What happens when you throw some chickens, cats, a group of parrots and perhaps even a deer into a home? "Once Upon a Time," the unique media exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design museum, juxtaposes the absurd with the realistic to examine questions of daily life and domesticity.
Organized by German artist Corinna Schnitt, the exhibit features a 25-minute video projection with a 360-degree view of a neat domestic room. The space is furnished with all the elements of a common living room, including soft pillows, a sofa, a carpet, curtains, tables and a nice, cozy fireplace.
"The issues raised in the works presented … are timeless and important fundamentals involved in how we operate and make sense of the world around us," Sabrina Locks, curatorial assistant for contemporary art, wrote in an email to The Herald.
A camera in the center of the room shows visitors what happens in the exhibit. As the camera turns, the audience sees different animals begin to appear — kittens, parrots, rabbits, deer and cows emerge in the previously mundane scene.
Viewers have to be patient as the camera slowly pans around the living room. But the wide shots fuel a sense of expectancy and curiosity — viewers are constantly wondering what they will witness next. An elk this time? And how will it interact with those little chicks scrambling across the now-dirty carpeted floor?
The absurdity and ridiculousness of the scenes partly reflect the important element of humor that characterizes this exhibit. This raises the basic question of what happens when the most natural species are thrown into an artificial environment.
Of course, viewers don't expect to see animals sitting properly on the sofa — yet, they don't really know what to expect. As a result, it's easy to be caught off-guard by the chaos that results from their interactions with each other and with objects in the room.
The scene is only one part of the exhibit. The sounds from the video add a different dimension to the humor and extent of the chaos.
"I love that you can hear the sounds of the goats, chickens and cows from the ‘Once Upon a Time' in the neighboring galleries and that this adds a strange surrealism to the piece being situated where it is in the museum," Locks wrote.
She wrote that she believes this exhibit explores the question of domesticity and its role in the study and behavior of species as a whole.
"The piece is a metaphor about cohabitation and domestication — of the innate and physical effects of individual natures in conflict or play, as well as the environmental changes that take their toll where this kind of restrained nature is played out," Locks wrote.
"The struggles between the species and the behaviors and activities that occur form a kind of stage for their emergent sociality, or a stage for the conditioning of the social, and how individuals function within built environments and collective spaces, like a museum," she added.
Through its novel experiment with animals, this fascinating exhibit raises issues of order in the domestic homes while examining what happens when this order is shattered. The unique and creative use of absurdity, humor and other elements result in the exhibit Locks describes as a "crowd-pleaser."
"Once Upon a Time" will be on display at the RISD Museum through Nov. 6.
The concept behind this exhibit exposes different aspects of humans' relationships with nature and their environment. Its use of animals in a suburban space brings viewers to question the effects of domesticity in a shocking and innovative way.
* * * * four of five stars