Bill Burns is originally from Saskatchewan, studied at Goldsmiths, now lives in Toronto, has work in major collections here and abroad. He is best known for his series Safety Gear for Small Animals, 1996-2000, a collection of tiny helmets, gas masks, life jackets, hazmat suits and goggles for rats and gophers and other tiny neighbours.
Curiously the effect does not anthropomorphise the animals, the little life jackets simply remind us that we don't look after animals at all. If not actively trying to exterminate them, we ignore them, so busy are we looking after ourselves as we elbow our way into the lifeboat, first leaving everyone else to go down with the ship.
Safety Gear for Small Animals led to the more recent project, Boiler Suits for Primates, 2006 which is a suitcase of miniature versions of all the things given to people incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay: orange jumpsuits, rubber thongs, towels, a bucket, toothpaste. These are considered the bleak essentials of life it seems, and by putting them into the context of Safety Gear for Small Animals, the parallel to zoos is undeniable. Detainees are stripped of their humanity, but still given toothpaste.
The ambiguity between mankind and animalkind is the subject of Burns' work. It is a similar project to that of Yann Martel who uses animals as eloquent voices of the blindly fumbling human condition. George Orwell was another. Somehow when the rather selfish ambitions of human beings are made to come out clear and pure from the mouths of animals who, if we think about them at all, we consider innocents, we are shocked.