Surface over depth: pagan inter-species art
A witch I once knew taught me something I never make use of, yet the skill is forever buried in my veins. And if I had to, I’d need but to seep into my own body, trust its memory, lean on its ability to perform what it had learnt years ago. She taught me how to make beef bone broth, a ritual she’d clung to year after year, when it was time to bid winter farewell and welcome spring. How to pick out marrow bones. How to get rid of those few stubborn pieces of flesh, a lingering red against the bare whiteness. How to boil it, carefully, hours and hours and hours, until the stench fills your nostrils and sticks to your skin like glue. Years later, I saw Damien Hirst’s infamous artwork, Mother And Child, Divided (1993), a piece both scandalous and banal that led him to winning the Turner Prize in 1995, and left a mark on popular imagination - only a few years ago, it was recreated for NBC’s Hannibal (2013-2015). The first work where Hirst displayed dead, large animals cut open, he bisected the bodies of a mother cow and her calf, cutting each horizontally from head to tail, and suspending them in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde. The presentation evoked that of a medical specimen. And yet, against this obstinate sterility, all I could think of was the stench of boiling bones, I could smell them, as if the gallery itself had turned into a witch's cauldron and we were all being brewed together in a celebration of death. From dishes to artworks, animal bodies have been marked by gestures that push them towards death suspended either in dietary or aesthetic consumption.
There runs a certain parallel between the fetishization and subsequent parcelization of female bodies in contemporary visual culture, the female “to-be-looked-at-ness” in the words of Laura Mulvey (Mulvey 1975, 16-18), and the dissection and greedy voyeurism that animal bodies are subjected to in contemporary art. Curiously, it seems that no matter how much time has passed, human artists find it ceaselessly scandalizing to engage the animal body. No matter if it is Jannis Kounellis and his Untitled (1969), where twelve horses were moved from the stables into the gallery, or Miru Kim’s I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me (2012), where the artist spent 104 hours in a glass-encased hog pit, the involuntary incorporation of animal bodies manages to attract media attention and provoke the everyman’s outrage (even though much less publicized, quieter, and tenfold crueler rituals unveil seamlessly behind the closed doors of factory farms). There is no shortage of scandalizing corpses either - from the kawaii taxidermy of Les Deux Garcons, Cai Guo-Qiang’s arresting installation Head On (2006) that consists of ninety-nine life-like wolf sculptures assembled out of wire, sheepskins, and hay, cascading onto the floor in a stream that defies gravity, to Bart Jensen’s Catcopter (2012), where the artist turned his dead pet into a toy-like helicopter. Dead or alive, animals bodies serve as canvases for meanings, interpretations, and symbols to play out, thus stressing the incapability of conceiving of animals as creators rather than objects woven into networks of human creativity. The animal body becomes the raw material for aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, a tool that is meant to provoke reflection on diverse matters, from death to our own animality. Of course, this can readily conjure up images much like the one I’ve opened with: a paganism reborn in modern, urban setting; an art that becomes ritual through engaging with the lifeless, the gory, the forbidden, the beastly. Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance, Meat Joy, makes this connection explicit: “[the piece] has the character of an erotic rite...a celebration of flesh as material...raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint...” (Schneemann & McPherson, 1979).
Yet, for me, Hirst the Dissector is hardly the modern-day equivalent of the witch standing amidst foggy, night-stricken woods, his head adorned with a horned trophy. I shiver not with tears of pagan joy when we halve, dissect, open up, observe, and sterilize. What motivates these act is the desire to question, and most of all to know, to uncover deeper truths. A paganism that wants to know is always a faux paganism, one that has distanced itself from its roots in the occult. In Latin, occultus means to hide, to cover up, to conceal. The term ‘occult’ is used in scientific papers to denote something ‘of an unknown origin,’ such as ‘occult cancer’ (I’m serious, look it up). Witches are famously secretive - it is perhaps the only religion that seeks not to convert others but to withdraw from the public. In Dark Muse: A History of the Occult, Gary Lachman informs that the word was lifted from “the technical astronomical term ‘occultation,’ as when one heavenly body obscures or ‘occludes’ another by passing in front of it” (Lachman 2003, 14). To describe inter-species art, then, as occult, would require that we pay attention to movements of occlusion rather than those of exposure or revelation; it would demand that the hands of the artist are not meddlesome in their prying open of the animal body, but that they draw down the veil of secrecy. It requires that we examine surface, not depth.
