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Exhibition’s meals between animals and humans challenges assumption that we stand atop hierarchy of life

If we all sat down together at the same table for a meal, we might be a little more mindful about what we all need and cultivate consideration of sharing what we have.

That philosophical thread lies beneath a series of meals Catherine Page Harris has been sharing with animals over the last decade, sometimes inviting other humans to participate, all done as performance art.

Harris is bringing the meals and the art to the Center for Contemporary Arts over the next three months as part of The Land Mark Show, a juried exhibition opening Oct. 9 that will feature 30 different projects, with the emphasis on photography and video, said Angie Rizzo, CCA’s acting director of visual arts and assistant curator. “About 40 percent of the artists in the exhibition are from New Mexico, so there is a regional emphasis,” she said.

The show, curated by Grace Kook-Anderson, an independent curator of contemporary art based in Portland, Ore., takes a look at how artists address land issues in the American West, according to Rizzo.

Kook-Anderson described it this way on the CCA website:

“Several themes emerge from this exhibition, perhaps mostly views of our current ecology – documentation of our marks on the land, land use, and the fractured reality of utopian visions. However, artists have also used their skills to work toward a different ecology, one that involves remediation and sustainability, even a different perspective on our humanity. “The artists in The Land Mark Show navigate these territories of the arid West, as we think about drought and climate change like no other time in our present history.”

Harris, an assistant professor who teaches art and environmental architecture at the University of New Mexico, is the New Mexico artist selected to have her work featured in the gallery’s spector ripps project space.

That space will include a modular table built out of recycled cardboard; videos will be embedded in the table and projected on the wall, Harris said. On opening day, that table will be taken outdoors for visitors to share a meal with bees.

On Nov. 21, leading to Thanksgiving, Harris and visitors will share a meal with four turkeys from the Sunflower River farm in Albuquerque. The birds will be spared from seasonal slaughter. Given the weather that time of year, the event probably will be held inside, she said.

And a third meal with animals will be linked to the solstice, Harris said, but added that she hasn’t settled on a particular critter yet. Probably baby creatures, she said, to celebrate the idea of new life.

The idea for her ongoing project, formally called Trans-species Repast, germinated during a collaboration with students at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, in which they imagined what kangaroo rats would be like if they were human-sized, and what their food would look like. That gave rise to an installation layered with drawings and seed pouches to mimic the creatures’ underground food caches.

Harris said she became increasingly uneasy about humans’ assumption that we stand atop the hierarchy of life on Earth and about the effects that our actions have on other living creatures. For instance, she said, we’ve responded to water shortages with xeriscaping, but in the process hauled in gravel from afar and disrupted other landscapes.

She said she began thinking more about what it would be like if other beings had an equal say in how the Earth’s resources are used.

The shared meal is a way of translating that idea into a physical reality, she said. Meals are a means of connection. Her own family stressed the importance of family meals in showing their love for each other, and shared meals on field trips with students help cement the group together, she said.

She also found inspiration in her parents’ own activities, she said.

“My father, Donald, co-founded EarthJustice, an environmental law firm, and my mother, Janet, was part of the Berkeley revolution in food, following Alice Waters from French cuisine to fresh, local ingredients,” Harris wrote in an email.

Harris shares a meal with a chicken as part of her “Trans-species Repast” project, which will come to the Center for Contemporary Arts as part of The Land Mark Show, opening Oct. 9. (Courtesy of the Center for Contemporary Arts)

Harris shares a meal with a chicken as part of her “Trans-species Repast” project, which will come to the Center for Contemporary Arts as part of The Land Mark Show, opening Oct. 9. (Courtesy of the Center for Contemporary Arts)

Dairy cows, goats, chickens, bees, horses and more have been included in her meals as performance art in locations as diverse as Los Angeles and Denmark.

“An interesting part of the whole process is that it’s unpredictable,” Harris said. “You can’t predict if an animal will want to come and be engaged with human beings.”

But do people who come by and see her eating with animals, or even those who join them at the table, really “get” the point of the experience?

It may depend on how much time they spend with it, she said.

In Vermont she staged a meal for bees, buzzers that often send children fleeing in terror, especially if they’ve been stung in the past.

“The process of the meal led the kids and adults to investigate whether the bees were able to eat the honey, whether they were interested in the flowers … They became very interested in this creature,” Harris said. “Children who were running screaming (from bees) the day before were able to be six inches away, looking very closely at the bee and speculating about what its life was like.

“I was quite moved by that.”