A Family Affair

Ape Culture takes a close look at mankind's closest relative and reaffirms that Haus der Kulturen der Welt is a leading proponent of research-based exhibitions.

Nagisa Ōshima, Max, Mon amour, 1986. Filmstill.
Nagisa Ōshima, Max, Mon amour, 1986. Film still.

The ape is “a peculiar beast, one that man cannot observe without pondering his own existence, growing convinced that our outward form is not our most essential trait,” said the French naturalist Buffon after seeing an orang-utan for the first time in the mid-18th century. What, then, is humanity’s “most essential trait”? Is it language, rationality, technology, sociality or empathy? In the text work Degreecoordinates (2015), which consists of a long list of questions directed at the observer, Marcus Coates and Volker Sommers offer numerous suggestions: “Do you use hammers? / Do you use sex toys? / Do you have parasites in or on you? / Are you opportunistic? / Do you create new rituals? / Do you bully? / Can you operate touchscreen computers? / Do you have oral sex?” While we certainly recognise these traits, they also have an alienating effect: they turn out to be traits that chimpanzees and human beings share.

Apes are poised between the animal and the human, which also means that they blur that boundary. This is the premise of Ape Culture at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, the exhibition in which Degreecoordinates is included. The show is an ambitious presentation of how apes have been portrayed in science, in popular culture and in art, demonstrating how those representations point back to us. The title itself strikes an ambiguous note: Does Ape Culture refer to the ape as a symbol in Western culture, or does it point to a culture specific to apes? Culture is a wide-ranging notion, but ultimately it has to do with perpetuating a specific kind of behaviour through repetition and imitation – in short, “aping.”

Nagisa Ōshima, Max, Mon amour, 1986. Filmstill.
Nagisa Ōshima, Max, Mon amour, 1986. Film still.

Ape Culture was curated by Anselm Franke and by curator and filmmaker Hila Peleg, and should be considered within the context of previous projects staged at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in recent years. The exhibition The Whole Earth. California and the Disappearance of the Outside (2013) linked the emergence of an ecological awareness to the publication of the photograph of ‘the blue planet’ taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968 – the paradoxical image of an immanent ecosystem viewed from the outside. The dichotomy between culture and nature was firmly subverted by The Anthropocene Project, a series of conferences hosted by the HKW in 2013 and 2014. This interdisciplinary project discussed the hypothesis claiming that Earth is currently undergoing such extensive change that the only meaningful comparison is that of the geological and climatic changes seen during the last glacial period, and that this places us within a new, man-made geological epoch – The Anthropocene. The fact that one of the key scientific conferences of our age is held within an art institution is in itself an event. It is also a sign of the overall turn and movement towards science that has been evident within the visual arts, literature, and the arts and humanities in academia in recent years; a movement that takes the form of a new interest in evolution theories, ecology and bio-tech hybrids.

With the theory of an anthropocene age we face a situation where humanity, nature and technology are utterly and inextricably entwined. The travelling exhibition Animism, which visited the HKW in 2012, demonstrated that this intertwining has always existed, albeit not as prominently and urgently as today. Animism adopted the much-contested anthropological concept of ‘animism’, which is used to distinguish rational modernity from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures for whom inside and outside, the real and the imaginary, dead and alive are all mutable entities. The exhibition demonstrated how animism – long repressed – re-emerges in our modern society’s ambivalent relationship with new technology. Franke also acted as curator for this exhibition, stating that “The exhibition sees animism as a node, a knot, that when untied, will help unpack the ’riddle of modernity’ in new ways.”

Barbet Schroeder, Koko: le gorille qui parle, 1978. Filmstill.
Barbet Schroeder, Koko: le gorille qui parle, 1978. Film still.

With Ape Culture the curators seek to untie a similar knot: the study of the ape as an animal poised somewhere between nature and culture offers a special opportunity to observe cross-pollination between the realm of science and cultural modes of expression. Ape Culture’s method of display may be best described by the term “essay exhibition.” It juxtaposes and combines works of art, field studies, documentary films, fictional films, curatorial texts, and excerpts from documents pertaining to the realms of science and philosophy. In other words, this is a dense exhibition packed full of information; one that requires considerable time to fully appreciate. You can even get a nine-page bibliography and list of sources from the reception.


A wall consisting of built-in film screening booths divides the exhibition space into two sections, one offering a presentation based on science and popular culture, the other focusing on art. This division seems to defeat the purpose of the exhibition somewhat given the fact that the exhibition itself strongly insists that the boundaries separating culture and science cannot be sustained. Given that the curators have decided to present this material under the same roof, such a separation introduces an unnecessary sense of hesitation.

Within the “science” section we find depictions of apes in science and popular culture presented on sixteen specially designed wall structures, each with their own theme. The material presented goes all the way back to Linné’s taxonomies from the 18th century, but the main emphasis is placed on the development of primatology in the 20th century. Ever since the Enlightenment era, when scholars became aware of the existence of the great apes, hominidae, and their close kinship with humans (genetically the chimpanzee is 98.4 % identical to humans), the study of apes has promised to solve the question of the origins of man, and to offer insight into the transition between a state of nature and society. This underlying driving force is evident in the research presented here.

Erik Steinbrecher, She Ape / Ape Man, 2015.
Erik Steinbrecher, She Ape / Ape Man, 2015.

Scientists and scholars working with apes have looked for signs of language, of sociality and culture, and they have explored the primates’ capacity for empathy. According to primatologists, there is much to suggest that apes are social animals that pass on certain behaviours through imitation. However, problems concerning research methods keep cropping up: Does the fact that an ape responds to being cheated by pounding the floor with its fists truly express a ‘sense of justice’? How does one define a ‘natural state’? What is ‘sociality’ and ‘culture’? How do we measure intelligence? These are general problems within the realm of science and extend far beyond the specific field of primatology. In this regard Ape Culture truly shines: By presenting methods of research in an historical and constructivist manner, the curators showcase the cultural prejudices that underpin scientific objectivity – and also show how notions found in science about ‘the natural’ reverberates and spread to popular culture.

