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SYNAPSE Workshop 2015 | June 30 – July 4, 2015

APE ART (and other kinds of order)

29.04.15 | PROJECT: Blog | AUTHOR: Anna-Sophie Springer



We polish an animal mirror to look for ourselves. The biological sciences’ focus on monkeys and apes has sought to make visible both the form and the history of our personal and social bodies.

— Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991)


[O]n the one hand, the relationships between animals are the object not only of science but also of dreams, symbolism, art and poetry, practice and practical use. And on the other hand, the relationships between animals are bound up with the relations between man and animal, man and woman, man and child, man and the elements, man and the physical and microphysical universe.

— Deleuze & Guattari, “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal: Memories of a Naturalist”


In anticipation of tonight’s opening of the new exhibition Ape Culture, curated by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg, today I am posting a few pieces of “ape art.” For centuries—or rather millennia—monkeys have puzzled humans for their similarities to our own species. From ancient Egypt to Classical China to eighteenth century France, anthropoids, primates, monkeys, and apes have been the subject of countless artistic works, including spiritual and scientific depictions. As the American author Ptolemy Tompkins writes, “[t]hough often criticized, monkeys have just as often been celebrated for their playfulness, agility, and quirky intelligence. Their natural indifference to the rules and regulations of human society have allowed them to be seen as miniature alter egos—creatures whose actions carry us outside the restrictions of the human world and allow us to laugh at it from a slight remove.”

Before you scroll down to my selection of images, consider this more somber quote about human-ape relations from Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, “Natural kinship was then seen to be transformed by the specifically human, language-meditated categories that gave rational order to nature in the birth of culture. Through classifying by naming, by creating kinds, culture would then be the logical domination of a necessary dangerous instinctual nature. Perhaps human beings found the key to control of sex, the source of and threat to all other kinds of order, in the categories of kinship. Only recently and tentatively have primatologists seriously challenged the indispensability of these sort of explanations of nature and culture.” How complicated this issue remains even 25 more years into the discussion, was proven last week when a New York court case about whether or not two laboratory chimpanzees should be granted legal personhood, ended in confusion.

I have no doubt that Ape Culture will provide an intriguing constellation of material for further thoughts and questioning. The exhibition opening is tonight from 6 PM; the show runs until 6 July 2015.

Gabriel von Max_Affen als Kunstrichter_um 1889_München_Neue Pinakothek

Gabriel von Max, Affen als Kunstrichter (Monkeys as Judges of Art), 1889; Neue Pinakothek München / Wikipedia Commons.

This painting above is one of a whole bunch of other works by the German painter featuring monkeys, which can be seen with flowers, with books, and even Gabriel von Max’s wife as well as himself…

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Illustration from Journey to the West; Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University, Cambridge.

In Chinese culture, the monkey plays a far greater role than merely being one of the twelve zodiac animals in astrology. “Monkey” is also the main character in the most popular work of literary fiction in the history of China, the sixteenth-century novel Xi You Ji (Journey to the West) ascribed to a man called Wu Cheng-en. Penguin published the myth’s first English translation by Arthur Waley in 1942 under the simple title Monkey. In 1983, another translation by Anthony C. Yu was published by University of Chicago Press. According to sinologist David Lattimore this latter version is the rendering of choice for adult readers.

In the story, a semi-divine simian is miraculously born from a stone egg atop a mountain and departs on an elaborate string of fantastical adventures in search for ultimate enlightenment. Travelling westward, he eventually reaches India where he comes into contact with Buddhist teachings.

In Lattimore’s words, the book’s “poetry […] concentrates our vision, thrusting us among the concrete details of life, rendering everything visible, smellable, tangible. Thus the monkey hero, on a spying mission, transforms himself into a moth: A small shape with light, agile wings, He dives to snuff candles and lamps. By metamorphosis he gains his true form, Most active midst rotted grasses. He strikes flames for love of hot light, Flying, circling without ceasing. Purple-robed, fragrant-winged, chasing the fireflies, He likes most the deep windless night.

Instead of being merely a buffoon without language, in Journey to the West, the monkey character personifies the Mind—intelligence, energy, and impetuousness. He is a force that finds balance through the companionship of other characters including a monk (humanness/compassion) and a pig (physicality/body).

Hanuman reading prayer

Lord Hanuman reading a prayer; unknown artist.

Indian Hinduism of course has its own monkey mythology. Rather than semi-divine like the aforementioned Chinese character, its main protagonist, Lord Hanuman, is one of the central gods of the ancient Ramayana epic, especially the fifth book. Although he is a shapeshifter with many avatars, Hanuman is sometimes associated with qualities such as wisdom, devotion, and obedience as well as with supernatural physical strength. Some think that he represents the human’s lower animal nature—yet having become pure through self-control and spiritual surrender.


Hanuman Revives Rama and Lakshmana with Medicinal Herbs, ink and opaque watercolor on paper, India (Punjab Hills), ca. 1790; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Online Collection.

