Review: You're Weird For Building This @ Royal Nonesuch Gallery

You're weird for building this
Sarah Hotchkiss and Stephanie Rohlfs

October 27- December 2, 2018
Royal Nonesuch Gallery
300 Jefferson Street
Oakland, CA 94607

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An hour of play reveals more than a year of conversation: Careful Mirroring in You're weird for building this

Camile Messerley

I grew up in a betta fish and labrador household. This summer, for the first time after leaving home I found myself the caretaker of a beautiful rosy-red betta fish. My friend and I named her June Julep Michelle. Unfortunately, I think that June was clutching tightly to her dignity in that sterile PetSmart Tupperware just long enough to not die alone and made my mantle her final resting place. The same day I brought her home I saw a free fishbowl on the side of the road, inside of it was a tape on spiritual awakenings. I chose her because unlike the other fish, she was so calm and attentive, I swear she tracked my eyes as we moved from the car to my house. I filled her bowl with water, fake seaweed, and a rock to hide in and a day later I noticed she wasn’t moving. Maybe she’s sleeping I thought. A day later, no movement, I googled “betta fish hibernation”. I was in denial, and I continued to be in denial for about a week before my roommates asked me to please give her a funeral. I brought her home with the promise that I would provide her with a space of care.  

We all try our best to care for — our phones, our plants, our family, our pets, and we are responsible for their environment. We see how they behave and attempt to match their actions in the ways we care for them. Likewise, animals have the capacity to mirror our behaviors. You're weird for building this, a collaborative exhibition by Sarah Hotchkiss and Stephanie Rohlfs opened just before Halloween at the Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland. The show asks us, human viewers, to follow their meta-looping gallery map filled with sculptures modeled after animal enrichment devices — games, toys, exercise equipment designed to entertain. In zoos, animal enrichment is meant to improve the animals’ environments or surroundings and care based on their natural behaviors and instincts. These devices are meant to provide an animal social and physical fulfillment while also providing mental support and care, reducing stress. But, how do we know they actually want these things?  

Hotchkiss’ and Rohlfs’ replications are for the most part crafted to be closer to a human scale: an almost floor to ceiling mobile with paddles and pom poms a cat could climb up or bat at with a paw; a labyrinth hung at eye level that could be likened to the mazes mice are put in to test their decision-making skills; a half birdcage. I stood behind and in front of the cage for a while wondering if I was allowed to step onto the astroturf circle placed below it before I cautiously entered. After peering closer at hair, a salt lick, and a clock amongst other “fascinator objects” suspended within, I noticed that the cage was a close match to one in another piece. Diagonal to this cage was a 10 to 15-gallon fish tank that sat on top of a grass-printed-fabric wrapped pedestal with two joystick-like bird perches pointing out and off of it. Inside the tank were live fish swimming around, a matching cage, and lining the floor of the aquarium were lavender rocks, matching the border painted along the low edge of each gallery wall.

We were all just swimming in the loop, putting up a show for the fish, we were viewers for viewers, fish for fish, pets for a pet. I found this question when I spied myself through the mirrors in one sculpture: how are we learning to care for ourselves in the way that we care for the creatures in our lives?

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science, observed that sending cattle through a ‘squeeze chute’ — a strongly built, narrow cage — calmed them all down before getting vaccinated; from this she designed first for herself and later for others what is referred to as a hug-box, which is meant to help calm and relieve stress those who are hypersensitive or people like Grandin who are also on the autism spectrum. At the core of this was the earnest identification a personal need that was, in this case, a need that could be fulfilled for people by paying attention to how non-human-animals are treated, recognizing a commonality in how all of us animals interact with objects and space. Animal enrichment devices only really work if the human participates, at least in presenting it to the animal. We need them as they need us, we’re just as much their pets and they are our own.