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Lesson Plans

Skoglund's Radioactive Cats

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Terry Barrett (TBarrett)
Thu, 11 Jan 1996 17:50:40 -0800

Activities for Interpreting
Sandy Skoglund's "Radioactive Cats," 1980
Sydney Walker
Department of Art Education
Ohio State University
Terry Barrett
Visiting Scholar
Getty Center for Education in the Arts

Welcome to our on-line discussion on teaching about contemporary art.
The following are ideas for teaching critical interpretation. These
questions and strategies are written for "Radioactive Cats" but can
be used as well for Skoglund's other works, and most contemporary
works of art. Please try these activities yourself and with your
students, invent others, and through e-mail to ArtsEdNet Talk (just
send e-mail to artsednet), tell all of us about what
you are doing.

Fascinating Fact
As a young girl, Sandy Skoglund was so frightened of the wicked witch
in Walt Disney's "Snow White" that her parents had to take her out of
the theater. Today, Ms. Skoglund sees connections between her work
and that of Walt Disney.

Do you see such connections?
If "Radioactive Cats" were to be a movie, would it better fit a
sci-fi thriller genre than a Disney animation?
If this were a scene from a movie, what preceded it and what would
follow it?

? Two Viable Interpretations of "Radioactive Cats"

Critics have interpreted "Radioactive Cats" as having two different
themes, one about social indifference to the aging, and another about
nuclear war and its aftermath. "Radioactive Cats" provides evidence
for both themes, but is one more viable than the other? Might one be
a dominant theme and the other a subordinate theme?

Here is a listing of evidence for interpreting the image. Some of
the items might offer support for both themes, and some only to one.
Sort them to support the themes.

? The title "Radioactive Cats"
? The elderly woman
? The elderly man
? The lethargy of the man
? The drab gray color of the environment
? An apparent lack of food
? The acid green color of the cats
? The broken chair
? The excessive number of cats
? An apparent loss of human control
? The impoverished apartment

There seem to be more items in "Radioactive Cats" that refer to the
aging theme, but this does not mean that the nuclear war theme is
necessarily subordinate. Individual items are not all of the same
importance. For instance, titles carry significant weight with
viewers, and artists are not unaware of the control exerted by titles
over artworks. How often do you read titles before viewing art works?
If the work was titled "Ravenous Cats" instead of "Radioactive Cats,"
would you still connect the installation with nuclear disaster?

The cats' bright acid green color provides strong evidence in support
of the nuclear war theme. Its electrifying quality is easily
associated with nuclear radiation, and the green dominates the
installation. The dull gray color covering all but the cats can be
read as a sign of poverty or as the ashen aftermath of a postnuclear

Some items support both themes. The excessive number of cats may
indicate loss of human control. If read in the context of nuclear
disaster, the excessive number of cats suggests that nature and the
world as we know it has gone berserk. If read in the context of old
age and social indifference, the excessive number of cats might refer
to the proclivity of the elderly to collect cats. The man's lethargic
pose, the stark absence of material goods, and general disrepair in
the apartment suggest despair, which could support either theme.

Both interpretive themes can be supported by evidence relevant to the
image: Which do you consider to be the dominant theme?

? Fascinating Fact
The people in "Radioactive Cats" are neither professional actors nor
professional models. They were Sandy Skoglund's neighbors and lived
in the same apartment building in New York City.

Why are they good choices?

? Criticizing Criticism of "Radioactive Cats":

An art critic wrote this about "Radioactive Cats":
"In 'Radioactive Cats,' which shows dozens of
plaster-and-chicken-wire luminous cats (playing on the idea that cats
can see at night, Skoglund made them visible in the dark) arranged in
a gloomy apartment, she created a hilarious but menacing send-up of
the mundane fear of a world beyond our control, intensifying the
questions she was asking about how human beings relate to their
environment and the natural world. The piece portrays the animals
stalking an elderly couple in a kitchen, where, in the glow emanating
from the open refrigerator door, we witness a nightmare of old age and
Nan Richardson, Artnews, April 1991, pp. 118-119

? Do you agree with the critic's word choice when she describes the
cats as "stalking" the elderly couple?

? Do you agree that this photograph is a "hilarious" picture?

? Can it be both "hilarious" and "a nightmare of old age and

? Do you agree that this photograph is about "the mundane fear of a
world beyond our control?" What reasons support this interpretation?
What reasons might counter it?

? The Excessive Number of Cats in "Radioactive Cats"

Sandy Skoglund initially planned to have just one cat in "Radioactive
? How many cats are in the image?
? Is Skoglund's choice of many cats better than her first choice of
only one cat? Why or why not?
? Would 50 cats be better, and 500 better yet?
? Assume that Skoglund's final choice is the best choice and defend
her choice with your reasons.

? Fascinating Fact
While Sandy Skoglund was making the cats for "Radioactive Cats," she
said she began perceiving the world as if she were a cat.

? Varied Interpretive Points of View

Think like the woman in "Radioactive Cats." Writing in words you
imagine to be the woman's, explain "Radioactive Cats."

Think like the man in "Radioactive Cats." Writing in words you
imagine to be his, explain "Radioactive Cats."

Think like a specific cat in "Radioactive Cats." Writing in words
you imagine to be the cat's, explain "Radioactive Cats."

? Considering Skoglund's Formal Choices

How would your understanding of "Radioactive Cats" change if
? the cats were natural colors rather than green?
? the cats were placed in one corner?
? the cats were crawling on the man and woman?
? the cats were not cats?

? Fascinating Fact

The Associated Press released a photograph in November 1995 of a
young girl in Denmark holding a two month-old kitten with green fur.
Experts were unable to explain the cat's color and have sent a sample
of its hair to a university in Copenhagen for analysis.

? Compare "Ferns" and "Radioactive Cats"

Critics often compare images to gain insights into each and to the
work of an artist in general. Skoglund created both "Ferns" and
"Radioactive Cats" in 1980. The two images share common elements.

List the commonalties among "Ferns" and "Radioactive Cats."

Both images have people in them, but both titles do not mention the
people. Is "Radioactive Cats" about the cats? Is "Ferns" about the

Compare the people in both works. How are they alike, how are they

What if the people were younger? Healthier looking? Not Caucasian?

Critic Arlene Raven finds "Ferns" to be about American institutions
and conformity. She cites five different signs of conformity in
"Ferns." What are these? How many can you find?

In a written assignment about "Ferns" for Dr. Walker's class, Ohio
State University All-American football player, Mike Vrabel, found a
symbolic connection between the elderly women and the ferns. Do you
see similarities?

Critic Marge Goldwater writes that Skoglund's works have a strong
social dimension. What are the social dimensions that Goldwater
identifies? What are her reasons for naming these?

Skoglund agrees that her works raise social issues, but she maintains
that her work in not about solving social problems. Is it valid for
artists to raise social concerns without posing solutions?