In stark contrast to such Eastern mythologies, Early Enlightenment Europe unsurprisingly fortified much stronger cultural distinctions between primates and humans. Descartes’s mechanistic philosophy famously proclaimed animals as automata, denying them not only language and rationality, but also consciousness and soul. Similarly also Kant and Leibniz still drew their line at the question of Reason, which can be tied to other concepts such as communication, responsibility, and morality.

Many natural history illustrations from the early modern period nevertheless show anthropoid apes such as the two orang-utans here below in upright poses and grasping a branch as if it were a person’s walking stick. However, in the end such anthropomorphic, sometimes almost melancholic depictions maybe say more about people than about the animals?


Nineteenth century lithograph of an orang-utan from Haks & Maris, Lexicon of Foreign Artists Who Visualized Indonesia, 1600–1950, Utrecht, 1995.

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Orang-utan illustration from Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Frederic Cuvier, Histoire de Mammiferes avec figures originales, coloriées, dessinées d’apres des animaux vivants, vol. 7, Paris 1842. Biodiversity Library online collection.

In Borneo, indigenous tribes believe that orang-utans (from “orang hutan” = person of the forest) do actually have the ability to speak, but choose not to in order to avoid being put to work.

In the second half of nineteenth century Europe—the epoch of Marx and Engels, Darwin and Wallace—the notions of labour and speech indeed became more heavily debated as defining differences between apes and humans. Many illustrations such as the image here below literally put anthropoids back onto the trees as if to emphasize their “uncivilized nature.” This was at a time when the theory of evolution, and thus the kinship between all living beings, had already been proclaimed. As the countless derisive caricatures of Charles Darwin convey, the question whether the human species is a direct descendant from the great apes became a hot and extremely contentious topic.

henry forbes a handbook to the primates 1897 plate xxxix

Orangutan illustration, Plate XXXIX from Henry Forbes, A Hand-Book to the Primates, London 1897; Gutenberg online library.

The relationship between evolution and technology is reflected in the perhaps most iconic moment of twentieth century cinema ever, the scene of the emergence of newly incarnated homo necans in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As artist Charles Stankievech rightly points out in his catalog essay on rare earth extraction and colonial violence (forthcoming, Sternberg Press 2015), in addition to thematizing the birth of homo faber, the scene crucially illustrates the so-called Killer Ape hypothesis. This idea is a narrowed version of Darwin’s survival of the fittest; it asserts the roles of war and lethal aggression as driving forces behind human evolution. While also primates can be violent rivals, it is well-known that at least the bonobos are unique because they make sex not war with their neighbours.



Stills from Sanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metro Goldwyn-Meyer, 1968.

From today’s vantage point, both tools and language have become more questionable criteria for distinguishing between nature vs. culture because there is empirical evidence that apes are capable of appropriating a variety of both.

Some very brief examples:

Since the 1970s free-ranging monkey species such as the Japanese macaque have been described as perfectly capable of handling stones as well as using sticks and stones as tools to achieve certain beneficial ends. In the case of chimpanzees, similar experiments have led to colourful abstract scribble paintings as presented in the gallery on the website of the Primate Research Institute, Kyoto. A huge question that arises in this context is: what are the philosophical implications of seeing monkeys no longer merely as the objects of art but also in the role of its possible creators?

Regarding direct communication, Richard Garner published his research on chimps and human language acquisition already in 1892, thus complicating the theories of evolutionists such as Ernst Haeckel who were eager to draw less unambiguous boundaries. Ultimately, Garner’s early sound recordings didn’t succeed in teaching monkeys how to speak like a human. But around a century later the female gorilla Koko famously does interact with humans in the San Francisco Zoo by having recourse to around 3,000 concepts of American sign language. And even in the wild complex communication patterns have been observed among primates themselves. According to a recent Swiss wildlife study, male orang-utans for instance “make their travel plans well in advance and announce them to conspecifics” through combinations of long and short calls emitted across the forest. Such behaviour suggests that they are able to process their own presence temporally—by conceptualizing a future trajectory; spatially—in the sense of location and direction; as well as relationally—with respect to other apes. Again, radical indicators of their advanced intelligence.

Similarity might not automatically mean sameness, but chimps, bonobos, and humans do share 99% of the same DNA; like the great apes also the human species belongs to the five primate genera. So one of the many reasons why researchers are so fascinated with great apes is indeed because they hope to learn about human past evolution by studying our “closest relatives.”

In many zoological institutions, captive apes are nowadays being stimulated with the help of high-end technologies—touchscreen tablet computers, indeed! Aptly titled “Apps for Apes” or “Apes with Apps,” these educational consoles strive to brighten up the existence of primates kept in zoos by letting them play with a variety of screen-based activities such as puzzles or music and communication games; orang-utan or chimp videos however are a notable favourite.

In a new interview, the primatologist Frans de Waal describes the role of such type of videos for studying important issues including whether or not primates have empathy—a problem whose negation connects back to Descartes and is one of the arguments which enabled human exceptionalism. Based on decades of experience, de Waal however asserts, “[w]e know from human studies that [yawning contagion] is correlated to empathy. … So we … showed them [chimpanzees] videotapes of yawning chimpanzees and they started yawning. They actually do it more if they see it in an individual they know, just like humans. These bodily connections are basically how empathy starts.”

