The Scatophagous Autocannibal is kin to Frankenstein’s creation, although instead of bolts at the neck it has the protuberances of a drying rack cut down to form its basic skeleton. Unlike the original, this one will not be brought to life, as far as anyone is aware.
The Scatophagous Autocannibal is born from brain and books. It is both the Empress of Blandings and the Lord of the Flies. The ideas have been consumed and excreted and swallowed again, over and over, in its honour.
Self-sustaining, the Scatophagous Autocannibal must devour its own guts as quickly as possible, gorging itself on its own meat to produce its own meat, celebrating the recycling that brought us bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Fortunately, its head is hollow so it does not suffer.
Perched like an idol, the Scatophagous Autocannibal requires worshippers, even as it is blind, deaf, dumb and bereft of sentience. It is jealous and petulant, and with the jaws of an abyssal gulper eel and an open-plan interior is perfectly capable of consuming ideas, objects and creatures much bigger than itself.
The Scatophagous Autocannibal loves you and it wants to share. You are invited to kiss it or –if available- sample its benevolence.
‘“What will be spooky about Kinderzimmer? You will be walking into an empty box. The visitor will find nothing except his own inner experiences in that space. He will be asked to confront them”’ –Gregor Schneider (Campbell-Johnston 2009).
Through this essay, it is my intention to examine the impact of one aspect of postmodernism on a particular piece of art. I have chosen to consider how the theory of ‘the uncanny’ bears on the 2008 work, Kinderzimmer (Nursery), by the German artist, Gregor Schneider. I will begin by defining what we mean by ‘the uncanny’, follow this with a description of the Kinderzimmer installation, and then analyse the artwork and the artist in relation to the theory and with each other. I also feel that it is worth noting that while this essay is from the perspective of postmodern theory, ‘for a century of scholars, the uncanny has been a particularly modernist issue, because it shares the same concerns as that consummate modernist thinker, Freud’ (Arnzen 1997).
‘Uncanny’ is the English word used to translate the German unheimlich (literally ‘unhomely’) and was discussed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche. Chambers Dictionary (11th edition) defines uncanny as ‘weird, supernatural’ and this is how it most widely used. Freud recognised that there was no exact equivalent to unheimlich in English (for example) when he said that ‘some languages in use to-day can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by “a haunted house”’ (Freud 1919:364). Furthermore, Jeffrey Sconce points out that ‘in the popular imagination, the uncanny has become a synonym for the paranormal’ (Kelley and Sconce 2004). Freud’s use of the literature of fantasy -and in particular E.T.A. Hoffmann ‘s The Sandman- to illustrate his thinking means that the uncanny has been associated with fantasy, the supernatural and tales drawn from those genres right from the point at which it moved from being simply an identifiable experience and became a concept for examination.
The uncanny is a more complex concept than the upset caused by an apparently paranormal experience or even simply being afraid, for although it is ‘undoubtedly related to what is frightening -to what arouses dread and horror’ (Freud 1919: 339) it is important to remember that Freud was not actually discussing ‘the uncanny’, he was using the term unheimlich. The German word is the opposite of heimlich (which is closer to its English equivalent, homely), with heimlich meaning belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly (my emphasis). However, in his thorough review of the meaning of the term, Freud also finds that heimlich actually shares some meaning with its opposite, in that heimlich can refer to that which is secret, hidden, occult (a word meaning hidden that is also applied to the paranormal, magic), even dangerous.
While Freud’s essay acknowledges the uncanniness of purported supernatural occurrences (for example, the double, the apparent greater significance of coincidences, the apparent or actual animation of the inanimate), he is really dealing with this experience as a psychiatrist, the uncanny as negative experiences arising from everyday situations through the resurgence of repressed feelings, impulses and memories. Essentially, the uncanny experience is when the familiar becomes strange and thereby leads to discomfort, anxiety, even fear. However, it must always be remembered that ‘the uncanny’ has connotations that are lacking in the English, principally the association with the home and family and their safety and stability (or otherwise); because of this, one might use the German instead of the English in certain cases, to provide greater clarity and to avoid the elements of the fantastic that the latter implies, at least with an audience familiar with Freud’s essay.
Kinderzimmer was part of the Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art exhibition during the first half of 2009, where it was set up in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. It has since been moved, so its exact configuration may now differ due to its being in a new space, although the essentials should be the same wherever it is located. The installation took up the whole of the South Gallery, which was sealed off, with only one entrance and one exit, leaving the piece in total darkness. Somewhere in this darkness, possibly the centre -it is hard to tell- is another room: this is the kinderzimmer of the title. Viewed through a lit window, this room is cell-like, almost empty but for a small sleeping mat on the floor -a child’s bed, bare and empty. If one feels around the exterior wall of this room within a room, a door can be found, allowing entrance to an identical room, with a window showing only darkness and with a bare floor: there is no sleeping mat in here.
The child’s room is modelled after one in the German town of Garzweller, which was abandoned to make way for an enormous open-cast mining project. Hidden around a corner in the larger room, to hide its illumination, a video projection plays. It shows shots of Garzweller; boarded up doors and windows, empty streets. They look like still photographs, but sometimes a breeze swings a telephone wire, sets a bush twitching or a bird appears in the background sky, crossing the frame.
Kinderzimmer is clearly in the tradition of Gregor Schneider’s other work, which consists mainly of remodelling interiors and constructing rooms within galleries, museums and house. Famously, he began dismantling and reconfiguring the interior of a house in 1985 when he was sixteen and continued to do so. This was his childhood home in Mönchengladbach-Rheydt (Rhineland, Germany) and, as a work, is titled Haus Ur. The original internal structure of the house is now lost beneath the modifications, Schneider saying that some of it will only be recoverable when the house is finally demolished. From the outside, it looks perfectly normal.
In 2001, Schneider won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting Totes Haus Ur in the German Pavilion. Constructed in parts with components from the German house, this was described as ‘a house of horrors. The place was a maze of fake partitions, lead-lined rooms, makeshift sleeping quarters and a kitchen encrusted with mould’ (Lack 2009).
His work is often political and controversial. He has exhibited an enormous black cube, based on the Kaaba, the most sacred place in the Islamic faith (rejected in Venice, 2005, but finally realised in Hamburg, 2007); an installation of cell-like structures on Bondi Beach, which references the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Weisse Folter (White or Clean Torture), an installation also influenced by Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of political prisoners worldwide, based on the architecture and techniques designed to psychologically torture (let’s not quibble over this) detainees.
Notoriously, Schneider has also made it known that he hopes one day to construct a room in a museum or a gallery in which a member of the public would volunteer to die.
We can see from these examples that the artist is almost exclusively using structures -habitable structures, occupiable spaces- as his medium. We can also see that his intention seems to be to cause discomfort in the viewer (explorer?). While the discomfort depends on one’s views on contemporary Islam and its adherents in the case of the Kaaba-inspired cube, in other works the cause of the discomfort is more general: the distortion of a generic, familiar space (the house, the gallery, the museum); the way in which the built environment can impact on the psyche and how this can be done deliberately to cause harm; confrontation with the reality of the dying and of death.
These are clearly unheimlich, and therefore uncanny. As a German, Schneider automatically knows that the uncanny is unheimlich: there is no difference between the two terms. Or rather, when dealing with the uncanny, Schneider is less hampered by the paranormal connotations of the English. There are no ghosts in his houses: they are unheimlich, not haunted.
It is tempting for critics to argue that Schneider’s work arises from trauma. It may be significant that Haus Ur, begun when the artist was sixteen years old, coincides with the death of Schneider’s father (Lack 2009). For many, this would be an easy conclusion to draw but over-emphasis on this factor acts as blinkers in relation to the wider issues and complexities of Schneider’s work. However, it would be very appropriate if the artist was choosing to work from a foundation of his own trauma. Despite the other implications of the essay, Freud was essentially dealing with the uncanny in relation to psychiatry and psychoanalysis; in the Freudian tradition, the uncanny is very definitely tied to the home, the family, intimacy, and the repression and resurgence of trauma within these situations.
In Kinderzimmer, we immediately perceive the references to the home and the family. The inching through the dark, the looking through the window, the entry into the child’s room, these immediately speak of intimacy. On the one hand, it is possible to recognise the stealthy vigilance and concern of the parent or older sibling. On the other, we recognise how close that secret safety check can be to the behaviour of the burglar, the murderer, the sexual predator, just as heimlich and unheimlich can meet and share meaning.
During the time in which Schneider was constructing Kinderzimmer and then during its exhibition in Manchester, it would have been difficult to avoid making connections with the case of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl is an Austrian man, accused and found guilty of kidnapping and imprisoning his daughter, then having her bear his children while they remained locked in a specially constructed ‘bunker’ in the basement of his house for a period of twenty-four years. As this crime came to light during April 2008 and was an international story, it is difficult to imagine the artist not being aware of it and also conscious as to the reaction of his audience when experiencing Kinderzimmer.