Colloquially, ‘staying on the surface’ draws negative connotations - think only of Jean Baudrillard’s insistence on the shallowness of all surface illusions in post-modernism (Baudrillard, 1981) - yet I would argue that this is exactly where pagan inter-species art needs to be. In Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art, Ron Broglio describes how “animals have been viewed as having limited faculties… Their skills are lessened by measuring them against every standard in which we consider ourselves superior, and by this superiority, we differentiate ourselves from them… I characterize this supposed inferiority of their abilities by a shorthand called ‘living on the surface” (Broglio 2011, xvi). Broglio then argues that instead of trying to disprove this surface argument by proving that animals do possess a ‘depth,’ we prioritize and value the occlusion. For him, “staying on the surface with animals afford us an invaluable modality for thought,” (Broglio 2011, xx) where human thought reaches its horizon, its limit. To stay on the surface is not to reveal something about the animal, but rather to uncover our own inability of dealing with the impenetrable and the hidden, with the truly alien.
Turn your gaze, then, to those artists who stay on the surface, who stage precisely this encounter of animal and human, occluding each other, overlapping, but not intersecting. Think about the seventy zebra finches, landing on the strings of fourteen electric and bass guitars installed at various galleries by artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, creating a soundscape in flux. This is the kind of surface art that might be easily dismissed, dragged down by a cacophony of questions: do the birds know that they’re making music? Do we know when we’re making music? What does it mean to know that you’re making music? Is agency key to making music? And so on, and so forth. Boursier-Mougenot understands that with art, interpretation and intention are less important than what the artwork itself does. In an interview, he labels the finches “flying fingers [that create] a piece that’s impossible for humans to play” (Mirin, 2014).While the birds react to human presence in the room, thus effectively creating a collaboration, it’s hard to turn this event inwards in search of a deeper truth about humans. Instead, we have to stay on the surface, experiencing a musical interchange between the object and the animal, an encounter we might feel we are intruding on. Nothing follows from here.
Think also of Pod Tune, a collaborative effort of several artists working with the sounds produced by humpback whales, whose vocalization is one of the most complex on the planet. As the project’s website informs, “humpback males produce complex songs that last from 10 to 20 minutes and then they repeat them for hours at a time,” sometimes for days. As cetaceans possess no vocal chords, they create sound by blowing air through their nasal cavities. Whales in the same area collaboratively develop a song over a period of years; a distinct tune that never overlaps with one that a different groups of whales might have created somewhere else. Overlaying the sounds with electronically produced music, Pod Tune adds enigma instead of subtracting it. Again, we could ask so many questions: what if it takes humpback whales a month to say hello? Can we ever develop a common language? Is language necessary for meaning? Are mating calls art? Instead of diving into these questions, the project rather glides over the surface, sounds sliding over one another, approaching the void of understanding that can easily be confused with a void per se. It is as we were climbing a mountain to finally look down at a smooth surface, reflecting nothing, covering everything.
There are artists who tear our hearts open with the novelty of their work, whose words swell and grow under our skin until they push our eyes open to a new world. Then there are artists who fight gently; artists whose words align with your own thoughts so perfectly that they feel as if they were coming out of our own mouths. Perhaps thinking of animals as artists requires that we flatten our thought instead of deepening it. I’ve come to realize that co-presence can be more valuable than mutual understanding. Humans can seem a little obsessed with depth: we tend to think that truth is buried deep within, that you cannot love someone until you’ve learnt their deepest secrets, that knowledge requires dwelling, that depth is what distinguishes creativity from skill. With inter-species art, we learn that it takes a much larger effort to resist this impulse, to stay on the surface with the banal, the a-signifying, seemingly without purpose or worth but that of staging an occluded encounter. We have torn animals apart, both viscerally and metaphorically, artistically and scientifically, in dishes, artworks, and laboratories, looking for consciousness, morality, character, personality, personhood, emotion, or whatever new standard of worthiness we currently hold others to. Yet, to grasp an alien kind of creativity, to really find the Other that we so persistently search for, we need to learn how to stay on the surface.
Bogna M. Konior is the director of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, Asia. She is currently working on a mixed research / practice PhD on animism and contemporary moving image at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Baudrillard, Jean (1981). Simulations and Simulacra. University of Michigan Press.
Broglio, Ron (2011). Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art. University of Minnesota Press, p.xvi-xx.
Lachman, Gary (2003). Dark Muse: A History of the Occult. Dedalus, p.14.
Mirin, Ben (2014). Birds That Play Guitar. Slate. Accessed 24.04.2016 http://www.slate.com/blogs/wild_things/2014/04/10/bird_guitar_art_exhibit_c_leste_ boursier_mougenot_zebra_finch_guitar_installation.html
Mulvey, Laura (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16 (3), pp. 6–18.
Schneemann, Carolee and Bruce R. McPherson (1979), eds. More than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings. New Paltz, N.Y., Documentext, p.63.