“At the beginning, I welcomed [animals] more like characters, you know, beautiful divas that were coming to me with all this charisma and beauty. And then, ten years later, in Alaska, I was talking with my friend, who told me that every human being has a memory of a past when we were very closely connected with animals. Right then and there, I understood myself.” Paola Pivi
Isolated in a vast body of aquamarine water, the central subject of a lone donkey in Paola Pivi’s Untitled (Donkey), is both unabashedly amusing and eerily disconcerting. Void of any distinct context surrounding it, the long-eared donkey appears remote, perhaps lost, on a journey to nowhere. He is not particularly troubled by the sequence of events which led to his current, somewhat precarious, situation. Surrounded by water, he is unmistakably floating on a little, beat-up blue motorboat, just slightly bigger than the donkey himself. The donkey stands wearily on his four legs, looking into the distance, while the boat seems to move with the faint ripples in the water. The donkey’s reflection oscillates in the subtle undulations of the water dovetailing the edge of the boat. The donkey’s ears point in opposite directions, he is confused about his next step. He is likely aware that any sudden movement could lead the boat to capsize, plunging him into the water.
Paola Pivi’s image of Untitled (Donkey) hung prominently in the 50th Venice Biennale. A larger version of the present work, it covered nearly three stories of a building, hovering over the waters of Venice’s winding canal. In that context, the lower portion of the composition filled from edge-to-edge with water, seemed to blend with the canal waters, thereby bringing the donkey, in his beat-up motorboat, floating along in it. Untitled (Donkey) is the most iconic example from Pivi’s humorous but profound series of animals in misplaced environments.
Pivi’s oeuvre of recontextualizing animals in mismatched places has been celebrated for its uncanny, often poignant provocations. It includes a well-known image of a pair of zebras at the foot of mountains covered in snow, which was installed on a billboard adjacent to the High Line in New York in 2013. The artist also created an image of an ostrich walking along the rocky coastline of the Mediterranean in 2003. An unusual image of a leopard stepping across cups and cups of cappuccinos lining the floor, is yet another example of Pivi’s work with animals outside their natural habitat. More recently, in 2015, Pivi received public attention for images of horses running wild at the Eiffel Tower, Yee-Haw (Paris). Perhaps it was not so much the images, but as exemplified in Yee-Haw (Paris) the performance of horses galloping, unrestrained at extraordinary heights, in such a foreign environment for horses, that garnered the overwhelming response. What is notable in Pivi’s artistic endeavors for producing these images is that they are not manipulated digitally, but in fact, records of a moment in time she created. The animals physically enter the environment the artist envisions to capture a specific moment. The photograph is then, in turn, a document of the staged happening.
In Pivi’s creation of these unusual encounters, she challenges established norms and assumptions. Viewing an image of a donkey, one expects to find the furry, equine creature in the context of a farm, or bringing water from one village to the next. By isolating him in what appears to be the middle of a lake, Pivi plays both with our curious imagination and fear of something unsettling. There is no clear narrative that she provides, giving us a framework for understanding what might have come before or what might come after. She creates tension in the unknown, leading us to imagine. The result is disconcerting.
The stranded boat in the center of a body of water draws parallels with the luscious rendering of a red boat isolated in Caribbean waters in Peter Doig’s Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) from 2003-04. In these two works by Pivi and Doig, both artists seek to isolate the subjects in a moment where the context is intentionally illusory. As poetically described by Adrian Searle: “Journeys real and metaphorical, places of arrival and departure, no-man’s lands between waking and sleeping, and the slippage between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are the territories of Doig’s art” (A. Searle, “A Kind of Blankness,” in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 52).
Through the artists’ choice of a boat in both cases, the journey is at the same time implied and non-existent. The boats are in a moment of stasis, hovering above the waters, the passengers detached from any clear points of departure or arrival. While the surfaces of the present work and Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) are aesthetically quite different, they are similarly rife with notions of uncertainty, isolation and the journey—both metaphorical and real. Along the same lines, an isolated boat appears centrally in the ubiquitous, celebrated image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895). Through an art historical lens, the mere symbol of a boat stranded at sea is synonymous with fear and the anticipation of the unknown.
The social message behind Pivi’s Untitled (Donkey) is also hard to ignore. Migrants lost in an alien city or an animal misplaced due to climate change. This compelling image, brings to mind people who cannot stay where they are, due to varying factors, yet at the same time, cannot find a place they feel is home. Confronted with this image, the viewer is met with mixed emotions, sympathy for the creature yet also humor in the awkward placement. The fact that Pivi’s poignant image of Untitled (Donkey) has become so pervasive in popular culture is a testament to Pivi’s keen ability to imbue a singular image with such versatile meaning.