The remodelled house and the secret basement are staples of our culture. The fictional Bates Motel, an uncanny place by any measure, is mentioned in relation to Schneider’s work, as is the real life 25 Cromwell Street, the internally modified house of the serial killer, Fred West. While the serial killer as constructor of a secret interior has become a cliché of the genre (for example, the house of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, the lair of Avery Marx in the 1999 Acclaim video game, Shadow Man), it is a cliché that sprang fully formed from the real world. In 1893, Herman Webster Mudgett (also known under the alias Doctor Henry Howard Holmes) opened his ‘hotel’, which was in fact a rambling construction of meandering passages, windowless rooms, soundproof chambers, and stairs to nowhere (Larson 2004): does this not remind one of Haus Ur and Totes Haus Ur? In our popular culture, the serial killer becomes an uncanny being, somehow able to avoid detection for abominable crimes. In many cases, the crimes are not recognised until the perpetrator is caught, turning their property into a gruesome and uncanny historical document: we look at the work of Gregor Schneider and we shudder at some of the company he metaphorically keeps and wonder exactly what the influences are.
It seems always to be that Schneider tries to make the uncanny experiential. His installations do not have any overtly ghastly trappings: no ghosts, no blood, no skulls, no bats. As I have already mentioned, it might be that his native linguistic familiarity with unheimlich means he can engage with it without the paranormal baggage of ‘uncanny’. Schneider himself ‘would argue (possibly disingenuously) that any associations we make concerning his art are constructed from our own ghoulish imaginations’ (Lack 2009), that any horror we experience is generated by our own imaginations. While this is clearly the case, the work is already charged with ready-made triggers for these associations. In fact, some might think that ‘Schneider’s manipulations are too obvious to inspire real dread’. However, even this commentator admits that ‘in Freudian terms, Kinderzimmer (Nursery) is all very unheimlich’ (Cumming 2009).
Kinderzimmer may lack the paranormal trappings of the uncanny, but everything else is there: darkness, isolation, silence, doubling, expectation. When one goes to see the work of an artist as distinctive as Gregor Schneider, one already has expectations. These are further encouraged by the attendant at the entrance reassuring you that you will be okay, that nothing will hurt you, that you only have to cry out and they will come and rescue you. Unfortunately, with Kinderzimmer, because one can immediately see how the expected effect is to be achieved and because it is essentially just a dark room (rather than an elaborate, extensive complex), ‘we retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit’ (Freud 1919: 374). The distance between the lit window looking into the child’s room and the door allowing ingress to the replica are too distant from each other to fool the senses, but it is apparent what was meant to be achieved.
In addition, we do not fully experience ‘the uncanny effect of silence, darkness and solitude’ (Freud 1919: 369) because Kinderzimmer is not soundproofed. We are not alone because we can hear the other visitors in the rest of the gallery and we are not in silence because Tony Oursler’s 1995 work, The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Never Seen, can be heard inside Kinderzimmer and throughout the whole of the Subversive Spaces exhibition. In another situation this might aid the experience of feelings of the uncanny, but in this case it is merely intrusive, destroying the intimacy of the heimlich that is required for the unheimlich to manifest.
However, the success or otherwise of Kinderzimmer does not diminish the recognition of the influence of the theory of the uncanny. Sadly, it makes this influence all too plain. The Freudian tradition is well known within our culture, it is no longer specialist information and we are all able to decode things, however roughly, in Freudian terms. We are familiar with the trappings of the uncanny, even unheimlich, and these can affect us even when we are aware and understand them. For example, two of the best ghost stories in the English language (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) can be read as being devoid of supernatural elements: this house is not haunted, it is unheimlich; the visitors have brought the phantoms to the house, not the other way round.
It is because we all know what is meant to be frightening, what can induce uncanny feeling, that Gregor Schneider is able to play upon this knowledge and these expectations. We like to feel that the home and the family are safe, stable, comforting. This is why we see deserted houses as creepy, haunted. This is why the architecture of Fritzl, West and Mudgett takes on the taint of the crimes of their architect. Everything is familiar but has been made strange by the associations we make and the half-formed conclusions we draw, and we cannot help but to dredge up things from our personal and cultural consciousness that we might not want to look at.
Whether it has been a result of his own trauma, Kinderzimmer and the wider work of Gregor Schneider are firmly in the tradition of the uncanny. It could even be said that they are wholly in the uncanny psychoanalytical tradition, with the artist also working as healer: ‘“My work is not about making you fearful. It is about helping you reflect upon and overcome your fear”’ (Campbell-Johnston 2009).
Arnzen, Michael (1997) The Return of the Uncanny. Paradoxa. Vol. 3, No. 3-4.
Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (2009) Gregor Schneider, the inner space man. The Times. January 27.
Cumming, Laura (2009) The art of dreams –and déjà vu. The Guardian. February 15.
Freud, Sigmund (1919) The Uncanny. Leeds Met Historical and Critical Studies Level 2 Module Handbook.
Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: The literature of subversion. Routledge.
Kelley, Mike and Sconce, Jeffrey (2004) I’ve got this Strange feeling [Internet], Tate Online. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue1/article8.htm [Accessed 7 December 2009].
Lack, Jessica (2009) Artist of the week 28: Gregor Schneider. The Guardian. February 11.
Larson, Erik (2004) The Devil in the White City. Bantam Books.
ARE WE NOT MEN?
Meeting and Exchange at the Animal-Human Identity Interface.
The title question comes from H. G. Wells’ 1896 horror/ science-fiction classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the novel, the protagonist (Edward Prendick) finds himself stranded on the titular island, dominated by the said doctor, a scandalous vivisectionist. Moreau’s experiments have produced a population of Beast Folk, human-like creatures derived from animals. ‘Are We Not Men?’ is the refrain the Beast Folk cry out between each stricture against bestial behaviour that form the Law and which Prendick is forced to chant alongside them. After various tribulations, including the inevitable reversion of the Beast Folk to bestial behaviour, Prendick is able to escape the island. Following these experiences, he is never again truly comfortable amongst humanity, unable to rid himself of the conviction that his fellow humans are nothing more than Beast Folk, and might revert to their animal nature at any moment.
For the Beast Folk, within the context of the novel, the question ‘Are We Not Men?’ is either answered ‘No’ or it is ironically rhetorical. For Prendick, as representative of humanity, it is desperately fearful, if it is taken seriously, because what does it mean if the answer is not ‘Yes’? In fact, what does it mean if the answer has to be qualified, forms a discussion, is made the subject of examination? The question of identity at the interface of animal and human is what I propose to explore in this essay.
This essay is not an attempt to definitively answer the question of what it means to be human or means to be animal, rather it is a discussion of the animal-human identity interface with particular attention paid to the idea that the interface is less of a boundary between the two and more of a meeting point. I will argue that the human and the animal are part of a continuum, rather than a dichotomy, and that attempts to maintain the latter are arbitrary measures based on a perceived need for separation, rooted in a perceived superiority (or need for such perception) of humans over animals. These measures for separation are largely artificial and have always been in something of a state of flux due to developments (to use as neutral term as possible, as some of these are redefinitions of the boundaries of ignorance rather than advances) in human knowledge, whether Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection or the burgeoning field of contemporary biotechnological research. Within this wider context, I will be looking at some of the implications of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. I will also be looking at the concept of becoming-animal, as put forward by Deleuze and Guattari, which is a useful framework for exploring this territory, in which category boundaries are shifting, fluid and permeable.
In the context of this essay, when I deal with animals or ‘the animal’, I will almost exclusively be restricting this to the mammals. This is a deliberate measure to keep contained what is already a wide-ranging field of investigation. There are two simple reasons for this. The first is that humans, as animals, belong to class Mammalia. It is within this larger group we would most immediately look to find the closest, most viable relationships: ‘after all, similarity between humans and non-human animals is just what we should expect on the basis of an evolutionary account of the origin and diversification of life on the planet’ (Mitchell 2005: 102). The second is that most of the relevant source material for my research deals with other mammals in relation to humans, most likely for the former reason.
Our relationship with other mammals is probably the longest, beyond that of our symbiotic relationship with the countless microscopic organisms that inhabit the human body and living environment (Lingis 2003: 166). We ride horses, we load donkeys and camels with goods, we eat and wear sheep and cattle, we share our settlements -even our homes- with mice, rats and bats, and we bring dogs and cats into our families, just as the human race has done for millennia. The human association with dogs, for instance, is of such duration that it is likely that the ‘two species have moulded each other over a long period of co-evolution’ with ‘some archaeological finds [putting] humans and wolves in the same place 400, 000 years ago’ (Hambling 2010: 14). After all, what are wolves if not just the wildest dogs we know?
We are able to interact with mammals on a more immediate level than the vast majority of other forms of life, and are more ready and able to recognise ourselves, our own fears and desires, in them. That is not to say that the other classes of living creature should not be considered in relation to the question. Indeed, biotechnology is allowing “plants and animals that could never breed” (Tomasula 2002: 139) to do so in the laboratory, which means that the potential grows for a new kind of relationship with squid or tomato plants or crocodiles or mushrooms. However, for our purposes, these other classes are outside the parameters of this project, as to take it to extremes leads us into even stranger territory:
To my knowledge, not even the most radical animal rights activist has ever made a case for the rights of AIDS viruses or E. coli bacteria, which human beings seek to destroy by the billions every day. We don’t think to accord these living creatures rights because, not having nervous systems, they apparently can’t suffer or be aware of their situation (Fukuyama 2003: 146)
Some examination of the rights of both humans and animals is inevitable in addressing the topic of the animal-human identity interface and not to do so would be a disservice to the subject. Throughout my research, the consideration of the relative rights of humans and animals was a recurring and visible theme and this will also be true of this essay, as various points cannot be made without making reference to the issue of the rights of the animal. However, if “human rights are… whatever human beings say they are” (Fukuyama 2003: 112) then it follows that animal rights are also merely whatever human beings say they are. It cannot be helped that any examination of the animal-human identity interface is always going to be from a position of power of human over the animal, whether this is favourable to the animal or otherwise: for it is in the different treatment of animals and humans, based on this supposed difference, that we can see the immediate consequences of what it means to be human or not.
