Through primates, the evolutionary origins of war

Through primates, the evolutionary origins of war

Today WBEZ launches a new monthly series called Art/Work, where we talk with contemporary visual artists exhibiting in Chicago about the inspiration and perspiration behind their creative endeavors. We begin with Alison Ruttan, a multimedia artist based in Oak Park, Ill., who works largely in photography and video.

Ruttan likes to emphasize that she is an artist, not a scientist, despite her fascination with scientific inquiry. She jokes that she was raised to be an “artist anthropologist” by her social scientist parents who moved her to a new school almost every year. “I would have to figure out how to not get picked on,” she said about her childhood. “I was really interested in trying to understand what the rules were about behavior - and trying to fit in.”

Now, fascinated as she is by human behavior, much of her work is preoccupied with exploring what makes us uniquely human, versus those elements of our behavior which can be traced to our primate ancestors.

Ruttan’s previous projects include a series on primates photographed in human settings, and an investigation of bonobos living in captivity who may be cultivating individual hairstyles. But her most ambitious project to date is a photo series based on the field work of legendary primatologist Jane Goodall.

Goodall spent decades in Tanzania starting in the 1960s, observing the behavior of humanity’s closest primate relatives: chimpanzees. Among the things she witnessed was a brutal “war” between two groups of chimpanzees that had previously lived together as a single, peaceful community. After splitting in two, one group of chimpanzees attacked and decimated what Ruttan called “their former friends.”

For her series The Four Year War at Gombe, Ruttan cast untrained actors (and one performance artist) to re-enact scenes from Goodall’s work. Shot in a patch of woods in Oak Park and River Forest, Ill. the resulting photographs are reminiscent of the kind of dark, 19th century illustrations that might accompany classic children’s fairy tales. The woods are dark and foreboding, the photos, haunting. Her images also take aesthetic cues from horror films shot with hand-held cameras, like The Blair Witch Project, and have the kind of size and presence one finds in monumental landscape painting or the stained glass windows of a cathedral. You can see Ruttan’s work, and hear her describe her process, in the video above.

Selections from The Four Year War at Gombe are on display at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago through Oct. 16th. Ruttan gives an artist talk tonight at 4 p.m., followed by a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.