of trees.

Picture 11 depicts two playful lambs: Cute, but why does one have a knitted cover hiding its face, and why is it tethered to the other? Because it is sick and has to be led by the one that is not. In 7 the tiny pink fetus of a cow — four legs and a wee, featureless head — lies in the grass, overseen by two chickens, monstrously big in proportion. Their yellow beaks and red wattles hint at nature’s ferocity. In 18, three black dogs, one with a foam-flecked mouth, bay at a black pig whose head is out of sight behind a tree. What we do see of the pig is two rows of teats: Where are her young?

Ms. Sanguinetti states, “It is possible that by exploring the fine line that separates us from what we rule, we may reach a better understanding of our own nature.” All creatures die, but the difference between them and us is not fine; it is a yawning gulf, and most unbridgeable in regards to our ability to contemplate and speculate about death, as in Ms. Sanguinetti’s pictures. She has presented us in “On the Sixth Day” with photographs of country life that are challenging, but real. Skip the press release. “Trust the tale, not the teller.”

Until October 14 (525 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-414-0370).

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