Any examination of the animal-human identity interface -in fact, any study involving animals at all- requires some degree of consideration of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is generally used as a pejorative term, which has its roots in its original -blasphemous- meaning as the attribution of human form to the divine (forbidden under a number of religions). An element of this seriousness (though it could also be argued it is pomposity) is still retained since coming to mean the ascription of human characteristics to things not human, namely animals (Daston & Mitman 2005: 2). This is particularly true in the sciences, where it has been deemed wholly inappropriate since the Victorian period (White 2005: 60). A great deal of time and effort has been put into persuading ourselves that we are different to the other animals (Cox 2005: 19) and the stricture against anthropomorphism is one of the methods by which we do this. Despite this, it has been frequently remarked on by animal ethologists that the tendency to anthropomorphise the animals increases rather than decreases the more experience they have in the field (Daston & Mitman 2005: p. 7-8). Anthropomorphism in some form is necessary to make the world of the animals accessible to us (Bekoff 2004: 73). In order to engage and empathise with, and ultimately understand, animals and their lives we have to be able to relate their behaviour, their emotional states and their quirks to our own.
The concept of becoming-animal is particularly relevant to the question of animal-human identity. It immediately accepts that the categories are not closed to one another and does not regard transfer between them as impossible or undesirable.
‘A particularly complex example of philosophical thought about the relation of humans and animals’ (Baker 2000: 102) is how Steven Baker describes the concept of ‘becoming-animal’, developed by Gilles Deleuze in collaboration with Felix Guattari in their books Kafka (1975) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). A simplistic explanation of ‘becoming-animal’ is that it is not a literal transformation but rather a meeting and exchange of sensation or similarity of action. Or as Deleuze and Guattari have it ‘becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 39), although they are exhaustively telling us what becoming isn’t.
Example is likely the better means of explanation, though they do also state that ‘if evolution includes any veritable becomings, it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no possible filiation’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 39) and this helps make the mechanics of becoming-animal clearer: the orchid pollinated by the wasp is no longer entirely orchid at the point of meeting and the wasp is no longer entirely wasp; deterritorialised, the two are a reproductive process, a function of an organism although there is no organism there. They are becoming (Sutton & Martin-Jones 2008: 6).
In relation to the question of animal-human identity, becoming gives us a novel method for examination of the interface, not as a point of resistance but of exchange. With this in mind, one might reconsider the pairing of horse and rider.
Horse trainers often speak as though it were a matter of horse and rider becoming one body, in which the human is the head that commands while the horse is the body that executes the movement. Hearne suggests that the relation is even closer, not simply the control of one part by another but “the collapse of command and obedience into a single supple relation.” (Patton 2003: 90)
Although the horse and the rider constitute individual units and have existences independent of each other, there is a point at which they are something else, a meeting in which they become what could be styled the ridden-horse or the horse-rider (a centaur?), and which would be negated by their separation. For the ridden-horse/ horse-rider to exist, the human and the animal must be in some sort of harmony, both must learn (to ride and to be ridden) in order to combine.
In contrast to what might be construed as a romanticised idea of the horse/ rider relationship, one might consider the frog. More specifically, consider the frog, not as a living creature, but as a something-else. For those of us lucky or unlucky enough to have dissected them in biology class, it is unlikely that any thought was given to the pedigree of the laboratory frog. In the nineteenth century, frogs were the subject of choice for scientists interested in reflex physiology and the effects of electricity on the nerves and muscles. In these experiments, the frog stopped being a frog and instead became a generic animal. Furthermore, it could be broken down into its component parts, which would still operate disconnected from the whole. In the apparatus of the Victorian laboratories, eventually they became ‘indistinguishable from machines’ (White 2005: 61). They were even used in experiments to locate the soul (White 2005: 61-65). From this we can see that the category of frog is not stable: it is a diagram, it is all living things, it is not the sum of its parts, it is a machine, it is something like a human being. And human beings are something like frogs, as similar reflex physiology experiments (though without dissection and dismemberment) were carried out on ‘hypnotic patients and asylum inmates’ (White 2005: 66).
It could be argued that becoming-animal (indeed, any other type of becoming) is not real, it is merely a philosophical tool, an intellectual game, just another way of saying that not all categories are static -something that most of us already know. But the point about becoming is that, through its application, it destabilises boundaries (in this case, between the animal and the human), showing them to be mutable, revealing that said boundaries may only be arbitrary constructs. Becoming provokes -maybe even promotes- anxiety by taking away the certainties of category divisions (Thompson 2005: 8).
While part of my argument is that the interface of animal-human identity is a point of contact and exchange, it is necessary to also consider it as a divide. For most people, for much of the time, it is obvious as well as convenient that ‘the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with man’ (Berger 2009: 14). It is equally true that, though ‘we are surely a type of animal… we have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different’ (Cox 2005: 19).
There are a number of ‘old saws of anthropocentrism… language, tool use, the inheritance of cultural behaviours’ (Wolfe 2003: xi) that are used to demonstrate our separation from the wider mass of non-human animals. It is these gifts that make us more than animal and they less than human, but ‘many of the traits said to be universal to humans and uniquely characteristic of our species are in fact neither’ (Fukuyama 2003: 133-134), just as once flight was the sole domain of the birds or the ocean depths that of the fishes.
The primatologist, Frans de Waal, points to the potato-washing macaques of Japan as an example of non-genetic transfer of learned behaviour across the generations (‘the inheritance of cultural behaviours’). In the 1950s, Japanese primatologists encountered a macaque (part of the population of a small island) that would wash potatoes in a stream and also use the stream to separate out barley grains that had become mixed up with sand; neither potatoes or barley formed a normal part of the traditional diet of this type of macaque, having been introduced by humans. All very interesting, but the real surprise was that this novel behaviour was later observable among the other macaques on the island, years after the original washer-monkey had died (Fukuyama 2003: 144). The only way this could represent a genetic transfer is if Lamarckianism had somehow suddenly replaced Darwinian evolution.
Tool-use amongst animals should not be surprising to us. There are many well known examples: the sea otter using stones to break open shellfish, chimps ‘fishing’ for termites and grooming with sticks, even crows surprising us by imitating Aesop’s fable and using stones to displace water to get a drink. However, material culture (i.e. tools and tool-use) has been ascribed to some common ancestor of the orangutan and African ape, about 14 million years ago; much older than the most recent common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. This would mean that material culture/ tool use pre-dates the existence of the earliest humans, in any form (Van Schaik et al 2003: 109).
More subtle examples of supposedly unique characteristics would be the ability to smile, to sing and homosexuality (which ironically manages to be both ‘beastly’ and ‘unnatural’ to some), but even in these less obvious cases we find a lack of exclusivity. Beluga whales, for instance, ‘have facial muscles that allow them to smile’ (Ogilvie 2010: 24), ‘the whale, the lowly mouse, and who knows what other forms of life can sing’ (Vining 2008: 68) and Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999) extensively catalogues both homo- and bi-sexuality amongst the mammals and the birds.
For John Berger, it is the animal’s inability to talk that sets it apart from humanity: ‘its silence… guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man’ (Berger 2009: 14) and Fukuyama points out that, to some extent, the capacity to use language is important in deciding on the apportioning of rights: we deny voting rights to animals, but not mute humans (Fukuyama 2003: 146). It is for this very reason that the artist, Joseph Beuys, extended membership of his 1967 German Student Party to all animals, so that someone could speak for them politically as they could not speak for themselves (Adams 1992: 30). Or, if you like, because it is very difficult to get humans to listen to animals.
The idea of the talking animal -and not just talking, but thinking- is a long standing staple of mythology and folklore, and actual attempts to communicate with animals are taken seriously. In the first half of the twentieth century, chimpanzees were taught in the hope that they would learn to speak, though it was eventually found that their vocal tracts were unsuitable for human speech. Since then, it has been found that chimps can be taught sign language and that they are capable of constructing new word combinations to describe things not covered in their original vocabulary -some form of language without a doubt (Berger 2009: 40).
Sign language is a human construction and the chimps are somewhat limited in how much of this artificial behaviour they can assimilate. That they can adapt within the parameters given to them suggests a very real possibility of language-based cross-species communication. Whales and dolphins are also capable of cross-species communication: they talk to each other and also to us. However, this is complicated by the fact that when we communicate with a dolphin, we are not using the language that dolphins use amongst themselves or the one we use amongst ourselves. Yet there is communication and maybe one day we will be able to ask what it is like to be a dolphin, what it thinks about humans and how it would like to be treated (Doniger 2005: 32-33).
Even those who are more open to the idea of human and animal sharing a common identity may be inclined to see the human as the principal actor in relationships, asserting dominance over the animal. This has been the norm for humans as hunters, herders, pet owners. Communication of another sort also acts to bring humans and animals closer together, that of learning from one another.
