The museum as a shackle and a trap

The new exhibition at mumok invites us to think about the animal in us. A text by Sabine B. Vogel.

VALIE EXPORT, Peter Weibel. From the Portfolio of Doggedness,1968/2003. Foto by Josef Tandl. mumok © VALIE EXPORT/Bildrecht, Wien 2022, Peter Weibel

“What kind of zoo is the MUMOK?” The curator duo Manuela Ammer and Ulrike Müller arrived at this curious question while perusing the MUMOK collections: Among the approximately 10,000 works are 500 sculptural, painted, photographed animals, they researched.


The occasion for their perusal was the 60th anniversary of the house, which was founded in 1962 as a museum of the 20th century. For the anniversary exhibitions, the duo ultimately selected 400 exhibits from the MUMOK “and from outside,” as the loans are summarized. All of them animals. The title: “The Animal in You” – one suspects that this is not about cute pets and cuddly animals. In linguistic usage, this designates the animalistic, a threatening instinctuality.

However, as soon as we take our first step into the exhibition, it becomes clear that this is not about wild male fantasies either. We are welcomed by a huge blue plush spider (Pino Pascalis), by ants (Peter Kogler), bats (Walter Dahn); Chéri Samba paints men chasing jellyfish, Gina Pane lets maggots crawl over her face. Further behind, snails occupy an old armchair – animals everywhere, sometimes disgusting, sometimes threatening, sometimes harmless or rarely cute, sometimes even abstract as in Johannes Itten’s painting “Vogelthema”, where in the midst of the colorful forms only a tip as a beak is reminiscent of animals.

ÖL-Stg 547/0

One can wander through this animal-intensive course over three floors as an entertaining visit to the zoo, as a motivically clarified walk through recent art history. But one can also see this exhibition as a challenge to break open structures of thought and perception. For the animal motif here is a starting point for thinking about us, about all the characteristics that people transfer to animals – after all, no animal is disgusting per se. Or about hierarchies and fantasies of domination, about human arrogance and animal forbearance, about our idea of wildness and the human urge to want to tame. This is where the analogy suggested at the beginning, museum = zoo, i.e. work of art = animal, comes in: Does a museum tame art? Is the white cube a barred enclosure? Is the museum even a “trap,” as the press release puts it, a “shackle that traps us in liberal humanist fantasies and autonomy?” The exhibition is worth a visit for this line of thought alone!

The animal within, MUMOK, 22.9.2022-26.2.2023