After seeing Christoph Keller's work I hotfooted it to the zoo. When Jeff Koons makes a large puppy out of flowers or a bunny out of stainless steel, we like him for it - but his animals are fake. Several artists today use real animals in their work: Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Mark Dion and Andreas Slominski, to name a few. Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel have made our cultural obsession with animals the theme of several of their works, such as Eyeball: A House for Pigeons, People, and Rats (1996-2000), and Henrik Håkansson bases his art on, for example, the reaction of frogs to techno music, or the flight pattern of a pigeon over the city landscape.
Keller's Encyclopaedia Cinematografica (2001) is one of a four-part 'Bildarchive' (picture archive) series curated by Anselm Franke and Klaus Biesenbach. The bulk of this exhibition involved the simple pleasures of black and white archival films of animals in motion - 40 films displayed on 40 video monitors. Some 4000 of these films exist (in the form of two-minute takes), as evidence of the attempt made by German scientist Konrad Lorenz to document on film all animal movements of the natural world.
Keller - who studied maths, physics and hydrology before attending art school - didn't manipulate Lorenz's 'movement specimens'. Instead he displayed the monitors on low wooden platforms so that we had to move among the different speeds and variety of motion on screens facing different directions.
The animals were filmed on the move but going nowhere, away from the flock, the herd, away from safety in numbers, so to speak. The loop is mesmerizing: the barrel of a rhinoceros, the waddle of a porcupine, the hurtle of a mountain goat, the flitter-flutter of a hummingbird in slow-motion. In short, all the things you could ever dream of from a trip to the zoo, without having to wait until the feeder comes along to drag the animals out of their caged stupor.
But the art of epistemology - and not the art of animal action - appears to be Keller's greatest concern. Retrograd (1999) is a video of appropriated film footage from 1900-90 documenting the Charité hospital's efforts to add to the pile of human knowledge. (Keller was actually the first to put this heap of celluloid into chronological order.) One clip shows a pitiful dog running circles around itself, the filmic answer to the oft-asked question, 'What happens to a dog when we remove the cerebrum and corpus stratium?'
Another part of the show comprised framed texts hung on the walls. Only the extremely disciplined student (or art critic) would bother to stand and read through the hodgepodge of information Keller gathered together in the form of encyclopaedia pages. There was no ordering principle. His method is associative, and would drive a scientist - looking for hypothesis, experiment and conclusion - mad. The content of this work, titled Lost/Unfound: Archives as Objects as Monuments (2000), is sensational at times - Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the man-killing elephant before a crowd of spectators in 1903 at Luna Park, NY - and narcoleptic at others. 'Presentation' in this part of Keller's work presents a problem. The archival material is at times more fascinating than the ways in which the artist displays it. Only through the medium of TV as objects did Keller's invocation of the epistemological muse arouse my interest. Encyclopaedia Cinematographica effortlessly put the pause button on adulthood, capturing the wonderful ridiculousness of a sentence like 'How now brown cow?' in its snare.