It was found, through experiments in 1964 involving the administration of electric shocks to rhesus monkeys, that it is not just humans who have a sense of fairness: ‘a hungry rhesus monkey would not take food if doing so subjected another monkey to an electric shock’ (Bekoff 2004: 76). Less harmful experiments carried out more recently at the University of Vienna have shown that this sense is by no means restricted to the primates and has been identified in dogs. Dogs also have capabilities in gaze-following and pointing (to see what another is looking at; to physically indicate something outside of another’s immediate awareness) that are considerably more developed than those of other animals, including those close relatives of the human, the chimpanzees. Furthermore, the habit of dogs to bark is not shared by wolves, leading to the conclusion that barking is actually an attempt to communicate with humans, who of course have evolved alongside dogs for -potentially- hundreds of thousands of years. These facts have raised the idea of the dog as a possible role-model for the human, rather than the other way round, with the concept of fairness, ability to follow a gaze and use pointing all learned from dogs and reinforced through long and intimate association (Hambling 2010: 14). Incidentally, the Victorians considered the dog among the better sorts of animal because of its perceived moral nature, rather than its intelligence or any perceived biological closeness to humanity (White 2005: 68). While this would have once seemed to be simple anthropomorphism, such a charge now seems less certain.
Considering that the supposed human exclusivity of certain behavioural traits has been called into question by the ‘veritable explosion of work in areas such as cognitive ethology and field ecology’ (Wolfe 2003: xi), one might instead choose to examine the physical body. When humans apportion rights to animals, when deciding how we will treat this or that species, we consider ‘how close the animal is to the human -in gross terms, whether the animal is vertebrate rather than invertebrate, warm-blooded rather than cold-blooded, mammal rather than egg-laying’ (Vining 2008: 53). Morphologically speaking, humans are very different to animals, but then not all the mass of animals look alike any more than all humans look the same. These differences disappear as the skin and the flesh are peeled back from the bones and organs, becoming ‘less in [our/ their] deep anatomy’ (Berger 2009: 18). Open up a whale’s flipper -a creature maybe as unlike humanity as could be found amongst the mammals; huge, legless, aquatic, -and you find a skeleton uncannily like that of the human hand (Najafi 2007: 81).
More physically similar to humanity, even than the apes, are the Neanderthals. Whether Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (part of humanity) or Homo neanderthalensis (forming a separate species), the Neanderthals occupy a strange position. As prehistoric ancestors of the modern human race, as part of a historical narrative, we can marvel at how much like us they were or disregard them as a loser in the evolutionary race, but they are at such a remove that they do not confront us with the uncertainty of their designation. In 1856, when the first remains were unearthed in Germany, there was immediate argument over how this creature should be classified -was it an animal, was it human, or was it something else, something utterly other? Early reconstructions of the Neanderthal, such as that of Marcellin Boule in 1908, portrayed it as a brutish caveman and a 1909 illustration from the Illustrated London News, which draws on Boule’s reconstruction, gives us ‘a malignant ape-like monster… ferocious… a werewolf’ (Regal 2010: 48): it is neither animal or human, it is a monster and takes on the role of the ‘dark and brutal other’, in company with ‘primitive’, non-Euro-American, non-white peoples as well as the apes (Regal 2010: 48).
If we are to attempt to separate humans from animals through physical criteria, we might just as well use that of congenital human baculum deficiency. That is, the lack in the human male of a penis bone. The males of most mammal species possess a baculum, while the human must rely on fluid hydraulics. This may even have reinforcement from the Bible, as did not Adam give up his rib to produce Eve, his mate? And what, after all, is a rib if not another kind of support? (Gilbert & Zevit 2007: 76-77). With this in mind, we also find in Genesis the story that the animals were presented to Adam for naming ‘and, presumably, to consider as a potential counterpart and mate’ (Cox 2005: 19), it is only when he fails to find one that God performs the miracle with the bone. One wonders how Adam came to this conclusion, particularly in the light of the existence of species of mammals the males of which -like humans and spider monkeys- are without a baculum.
Putting aside the examination of behavioural traits or physical attributes in the determination of separate animal-human identities, there is still the question of what it is that makes an animal qualitatively different from a human (or quantitatively, because we are no nearer to an answer as to what form the ultimate determinant will take -maybe there could be a points system). This brings us back to the issue of rights. Francis Fukuyama, recognising that ‘many of the attributes that were once held to be unique to human beings… are now seen as characteristic of a wide variety of non-humann animals’ (Fukuyama 2003: 144), chooses to call this ‘Factor X’, while Tom Regan calls ‘C’ this ‘characteristic or set of characteristics that makes the attribution of rights plausible in our case and implausible in the case of, for example, clouds, negative afterimages and microfungi’ (Regan 1997: 27-28) -though he could have easily said, as this is what he is really talking about, non-human primates, whales or any of the other mammals.
Whether we choose to call it C or Factor X there is still the need to define what it is, as otherwise we are left with what is an unsatisfactory answer in the context of this essay: human (and animal) rights are whatever we say they are. Both Regan and Fukuyama offer us the possibility of this mysterious factor being that equally mysterious entity, the soul, although neither really find this suitable for their purposes.
According to Pope John Paul II, in a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Catholic Church can accept the theory of evolution. However, at some point in the five million years or so of evolution from distant ancestor to modern humans, something -the soul- was implanted into the human race at a time and in a way that remains unknown, possibly unknowable (Fukuyama 2003: 161). The presence of a soul is, therefore, a sufficient determinant of humanity, at least from a Roman Catholic perspective, if not a wider Christian one.
Regan suggests, as an alternative to the soul and as acceptable to those who hold no religious conviction, the condition of rational autonomy. However, he finds himself back much where he started. In his view, there are at least some species of animal that would fit this criterion, giving the mammals -with emphasis on the primates and the whales- as his example. While admitting that the idea of rational autonomy in some or all animals is controversial, he points out that if some possess this quality then they should have rights in the same manner as rationally autonomous humanity (Regan 1997: 27-28).
It is because of the fact that humanity makes use of animals as resources that it is necessary to maintain the divide between human and animal and to maintain it as a boundary, for the very simple reason that to think of the animal as close to the human or even as another type of human would make this exploitation (in the most neutral and negative senses of the word) particularly nasty and degrading:
If we firmly believed that a cow could think like us it would become very hard to justify eating it. Instead, we decide that a cow can’t think as we understand the term, and that it is therefore morally acceptable to eat the cow (Fudge 2002: 13).
This is sufficient for most of us, but like so many other ideas about what separates the human and the animal, it does not bear up well under examination. Even to think about it at all is to invite in unwelcome and unsettling ideas, which is why, for example, there is ‘reluctance to call what dolphins do “speech”’ (Doniger 2005: 32/3) -to dignify the characteristics of animals with comparable status to that of a human demands that similar consideration be extended to other behaviours and ultimately to the animal itself, thus destabilising the categories.
While the example of dolphin’s speech or otherwise is fairly intellectually innocuous, let us consider the idea that ‘utilitarian writers are fond of comparing apes to young children and to mentally disabled humans, suggesting that the ethical questions we should consider are the same in all those cases’ (Nussbaum 2006: 34), which is potentially gruesome considering the animal rights as they stand today. Here, it is likely that Nussbaum has Peter Singer in mind. The author of Animal Liberation (1975), Singer’s thinking is:
Human beings are part of a continuum of life and have no special status in his avowedly Darwinian world-view. This leads him to two perfectly logical conclusions: the need for animal rights, since animals can experience pain and suffering as well as humans, and the downgrading of the rights of infants and elderly people who lack certain key traits, like self-awareness. (Fukuyama 2003: 154)
This is a position that Singer and others can argue, offering support for their ideas in much the same way as I construct this essay, but which most of us would at least initially find repugnant. Whether one agrees with them or not, these ideas can open up a view of dark places.
At the interface of animal-human identity we encounter the idea of somehow being less than human. To be less than human is be treated like an animal, and ‘to speak of other beings as more human or less human… or divided between the fully human and the less than fully human, has clinging to it some of the horror of twentieth-century human experimentation, exploitation, and genocide’ (Vining 2008: 55). It is this ‘clinging horror’ that deflects thinking about the interface in this particular light: ‘perhaps concentration and extermination camps are… an experiment… to decide between the human and the inhuman, which has ended up dragging the very possibility of the distinction to its ruins’ (Agamben 2004: 22).
Throughout history, the ways in which animals (in this instance, including the human animal) have been classified has changed and with them so the categories have changed. Older methods, such as number of legs and whether it lived in the air, on the land or in the water, have been superseded by taxonomies based on morphology and, later, anatomy. Gene sequencing and molecular biology now offer new taxonomical frameworks. For instance, the group comprising rabbits, hares and pikas (the lagomorphs -hare-shaped) have been a sub-order of the rodents (based on their teeth) and then an order of their own (based on structural anatomy). It has been argued that they are, in fact, related to the rodents or that they are allied to the ungulates (hoofed mammals). Appropriately, perhaps, blood-based studies show a possible relation to the carnivorans and a 1996 Tel Aviv University study examining protein sequences revealed that the closest relatives of the lagomorphs are the tree shrews and the primates (Shuker 1998: 40). From this we can see that -at least from the point of view of human knowledge- the boundaries and the connections between the species are subject to change.
