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Therianthropic Things: ‘En Cuatro Patas’ at the Broad

"The Formaldehyde Trip," 2017 by Naomi Rincón Gallardo. | Fabiola Torres-Alzaga

This is produced in partnership with The Broad, home to the 2,000 works of art in the Eli and Edythe Broad collection, which is among the most prominent holdings of postwar and contemporary art worldwide, and presents an active program of rotating temporary exhibitions and innovative audience engagement. 

“You can’t just let nature run wild.”

-Walt Disney

Non-human animals under-populate our day-to-day lives. They make cameos as domesticated companions, cooked things on plates or losers splattered against our windshields. “En Cuatro Patas (On All Fours),” the Broad’s new Latinx feminist performance series, which will run from January through November of this year, promises to replace our everyday animal reality with something weirder. A part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA's live performance festival, "En Cuatro Patas" artists will turn the Broad into a bestiary populated by, among other creatures, a storytelling salamander, birds and a smooth, cat-like monstrosity ready for milk.

"The Formaldehyde Trip," 2017 by Naomi Rincón Gallardo. | Eliana Cetto
"The Formaldehyde Trip," 2017 by Naomi Rincón Gallardo. | Eliana Cetto

It’s ironic that guest curators Nao Bustamante and Xandra Ibarra, aka La Chica Boom, chose what some consider the opposite of anthropomorphism as the Latinx series’ theme. Latinx people have long been lumped in with mongrels by those that deny their humanness, and a notorious Jim Crow-era sign once displayed in Southwestern restaurant windows sums up this ideology. It read: “NO DOGS, NO NEGROES, NO MEXICANS.”

By encouraging Latinx artists to become dogs, or any subhuman entity of their choosing, Bustamante and Ibarra parodically bump Latinx people to the top of this sign’s racist and species-ist hierarchy. This can only happen at the expense of the artists’ humanity, which is, perhaps, the point.

This irony might be unintentional, but it’s doubtful; Bustamante is no stranger to artistic edge-play. A multi-media artist whose sensibility is slapstick avant-garde, Bustamante’s career has been spent waving red capes at sacred cows. Take her 1992 performance “Indig/urrito.” She conceived of the satire as part of a commemoration of the European conquest of the Americas, and during it, the nearly nude Bustamante challenged her audience while wearing the most Mexican meme, a burrito, as a dildo. She invited white men to crouch before her, bite her phallus, and apologize for colonialism. Bustamante courted history in a similarly embodied fashion through her 2015 exhibition, “Soldadera,” at the Vincent Price Museum. There, she displayed reproductions of dresses worn by adelitas, female Mexican revolutionaries, made from bullet-pocked Kevlar.

Ibarra is also a multi-media artist whose 2014 piece “Nude Laughing,” staged at the Broad, was chosen by Artforum as one of the best performances of the year. Like Bustamante, Ibarra also plays, in burlesque ways, with Chicanx, Mexican and Latinx memes. Therianthropy, or shape-shifting, also happens in her work. Take her photographic performance “Spic in Ecdysis,” a series of images featuring, or suggesting, Ibarra as a racialized cockroach in perpetual molt. The metamorphic trope ancestrally yokes the work to Kafka and about the work, Ibarra has written, “I can only discard and abandon [my] carcass; I’m stuck. My new being through ecdysis remains within ‘the order of the  same.’”

 Xandra Ibarra, Ecdysis Triptych Horizontal (2015). | Courtesy of the artist.
Xandra Ibarra, Ecdysis Triptych Horizontal (2015). | Courtesy of the artist.

Remaining within “the order of the same,” being stuck and unable to evolve, might be an adaptive flaw but it's the essence of tradition, and the tradition that “En Cuatro Patas” belongs to is ancient. Christopher Chippindale and Paul Taçon, authors of “The Archaeology of Rock-Art,” conducted a global survey of this form and found therianthropes to be ubiquitous. The oldest specimen they cataloged was a 32,000-year-old German statuette of a sexually ambiguous cat-human hybrid.

“En Cuatro Patas” brings natality to the therianthropic tradition through conscious queering. Instead of making space for meaning, the series’ performances threaten to disinvite it. Take Nadia Granados’ “Spilled.” Through tight choreography, the performer loses her wig and clothes, molting her humanness until she’s left as stark and vulnerable as a hairless cat lapping milk from the floor. While this might tempt us to read her performance as a “statement” on feminine artifice or pornographic dehumanization, we shouldn’t. Gallardo is fitting herself into the space between human and animal and animals don’t make statements. They are too inscrutably wild to do so. The feral don’t have grammar.

Like all landscapes, queerness, too, has its frontiers. Wildness is one of them. Queer theorists like Jack Halberstam have been using anthropologist Michael Taussig’s work to explore these spaces and many of “En Cuatro Patas’” artists push us towards a post-human realm where homo sapiens exists but in form only. Take Deborah Castillo’s “Slapping Power.” In it, Castillo becomes a totem and the spirit she incarnates is aggression. Her body conducts force, violence, and strength as it destroys the bust of a human man. Again, we might be tempted to “read” “Slapping Power" as a “statement,” one that “speaks” to smashing patriarchy or violence against women except that, in its totemic innocence, no such meaningful justification is necessary. As Taussig has written, “Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol…[it] is the death space of signification.”

FEELFORM by luciana achugar. | Steven Schreiber
FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM by luciana achugar. | Steven Schreiber

About half of the performances, like Luciana Achugar’s “FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM” and Oscar David Alvarez’s “‘BAND’ Shirts,” take a more conceptual, and less recognizable, approach to therianthropy. Their wildness is more zeitgeist and less organism. Gina Osterloh’s “Shadow Woman” flirts with Jung, exploring the wildness of the Other. Bustamente’s “Entregados al Deseo” is also composed, in part, of shadow, boxed wine and tape.

In keeping with the series’ title, animals that walk on all fours do materialize. At the performance series’ opening event, a screening of Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s “The Formaldehyde Trip,” a video opera of sorts, revives a ravaged ecosystem, the Xochimilco waterways that were once filled with Mexican salamanders, or in nahua, axolotls. Today, axolotls are endangered, thriving only in captivity as a result of their queer magic: this animal has the power to regenerate lost limbs. In a sense, the axolotl is an evolutionary failure, a neotenous being that remains larval across its lifespan. It revels in its stasis, its mouth frozen in an eternally dumb smile, which, hopefully, is an invitation to smile back.

The first performance of the "En Cuatro Patas" series is on January 20. For more information, visit here.

Top Image: "The Formaldehyde Trip," 2017 by Naomi Rincón Gallardo. | Fabiola Torres-Alzaga

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