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So to help keep these sentient beings in captivity from yawning too much, the design of some of the most complex of the newly available apps also throws the linguistic argument of human exceptionalism out the window by giving great apes access to lexigrams (symbol-based vocabularies) potentially comprising several thousand concepts. Many contemporary primatologists are convinced that anthropoids understand rather than imitate. This assertion is based on a practice of building cognitive bridges between concepts and immediate experience—while largely foregoing the vocal aspects of human language which simians cannot produce (except in fiction).

Similarly to Koko gesturing in sign language, in real life bonobos at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (IPLS, a non-profit research facility in De Moines) for instance have been reported to construct intelligible sentences based on the lexigrams available on touchscreens. Given that the humanist concept of the “right to have rights” is based on philosophies of response and response-ability, such experiments emphasize urgent questions regarding the increasingly raised demands for human rights for great apes. It will be interesting to see how future scientific and ecological readings will influence the law to continue to adapt its subject/object definitions for nonhuman primates.

To introduce an even more radical position about the ethical status of nonhuman lives I want to briefly mention the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn here. Years of fieldwork in the Ecuadorian rainforest have convinced Kohn that human language is only one sign system among a broader semiotic universe. Signs, he says in his complex and astonishing book How Forests Think (2013), already exist in the world beyond human culture, but that those signs need not always be language-like. He therefore argues that our kind of language should be “provincialized” and no longer be seen as one of those central normative criteria according to which a being is traditionally parsed as an “other” in the ethical sense. Kohn thus makes the case for an alter-politics that transcends an understanding of representation based on “all-too-human” linguistic claims. Instead, he pledges for a reconsideration of traditional taxonomies, ultimately suggesting an “anthropology beyond the human” in favour of deeply entangled multispecies relations—a proposition that then extends the notion of “care” beyond those estimations which are essentially seen as “good” for “us.”

So in a way, by following Kohn, one could say that regardless of lexigrams or sign language primates are already able to “speak”—and that is, qua their being. To quote one of Kohn’s reviewers: “[H]e considers living beings as selves in relation to past and future relations, and social life as an amplification of this process of self-formation.”


Gabriel von Max, Affe vor Skelett (Monkey facing skeleton), ca. 1900; source Wikipedia

Kohn’s invitation to go beyond our “distinctively human kind of thinking” echoes my conversation with Eben Kirksey published on this blog a few weeks ago. But one of the points raised with Eben was also the issue of deciding to speak or act for other species, especially in a context of public display. There were phases in history when apes where pitched as wild monsters, exhibited in enclosures as thrilling, exotic sensations. Today, some argue that zoos—in contrast to animal documentaries on video—enable humans to have singular, face-to-face encounters with other species and that this will essentially contribute to training and widening our empathy. Since 2013, also the IPLS has been granted an Exhibitors’ License to host weekly public visits, a circumstance, which has led some critics to dismiss the project as a “circus.”


Vinyl record cover: Klaus Kammer Liest Franz Kafka ‎– Ein Bericht Für Eine Akademie; a recording of Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy” produced by Senders Freies Berlin, January 1963. 

That said, let’s conclude with Haraway’s “animal mirror” and be reminded of Franz Kafka’s parable, A Report For An Academy (1917), in which a captive ape performing as a spectacle in a variety show reflects on his process of “being forced into the world of man.” Invited to talk about his former life as ape to a congregation of academics, he explains how, and importantly why, he decided to assimilate into human culture. When kept inside a tiny cage onboard a ship for many months, “becoming human” seemed the best solution for a “way out.” What this required? Ruthless learning—most essentially, again, how to speak. But also: getting drunk. It moreover meant forgetting—as a kind of “unbecoming animal”—on an intellectual level at least, for an ape cannot so simply change its anatomy, or, the fact that he looks like an ape. Ultimately, it is this relatively superficial difference, which determines his position as an outsider. Because of his fur, most humans have a hard time seeing in him more than a well-trained ape. They fail to recognize his cognitive similarity. Although Kafka’s ape is uniquely able to hold up his “animal mirror” to humanity, commenting on it with the deep insight of the unfamiliar, in the end it is a visual factor which limits the unfolding of his social body within a system based on familiarity and kinship.

Listen to the full “Report” as unabridged audio book in English translation (28 min) here:

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Finally, I would like to recommend a text for further reading and invite you to download sound artist and communication scholar Mitchell Akiyama‘s wonderful two-part essay on nineteenth century primatology, evolutionary theories, and philosophies of language and consciousness, which is included in the second volume of SYNAPSE’s own publication series, intercalations, that you can find here.


Spread from Mitch Akiyama, “Part 1: Speaking of Animals,” in Land & Animal & Nonanimal, ed. by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (Berlin: HKW & K. Verlag, 2015).



— Anna-Sophie Springer

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