And if rabbits started out related to rats and end up as our second cousins, ‘how do we incorporate the new knowledge that the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea?’ (Thompson 2005: 8). Possibly this is meaningless: if we are so closely related to fleas, then we are also to some degree related to pigs, squid, cocoa beans and cucumbers. With the arbitrary dissolution of all category type boundaries there is nothing to grab on to, just as the arbitrary establishment of such boundaries gives plenty to work with.
If the species boundary is determined by ‘an inability to breed’ (Vining 2008: 63), what happens to this boundary when, as referred to in the introduction, biotechnology allows for hybridisation of organisms that previously could never have done so except in science-fiction? Vining refers to a group at Stanford University hoping to combine human neural cells in a mouse embryo with the aim of creating ‘a mouse -if you can still call it a mouse- with a brain composed of entirely “human” brain cells -if you can still call them “human”’ (Vining 2008: 52). While the idea of such a hybrid may be repulsive or simply baffling to the average person, it is worth bearing in mind that many of us are perfectly comfortable with the idea of using drugs and other products that have been tested on mice -temporarily setting aside any consideration of the suffering they may or may not undergo in the process- because they are somehow deemed similar enough to humans for the conclusions drawn to be valid when extended to human beings (Mitchell 2005: 105).
Mice, rabbits and fleas notwithstanding, we should also turn to what are regarded as our closest relatives, ‘after all, 98% of our genetic make-up is the same as that of chimpanzees and bonobos’ (Schneider 2004: 2). The idea that apes were somehow like us has always been a feature of human thought, as far back as 1693 John Ray had distinguished them as the Anthropomorphia, the man-like animals (Agamben 2004: 24). Human populations in close proximity to chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have often thought of them as another type of human and talked about them as such (Regal 2010: 48). The British anatomist, Edward Tyson, published his Anatomy of a Pygmie -the first major anatomical study of a primate (probably a bonobo)- in 1699. In part, his intention was to dispel myths that had grown up around the apes, which put them in the same general category as the Satyr of classical myth, the Pygmies of Herodotus, the Wild Man of European folklore and even the Asian orangutan (based on information gained from the natives). Tyson had, however, accidentally undermined his effort. First, he had chosen to refer to the subject as Pygmie, retaining the association with a mythical race. Second, not having seen a living specimen, he had the creature depicted in an upright stance, on two legs and leaning an a walking stick, while in the distance buildings can be seen amidst the trees, reinforcing its human qualities (Regal 2010: 47-48).
This is not confined to the past: ‘as recently as 1906, the New York Zoological Society displayed an African Pygmy, named Ota Benga, in a cage with chimpanzees’ (Spiegel 1997: 12). While I doubt they necessarily meant to portray him as an animal, it is likely that the point was to illustrate the similarities of Ota Benga and the chimps while emphasising the differences with the American audience. Even more recently, in a discussion with a colleague, it was claimed that the great apes undoubtedly tried to have sex with human women when they could, an idea with a long, interesting and often offensive pedigree, with roots older than the works of Tyson or Ray.
We began this discussion with Prendick amongst the Beast Folk. He was not really aware of the implications of what he had been forced to chant -‘Are We Not Men?’- until he was back amongst his own kind, at which point he could not help but ask the same of the humans that surrounded him. It is unlikely that reading this essay would have brought him any peace of mind.
It is important to remember that Wells’ novel was written less than forty years after Darwin published his theory and ‘eliminate[d] the boundaries between the species’ (Cox 2005: 20) and this was the fertile ground from which the story sprang. It would be about another forty years before the real-life horror that can result from the defining of categories of human and animal and the degrees within them could truly be appreciated, and this has introduced corruption into the very notion of these categories, or has revealed that such a notion has always been corrupt.
But to be amongst the animals, to share an identity with them is not necessarily a negative experience. Anthropomorphism, far from being the sin it is painted to be, is a quality of sympathy, allowing us to try to experience what the animal does. With the idea of becoming-animal, we find that we are, not part-animal, but a part of animal and they are a part of us. Supposed distinctions of language, culture, rights, even physicality, become obsolete. In our present -certainly in our future- we find the lines between the animal and the human dissolving, just as they did when the theory of evolution was disseminated and just as they did when we, at that mysterious distant moment, when we became the creature that needed a human identity.
To end with the beginning. The Genesis story from the Bible is, in one sense, the furthest back we can go. It was here that human and animal first gained their identity, when Adam named them. Without the human there could not be an animal identity as we know it, and since then we have been compelled to name and to classify and to draw lines to separate, in case we are lost in the breakdown of categories. But this original separation was not always the case. The origin myths of other cultures suggest another condition. Hawaiian Indians knew the needs of the other creatures, the animals, because once men were married to them, taking animal wives. The Nuer of the southern Sudan were just as close, as once all creatures lived together in one camp (Berger 2009: 13-17).
The development of our human identity brought it into conflict with that of the animal. Throughout history, humans have attempted to define what it is to be themselves and always this definition must be made against the animal. In the end, maybe all we can say is unique of the human animal is that it is the animal that ‘must recognise himself in non-man in order to be human’ (Agamben 2004: 27).
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ARE WE NOT MEN?
Towards the hybrid future: animal-human identity in the transgenic world.
With this essay, I intend to examine the animal-human interface as it relates to our identity as human beings. I will argue that the supposed difference between human and animal has become vanishingly small, that this divide was largely artificial and has been eroded through increased human understanding, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to biotechnology today. I will be drawing on legal and scientific source material, as well as works of art and art theory, as I believe that -while artists are posing and responding to questions in this area- it is the scientific research and legal definitions that will ultimately decide how these changes affect us in our day-to-day lives. Within these wider contexts, I will be looking at changing human attitudes towards our own animality, the idea of becoming-animal put forward by Deleuze and Guattari, human anxiety over the animal-human interface and also the so-called mouse-with-a-human-ear, which I believe represents a powerful symbol of the issues surrounding animal-human identity in the transgenic world of biotechnology.
Christopher Cox notes that ‘we are fond of our species and the rung on the ladder we still imagine ourselves to inhabit’ (Cox 2005: 24). The rung he is referring to is, of course, the top one. Whether we believe that this position is the result of God’s will or having ‘won’ the evolutionary contest, we still place ourselves at the peak of an Aristotelian scale where perfection is found in the human male (Cox: 19). Mark Dion’s 1994 work, Scala Natura, represents this traditional hierarchical view. Interestingly, the bust on the top step of the installation could be interpreted as representing only the idea of man or human, rather than the sex or the species itself, and its material gives it more in common with the man-made objects at the bottom of the scale than the representations of the living things between. There has always been a marked androcentrism in this hierarchy, man as master, man as driver of our evolutionary development (see Elaine Morgan’s book The Descent of Woman for an alternative view), though at least woman is no longer seen as a ‘deformed male’ as Aristotle had it (Cox: 21). If anything, our understanding of embryonic development suggests that the male is the deformed one.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection and the discourse surrounding the place of humanity in God’s creation was altered forever. What people often forget, particularly as we still find it difficult not to see our species as the completion of the evolutionary project, is that ‘not only did Darwin eliminate the boundaries between the species; he also flattened the ancient hierarchy’ (Cox: 20) -he kicked down Aristotle’s scala natura, which is why Mark Dion’s has a symbol at the top. The theory of evolution put humanity back among the beasts of the field and, as Nietzsche has it, transformed all our supposedly unique gifts -the things that made so obviously different and superior to animals- into the mere ‘means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves -since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with… sharp teeth’ (Cox: 18). Even though Darwin’s theory has been used to justify the superiority of humanity over the animals and even of sections of humanity over the rest of it, the living outcomes around us are not a drive towards greater complexity or representative of a steady advancement, they are merely the response of species to the static and changing environment around them (Simmons 2006: 49).
Human and animal identity has been intimately entangled for as long as there has been a concept such as ‘identity’. Humans, however, are in the apparently unique position of being able to discuss the various constructions of identity, including that of ‘every dumb creature’ as the Californian legal definition of animals would have it (Vining 2008: 53). In considering the Genesis creation story from the Bible, the historian Erica Fudge, argues that ‘it is as if the animals had no identity… without Adam… [through] their inability to name themselves’ (Fudge 2002: 13). For Adam, we can read human. In examining animal identity, whether one is a scientist, an artist or a lawyer, it is important to remember that it is humans who have created this identity. Artists who work with the animal as their subject are ‘aware that the animal itself can never be portrayed, only our notion of what it is’ (Schneider 2004: 5).
For most of the time, for most of us, a simple dichotomy is enough: we generally accept that there is a clear line between what is a human and what is an animal. However, humans are aware that we share many characteristics with the animals, particularly mammals and even more particularly the primates, enough to recognise that ‘we are surely a kind of animal’, although throughout history we ‘have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different’ (Cox: 18). The philosopher Giorgio Agamben ‘outlines how central the definition of “non-human animals” is to our own existence. In short, what make us human is simply that we are not animals’ (Thompson, J. 2005: 9). It is perhaps significant that animal studies now has a greater presence in the mainstream humanities than it did in the 1990s (Baker 1993, 2001: ix), suggesting that human-animal relationships (of all types) are taken more seriously outside of a scientific context than previously.