Even so, the greatest achievement of this exhibition is the fact that it demonstrates how ape research unintentionally dismantles the fundamental categories used to separate humans from other creatures. This part of the exhibition can be read as an historical rundown of primatology and as an anthropological investigation. A striking example of this is provided by Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Primates from 1974, where the camera observes the scientists through a lens that corresponds to the one they themselves apply to the subjects of their research. The subject is made an object. The discussions that followed in the wake of this film partly concerned the research methods employed at the institution, but also Wiseman’s method of documentary filmmaking.


The curators have been very effective in placing scientific research within a historical context: For example, they claim that primatology has only just now grown interested in apes as social animals – precisely “at a time when sociality itself is being turned into an economic resource, and the notions of the ‘social’ and ‘society’ are being redefined against the background of technological developments.” However, one effect of splitting the exhibition into two sections – one cultural, one artistic – is that the material featured in the first section is treated as historical documents, whereas the works of art on the other side of that wall are presented in a rather more ahistorical manner. But what context should we consider when reflecting on the interest in apes seen in contemporary art? Why has an exhibition such as Ape Culture arrived at this point in time?

Damián Ortega, Transición del mono al hombre, 2015.
Damián Ortega, Transición del mono al hombre, 2015.

One possible answer might be that our awareness of being surrounded by so many technological ‘prosthetics’ has made the question of a natural state for human beings feel more pressing. The arrival of intelligent, networked machines – the so-called ‘Internet of things’ – has recently prompted doom-laden fantasies, even among techno-pioneers such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk. We also know that technology effects us in ways that go beyond sore eyes and mouse elbow: studies of brain plasticity have made us aware that changes in attention habits make an imprint on our neurology. In that sense we are all already cyborgs.

Speculations on humanity’s future mutations are accompanied by speculation regarding origin myths; the heyday of primatology after World War II was also the golden age of science fiction. The title of Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s Transición del mono al hombre (2015) is Spanish for “transition from ape to man”, and Ortega’s display cases include a wooden model hand with scissors and knives attached to its fingers. Erik Steinbrecher’s installation AFFE (2015) consists of a twisted gorilla mask and a collection of walking sticks and crutches, leather jacket and gloves arranged around a dismantled mannequin doll.

When we see apes acting like human beings, we see evolution played out in real time. Pierre Huyghe’s film Untitled (Human mask) from 2014 shows the protagonist – an ape wearing a wig, a waitress’ apron and a pale, expressionless mask – sitting on its own in a darkened café in Japan. The ape ‘plays itself’; being trained to be a waitress at a café on the outskirts of Fukushima, it became something of a celebrity through YouTube videos. Huyghe took the ape back to the ruined village in the aftermath of the tsunami and the reactor meltdown in 2011, using a drone camera to film it. Close-ups let us glimpse the trained animal’s confused eyes through the mask. Paradoxically, it is not the mask with its young-girl face that makes the ape almost human, but the expressive gestures made by the hairy arms. Lonely, apparently bored, the ape sits on a bench, twirling a lock of hair in its fingers, restlessly moving its legs, cleaning its nails. You cannot help asking yourself whether these gestures have been choreographed or are genuine ape gestures, nor whether the confusion of this domesticated ape is caused by its abandonment, or is in fact its ‘natural’ behaviour. In this film the distinction between the natural and the artificial has been thoroughly suspended: the ape is observed in its familiar habitat, but after a natural disaster and the threat of radioactivity has disrupted social order. Here, the notion of going ‘back to nature’ becomes truly ambiguous.

Lene Berg, Kopfkino (mindfuck), 2012. Filmstill.
Lene Berg, Kopfkino (mindfuck), 2012. Film still.

With its post-apocalyptic setting, Huyghe’s film reminds us of the anthropocene debate. By contrast, Lene Berg’s Kopfkino (2012) creates a link to the earlier exhibition on animism, albeit in peculiar ways. Berg’s film does not feature a single ape – or only does so metaphorically. It shows a drinking party where eight female SM-dominatrices talk about curious episodes with their clients. One man takes pleasure in being ridden while wearing a pony suit, making clacking, hoof-like noises with a clapper, another wants to be treated like dirty laundry. It strikes me that such apparently primitive, animistic fantasies about being transformed into something non-human are actually cultural games of a complexity that far exceeds the automatic, primal thrusts of conventional sexual intercourse. In this context Berg’s film takes on dimensions that would hardly even have been noticed in a different setting.

The inclusion of Kopfkino is a welcome anomaly – an example of curatorial monkey business – that sets the exhibition theme spinning in a new direction. In fact, a few more examples of this would have been a good thing, for a certain monotony sets in when you see so many works about the relationship between ape and man; a little like a science class that never ends. For example, US artist Coco Fusco’s ethnographic TED Talk, performed wearing the ape costume worn by Dr Zira from the science fiction classic The Planet of the Apes, offers few perspectives that were not already there in the original film, and it becomes rather reminiscent of a slightly amusing variety sketch that drags on for an insufferable forty-nine minutes. Despite a few flaws such as these, there can be no doubt that with Ape Culture HKW once again demonstrates that it is among the pre-eminent institutions in Europe when it comes to research-based exhibitions.

Coco Fusco, TED Ethology: Primate Visions of the Human Mind, 2015. Videostill.
Coco Fusco, TED Ethology: Primate Visions of the Human Mind, 2015. Video still.