Philosophically, a very important concept when looking at the human-animal identity interface is that of ‘becoming-animal’, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, first in their book, Kafka (1975), and then at greater length in 1980’s A Thousand Plateaus. Steve Baker describes ‘becoming-animal’ as ‘a particularly complex example of philosophical thought about the relation of humans and animals’ (Baker 2000: 102). To try and explain it in simple -even crude- terms, ‘becoming-animal’ is not a literal transformation but rather taking on a similarity of action or sensation, ‘[destabilising] the strict boundaries modernity established between humanity and the animal kingdom’ (Thompson, N. 2005: 8). Deleuze and Guattari saw becoming as being useful for politically subversive purposes, using it to question and resist established authorities (Baker 2000: 104), effectively becoming a minority. This is an interesting thought in the light of Peter Singer’s idea, from his book Animal Liberation (1975) that our treatment of animals, on the basis of a perceived difference that only we can define, might be a form of racism (Thompson, N. 2005: 11), and taken to a logical conclusion by Joseph Beuys who maintained that he was trying to speak up for the animals, on the grounds that they could not speak up themselves (Adams 1992: 30).
Becoming is an alternative way of looking at things and of experiencing the world, intended to open up new possibilities. This is not confined to the philosophical or artistic realms, but has found its way into discussions on the legal rights and position of animals, where it obviously has implications for the relative positions of humans and animals.
Joseph Vining, in his talk at the University of Michigan entitled Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization, is clearly in the same territory as Deleuze and Guattari (even if he is neither directly referencing their work, nor even aware of their conceptualisations) when he suggests that legal frameworks should ‘move away from the basic human/ animal dichotomy, and… begin thinking and talking in other, more evocative terms… Hierarchy might be tilted even if it is never reversed, perhaps it would not be such a bad thing to be more like elephants or dolphins’. This legalistic becoming-animal, while altering the parameters of lawful and acceptable treatment of animals, might also lead to ‘their [the animals] opening to us… new perceptions and new realities’ (Vining: 56-57). An interesting perspective, and one that ties in with Deleuze and Guattari’s declaration that the alternatives offered by becoming-animal are ‘somehow proposed by the animal‘ (his emphasis) (Baker 2000: 102).
Becoming-animal offers an immediate, non-biological hybridity by breaking down the barriers between static category types. By allowing movement and exchange in either direction, it effectively erases the separation between all things and makes them interconnected. While this is meant to be liberating, it is at the same time frightening (Thompson, N: 8). The process works both ways and means that once-reliable category types are no longer stable; there is cause for anxiety. While Deleuze and Guattari are not proposing that becoming-animal will lead to the appearance of Moreau’s Beast Folk, the boundary at the interface of human-animal identity has been eroded by scientific discovery, even before the advent of gene manipulation and other forms of biotechnology: metaphorical has the potential to become actual.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Darwin’s theory of evolution will be aware of what upset it caused at the time, or the passions on both sides during the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. The controversy surrounding evolutionary theory is not relegated to the past, either, with theories of ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’ being put forward as serious scientific views in schools and even universities. In this case, the anxiety is as much that we are no longer so close to the divine as it is that we are closer to the animals, that we are naked apes (or hairy porpoises, as Elaine Morgan and others might argue).
Fundamentalist religious objections to evolution aside (sadly, only the single most well known of the array of scientific areas objected to), it is clear that ‘the latest scientific findings seem to be blurring the division between animals and humans’. While it might not be surprising that our genetic make up is 98% the same as bonobo apes and chimpanzees -it seems we can accept a certain amount of animal proximity (Schneider: 2), we may find it less comfortable that ‘the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea’ (Thompson, N: 8). In 1996 molecular biologists at Tel Aviv University concluded that the rabbits and hares were most closely related to the primates than to the carnivorans, the hoofed mammals or the rodents as they had variously and previously been believed to be (Shuker 1998: 40). What are we to do if our grandfather is an ape and our second cousin a rabbit? ‘How will people think of themselves, and their relation to others once such boundaries… have been eroded?’ (Tomasula 2002: 138).
There is also an anxiety concerning the possible commodification of the human being and our rights over our biological self. With Genetic Code Certificate, the artist Larry Miller claimed copyright of his own genetic code (and has since made it possible for others to do likewise). The point of departure was obviously the commercial aspects of biotechnology. This art work should certainly be considered in the light of the fact that John Moore had his own cells patented by the University of California and two of its researchers following cancer treatment. In the end it did not matter that he was originally unaware of this, nor gave his consent, as the California Supreme Court ruled that he had ‘no property rights over the tissues of his body’ (Tomasula: 142). Much like an animal. As a side note, animals themselves are patentable under United States law following a Supreme Court ruling over an oil-eating bacterium (Vining: 52), so legally it would seem the divide between the human and the animal is coming down and not necessarily for the better.
As we draw new lines and split thinner hairs with regard to our biological and legal relationship with animals, ‘one cannot escape a very definite sense that we are simultaneously telling ourselves what makes us human’ (Vining: 53). With regard to Lucy Gunning’s The Horse Impressionists (1994), Kate Bush refers to ‘our fears of regressing to bestiality’ and our ‘deep-seated anxieties about our own success at ‘being’ human’ (Bush 1995). I suppose that the fear and anxiety is related as much to whatever cultural and psychological factors lead to the imagining of Moreau’s Beast Folk, Edward Hyde, Brundlefly, werewolves, of ‘trans-animals as predators stalking the night’ (Thompson, N: 9) as it is to the terrors of helplessness in the face of exploitation (something else we share with animals).
The Brazilian artist, Eduardo Kac, uses scientific techniques, particularly biotechnology, to create art while at the same time examining and commenting on the implications of the processes he uses. He may well be best known for creating Alba, a rabbit containing jellyfish protein which means that it glows under a particular type of light (Tomasula: 137). This has been widely reported as a rabbit that glows or glows in the dark, which certainly sounds more radical and disturbing.
Kac’s creation of Alba suggests that it is now possible to produce a living being that is a literal work of art, as opposed to the metaphorical living work of art or the performance artist. This now allows us to look at the headless frogs created at Bath University (with the ultimate aim of producing headless human organ donors) (Tomasula, p. 139) and also the Vacanti mouse as potential living works of art.
Named after the director of the research team (Dr. Charles Vacanti) that produced it at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Vacanti mouse is a laboratory mouse (itself of a type bred by humans specifically for experimentation), on which human ear and cartilage cells were used to construct a fleshy growth that superficially resembles a human ear (Fudge: 110-111).
It is important to remember that, despite the Vacanti mouse being widely called the mouse-with-a-human-ear, it is not that at all. It effectively has a benign, though alien, growth and will survive its removal; its offspring will not have ears on their backs. Unless, of course, someone decides to grow them there. However, due to this confusion, this immediate acceptance of the mouse-human hybrid, I see the Vacanti mouse as a powerful symbol of the transgenic world to come. In it we can invest hopes and fears, because it is no longer a thing, it is an idea; it is the bust on top of Mark Dion’s Scala Natura.
The influence of this symbol can be seen through its inclusion in at least two works of art. First, the image of the mouse features heavily in Protein Lattice, a 1997 work by Patricia Piccinini, an artist who explores the issues surrounding biotechnology today (Lauritzen 2005: 30). Secondly, in the form of a frog with ears on its back, it appears in Rompers, a 2003 video work by Motohiko Odani, in which it by its presence it reinforces the possibility of the human-hybrid figure in the video.
The paradigm upset caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution has still not been fully assimilated, even today. Historically, the human reaction to the erosion of the animal-human division has been one of anxiety and it is still difficult, particularly for those who feel this affronts their relationship with the divine, to overcome this ancient, ingrained fear (which may, paradoxically, turn out to actually have some evolutionary benefit. Advances in scientific knowledge, from better to classification to gene splicing and other biotechnology, have opened our eyes to possibilities once considered impossible, imaginary. Philosophically, when there is not anxiety, there is excitement at these possibilities, even a desire to try them, and this is reflected in the shifts in legal status between human and animal. Artists continue to respond to these developments and produce work that depicts or takes the living form of transgenic animals -hybrids, monsters, even- though they ‘take particular care… [that the viewer] feels sympathy and even empathy for the subjects’ (Powell 2004: 333).
It is almost as if they are trying to prepare us, for the time when the ‘hybrid might say, “When do I?”- become human enough to escape… treatment as an animal?’ (Vining: 56).
- Adams, D. (1992) Joseph Beuys: Pioneer of a Radical Ecology. Art Journal. Vol. 51 No. 2 Summer, p. 26-34.
- Baker, S. (1993, 2001) Picturing the Beast: animals, identity and representation. 2001 University of Illinois Press edition. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
- Baker, S. (2000) The Postmodern Animal. London, Reaktion Books Ltd.
- Bush, K. (1995) Animal Instinct. Frieze. Issue 21 March-April. Available from: <http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/animal_instinct> [Accessed 1 April 2010].
- Cox, C. (2005) Of Humans, Animals, and Monsters. In: Thompson, N. ed. (2005) Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Fudge, E. (2002) Animal. London, Reaktion Books Ltd.
- Lauritizen, P. (2005) Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future. Hasting Center Report. Vol. 35 No. 2 March-April, p. 25-33.
- Morgan, E. (1972) The Descent of Woman. New York, Bantam Books Inc.
- Powell, D. (2004) Chimera Contemporary: The Enduring Art of the Composite Beast. Leonardo. Vol. 37 No. 4 2004, p. 332-340.
- Schnieder, C. (2004) Animals Looking at Us. In: Schneider, C. ed. Animals. London, Haunch of Venison.
- Shuker, K. (1998) Shuffling the Pack. Fortean Times. No. 110 May, p. 38-42.
- Simmons, I. (2006) On the Origin of the Specious. Fortean Times. No. 211 June, p. 46-50.
- Thompson, J. (2005) Foreword. In: Thompson, N. ed. (2005) Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Thompson, N. (2005) Monstrous Empathy. In: Thompson, N. ed. (2005) Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Tomasula, S. (2002) Genetic Art and the Aesthetics of Biology. Leonardo. Vol. 35 No. 2 2002, p. 137-144.
- Vining, J. (2008) Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization. Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy. Vol. 1 2008, p. 50-68.
Exhibition Review – Subversive Spaces, Whitworh Art Gallery, Manchester.
On arriving at the Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the first thing to be done is make an appointment to enter Gregor Schneider’s installation. Only one person may enter at a time and those who recall Schneider has stated that he wished one day to construct a room in which a volunteer would die may wonder whether he might have tired of waiting as they explore the rest of the exhibition, building a sense of apprehension that may or may not add to the final experience.
A reading of the text of the gallery’s events guide implies that Kinderzimmer, set up in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, should be visited first, but the need to wait one’s turn will lead many through to the Pilkington Room, where Douglas Gordon’s 1995 video work Hysterical plays on two huge screens. This work, playing two identical films with one slowed down and reversed through reflection, uses a medical film from the turn-of-the-century, showing a woman being ‘treated’ for hysteria by two male doctors. Looking less therapeutic than abusive, the film serves as an apt gateway –ambiguous, violent, sexualised; there is a warning about this for sensitive types- to the Surrealist world.
Entering the Central West Gallery, the visitor steps into the section entitled Psychic Interiors, for me the most interesting and enjoyable part of the exhibition. Throughout the whole exhibition, there are works by the original Surrealists as well as more recent artists, showing how much of contemporary art owes a debt to the movement.
Psychic Interiors is set up to resemble the rooms and corridors of a house and the mere presence of painted and photographic works adds to this impression, although this is somewhat spoiled by the intrusive presence of the wires fencing off some of the exhibits –a trip hazard around the trip hazard of Robert Gober’s disembodied leg (Untitled, 1989-92). Amongst others, Sarah Lucas, Tony Oursler and Mona Hatoum provide furniture for this house, although it is of course decidedly surreal. Turning a corner, one is confronted by Mona Hatoum’s oversized egg slicer, accompanied by a decidedly unwelcoming child’s cot. This house is unheimlich.
There is a decidedly female presence here, as contemporary female artists are still dealing with the oppression of their gender, whether by the medicalisation of this (hysteria has been seen as a response to male dominance and female disempowerment) or through the demands of the codes of marriage, home and family. While there is work by male artists in this section, it is that of the female artists that dominates, unifying the themes.
As well as this female presence, there is also a curious sense of habitation, despite there being so many empty things: Hatoum’s cot, Gober’s playpen, the unfurnished room of Lucy Gunning’s 1993 video work Climbing Around My Room (in which a woman in a red dress clambers around a room, rolling onto shelves, stepping on doorknobs, and never touching the floor in case the tigers get her).
This is undoubtedly because, not only is this house unheimlich, it is haunted. Sarah Lucas’s 2000 installation, The Pleasure Principle, could have been put together by any one of the poltergeists that crop up in the literature of paranormal investigation. Marcus Schinwald’s 2004 video 1st Part Conditional, in which a contortionist twists and hurls herself about while a bearded man sweats, could be about the birth of psychoanalysis, but could equally represent the connection between female sexuality, sexual abuse, hysteria and the phenomena of possession and poltergeist activity.
It may be that this ghost is that of Francesca Woodman, whose photographic works seem to best sum up this feeling of inhabited emptiness, and who took her own life in 1981. Naked, or partially naked, she attempts to camouflage herself in the rooms of decaying houses in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), which puts one in mind of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Victorian tale of terror, The Yellow Wall-Paper, in which a confined woman sees another in the wallpaper of her sick room.
The second half of the exhibition is Walking the City, after the habit of the Surrealist explorations of Paris. This section can be reached by passing through the chamber showing Railings, a work by Francis Alys. This has Alys walking around parts of London, wielding a drumstick, which he uses to give a soundtrack to his perambulations, tapping against columns and rattling it along railings. The visitor can then step into an exhibition space that seems to imitate the alleys and courts of some little visited part of a city.
I enjoyed the second half of the exhibition less and feel it was also slightly less successful. While some of this is down entirely to personal preference over the works, there was also an abrupt change of atmosphere. Even though deliberately unheimlich, Psychic Interiors had a unified, intimate feeling to it, working as an analogue for both house and mind, and even though populated with ghosts, was populated; Walking the City felt more like walking a gallery.
Walking the City seemed curiously uninhabited. This city was not alive, witnessed by Brassai’s deserted, nocturnal spaces and by George Shaw, with his gloomy, sinister, abandoned children’s play areas.
There was evidence of people’s passing. William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings, automatic art dictated by the vibrations of the New York subway system, are in a tight alley round the corner from Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings (which feel as if they are in the wrong section) and Katie Holden’s black wool cobwebs, recording the durations of her journeys, festoon one wall. These were all more interesting than the documentation for Rosemarie Castoro’s 1969 works, Ariadne Looking For An Honest Man and How To Make An Atoll Out Of Manhattan Island, which fail to grab the attention. Divorced from the original act, they are dry and dull, easily the least exciting or attractive of the works here.
The city, however, is also haunted. Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s 1995 video work Nuit Blanche shows the artist walking through nocturnal street scenes, clad only in a white garment like a nightdress. It puts one in mind of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now and the piece is constructed and sound tracked as if it were part of a horror film.
One artwork dominated the entire exhibition, and it wasn’t Gregor Schneider’s installation; it was Tony Oursler’s 1995 work, The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Never Seen. While there were a number of video works with soundtracks, filling the air with their conflicting and complementary noises, Oursler’s could always be heard braying and bellowing like some monstrous idiot. Whatever feelings and thoughts I had about the work on encountering it near the start of the exhibition were buried under irritation and boredom by the time I left.
The problem of invasive noise also affects Gregor Schneider’s Kinderzimmer installation. Taking up the whole of the South Gallery, with one entrance and one exit, Kinderzimmer (Nursery) is sealed off, in total darkness. At the centre of the darkness are two duplicates of a child’s room, one of which can be looked into (and in which a small, lonely sleeping mat can be seen) and one of which you can actually enter (and lacking the mat). The room is modelled after one in a house in the town of Garzweller in Germany, which had been abandoned and then destroyed by a massive open-cast mining project. A video hidden away around a corner at the back gives a view of this deserted settlement.
The intent is obviously to disturb and, due to the timing of the exhibition, may put the viewer in mind of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who for years secretly held his daughter and their children in a dungeon under his house. However, like his controversial project to build a room based on the Muslim Ka’aba, Kinderzimmer is something of anti-climax, especially if you do not mistake the two rooms for one and therefore miss out on that unheimlich feeling. There is less sense of isolation, too, when one can hear the roar of the rest of the gallery.
Subversive Spaces does a good job of demonstrating the legacy of Surrealism through the display of past works alongside contemporary pieces, a legacy that few contemporary artists would be able to deny. The Whitworth has provided the public with an excellent opportunity to see how the supposedly outlandish art of the present day is, in fact, no more or less strange than some of that from the beginning of the last century.
Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. ‘Gregor Schneider, the inner space man’, The Times (January 27th 2009 edition).
Cumming, Laura. ‘The art of dreams –and déjà vu’, The Observer (February 15th 2009 edition).
Jenny Saville: Destroyer of False Fetishes
Matrix is a work in oil on canvas, seven feet by ten feet, depicting a reclining nude with female breasts and hairless genitalia, but with a masculine, bearded face looking out at the viewer/ artist. The genitalia are thrust to the fore, making them much more of a focus in the picture than the gaze. The arms and legs of the figure are only partly seen, the extremities lying outside the boundary of the picture. The whole is painted in fairly naturalistic fleshy tones.
Matrix is a thoroughly post-modern nude. This picture makes a nonsense of the standard reading of the nude as set out by John Berger in Ways of Seeing – that the female nude is made for straight men.
The figure in Matrix does not look much like the idealised female form one might expect to feature as a nude. However, “the bodies in Saville’s paintings … may not be what most people would call beautiful, but they can’t be denied their grandeur”1 and this is part of a tradition that stretches back into prehistoric times, the portrayal of the female form, idealised as massive. In the modern era, this can be seen in the salacious cartoon work of Robert Crumb and the highly regarded paintings of Lucien Freud (Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, for example), with whom Jenny Saville is often compared. Further back in history, it can be seen in the work of Reubens and others, but the most obvious comparison would be with representations of female goddesses, earth mothers. Indeed, Linda Nochlin has described one work by Saville (Hem, 1998-1999), as being “a late-20th Century Venus of Willendorf”2, referring to a sculpture over twenty-five thousand years old, and one that is hardly unique, merely one of the best known examples of its type found throughout Europe and Asia.
Jenny Saville’s work is very often compared to that of Lucien Freud, and the similarities are obvious in that both artists are supremely concerned with flesh, the form and volume of the human body. The comparison with Lucien Freud should not be over-emphasised, and it may be significant that whenever this subject is brought up in interviews with the artist herself, Saville normally deals with it as quickly as possible before moving on. Jenny Saville’s nudes are, at least to my mind, much more aggressive and overwhelming than Lucien Freud’s. Also, Freud’s subjects are usually in an identifiable studio setting, placing them firmly in the real world, whereas Jenny Saville’s subjects rarely occupy such a definite space.
When asked whether this comparison with Freud annoys her, Jenny Saville has remarked that this an unsurprising link to make, given the shared subject matter and Freud’s pre-eminence in this area of British realism, but that she doesn’t want to be seen as a follower of his3. Saville makes it quite clear that more important influences on her work are Willem De Kooning, who she describes as her “main man”4, and Francis Bacon. She holds De Kooning in high regard as a painter, praising his ability, but prefers to maintain a high level of realism in her own practice. That said, she recognises that within the boundary of the flesh within her own work, there is abstract art, “the landscape of the brush marks.”5 The work of Bacon displays monstrous distortions of flesh that Saville’s shares (and both have been inspired to produce works based on that of Velasquez); again, Saville favours a certain realism.
Dismissing the comparisons with Lucien Freud, Linda Nochlin has claimed that Saville’s work has more in common with conceptual and feminist performance art, but Jenny Saville is emphatically a painter, claiming that she “can’t look at any other contemporary art … because …it gives me other options.”6 Almost all her work has been in painting, the most notable exception being a series of photographs produced in collaboration with Glen Luchford. She says that she is able “look at old art because it gives (her) a sort of linkage to some tradition”, which suggests that she sees herself as part of this tradition of painters, claiming that it is only a small number of artists (including Cy Twombly, De Kooning, Bacon, Velasquez, and Titian) that “give clues or answers to what I’m looking for.”7
The visual language of the pose in Matrix is very similar to that of the pin-up, of pornography, and of the contact magazine. In a different context, Matrix would not be about anything other than the crude, eroticised display of specific parts of the body. This language has been adopted from outside of fine art, particularly by feminist artists, and Saville would be familiar with this appropriation, having begun to read feminist art theory as far back as her scholarship at the University of Cincinnati (during her degree at the Glasgow School of Art).
Painted in 1999, Matrix must be seen in the context of 1970s feminist art history, and also the gay and lesbian art histories of the 1980s. Saville’s model is Del LaGrace Volcano, an artist who is also a self-declared intersex and whose own body is a component of his/her work. No longer identifying as a woman, Del emphasises male characteristics but does not want to be male. Presumptions like Berger’s can no longer be made about the sex and sexuality of the viewer, or even the subject of a work of art, Saville having been described as “a destroyer of false fetishes in terms of the tradition of the nude.”8
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: Routledge, 1974)
Eccher, Danilo. Jenny Saville (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2005)
Gagosian Gallery. Territories (England: The Colourhouse, 1999)
John, Elton. ‘Jenny Saville’, Interview (October 2003 edition)
Kuspit, Donald. ‘Jenny Saville’, ArtForum (December 1999 edition)
Leppert, Richard. The Nude: Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity (USA: Westview Press, 2006
Nochlin, Linda. ‘Floating in Gender Nirvana’, Art in America (March 2000 edition)
Ross, Peter. ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’, The Sunday Herald (September 17, 2000 edition)
Schama, Simon. Jenny Saville (New York: Rizzoli, 2005)
1 Barry Schwabsky , ‘Jenny Saville: Unapologetic’, Jenny Saville (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2005), p.87
2 Linda Nochlin, ‘Floating in Gender Nirvana’, Art in America (March 2000 edition)
3 Elton John, ‘Jenny Saville’, Interview (October 2003 edition)
8 Simon Schama, Jenny Saville (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), p.126
ART AND THE OCCULT.
The Latin root of our word ‘occult’ is occultus, meaning hidden, and has long been used to describe the secret teachings of secret societies (real and imagined, either side of the preposition). The ‘occult’ covers a great range of topics, including astrology, alchemy, religious mysticism, spiritualism, witchcraft, voodoo, Theosophy, Tarot, shamanism, the Jewish Kabala, even yoga, and is often used to encompass general ‘mysteries of the unknown’. It is not my intention to provide a primer on such a sprawling, diverse subject so I will quote Nadia Choucha’s general summary of basic occult principles as I feel this might be helpful:
The universe is a single living substance.
The universe is comprised of interactive opposites.
Mind and matter are a unified entity.
Everything that exists corresponds in universal analogy –man/ woman is a microcosm of the universe.
Imagination is a real motivating force that can act upon matter in a subtle way.
Self-realization and thus realization of the universe comes through a variety of methods e.g. intuition, illumination, meditation, accident, self-induced derangement or experimentation.
With this essay, I originally intended to examine the influence of the occult on art, the main emphasis being on the visual arts. While I will be covering the wider and general influence of the occult, I will be trying to focus on instances in which an artist’s study and practice of occultism had a direct effect on their work or whose study and practice could be considered to be a part of their work. By no means do I intend this study to be exhaustive, as this subject is labyrinthine beyond my initial expectations (and I do not feel that I underestimated it). I will be covering the problems faced when researching this particular subject area, as I feel that they are important in understanding the wider context. As a general rule, I have been looking at artists over artworks, so this essay will not be covering works of art where the occult is simply the subject; I am more concerned with the influence of occult theory and practice on the theory and the practice of the art.
All illustrations are to be found in the Appendix on pages 14 – 18. [at the end of the post]
The mainstream view of art history tends to ignore the influence of the occult. When studying this area through the lens of mainstream art history, one immediately comes up against the problem that, in our consensus reality, magic does not exist and therefore mainstream art historians do not see the occult as much more than an example of the artist’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, a symbol set, an inspiration, a phase, or even a sign of madness, and so tend to downplay it or ignore it altogether when measuring its specific influence on a particular artist. For instance, Ithell Colquhoun left the English Surrealist group in 1940, expelled because she would not give unconditional support to E. L. T. Mesens as its leader: this is the mainstream view. However, Colquhoun was a life-long occultist and Mesens –unlike Andre Breton- had no time for occult pursuits. Whitney Chadwick claims that it was widely believed at the time that Mesens’ prohibition on belonging to groups (including secret societies) other than the Surrealists was directed against occult-minded members. Rose-Carol Washton Long notes ‘for most art historians, turn of the century mysticism, occultism and anarchism have been considered too irrational and chaotic to be viewed as serious influences on modernist artists’. She is speaking specifically, but her point also stands in a more general context.
Another major problem with the study of occult art is its very nature. Occult knowledge is secret knowledge; it is hidden from the un-initiated. Thus, it possible to look at a piece of occult art, fail to recognise it as such and so miss out on an important interpretation. An illustration from personal experience: while researching Max Ernst in connection with this essay, I encountered for the first time his collage work Une semaine de bonte (1934). My first reaction on seeing these collages was that they reminded me of alchemical symbolic pictures (fig. 1). M. E. Warlick argues “alchemical symbolism provides the central characters, many of the incidental motifs, and the basic chapter structure.” She also states that once this is recognised “the organization of the novel will unfold as being clearly derivative from the alchemical tradition”, in clear contradiction to the received opinion that the novel is without organisation, or is meant to confuse deliberately; this in itself was a tactic of writers in the alchemical (and wider occult) tradition, disguising their work from the eyes of the unilluminated.
It is also important to remember that –for much of Christian history- occult knowledge was disguised for the safety of the practitioner or theoretician. While alchemy, astrology, and the like were considered to be respectable areas of study in the right hands at the right time, they were very close to beliefs that could get a man (or more likely a woman) tortured and killed. This might suggest that there may be a great wealth of occult art from the past that has yet to be recognised.
The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein is a painting full of hidden meanings (fig. 2). Once this was because no record from the time of the painting could be found, and the two figures were not identified as Jean de Dinteville (on the left, in the more sumptuous apparel) and George de Selve for hundreds of years. While most of the symbolism appears to concern the religious, political and philosophical situation in Europe at the time, James Bissell-Thomas detects the influence of Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535, author of De Occulta Philosophia and described as “a German doctor, alchemist, occultist, demonologist and encyclopaedist” by Fred Gettings), arguing that the book under de Selve’s elbow is that of Agrippa. Talking about Bissell-Thomas’s work, David Hambling asks: “Was Dinteville trying to summon the Beast [of Revelation]… in order to defeat it and bring about the promised Millennium?” and suggests that The Ambassadors might be more than a painting of two dignitaries, but an instrument to change the world.
Unfortunately, this may sound a little like The Da Vinci Code, and leads me to a further problem: seeing occult influence that isn’t there. The revelations in Dan Brown’s bestseller are no more or less true than the revelations of the original researchers, all of whom are building their belief based on subjective interpretation, misinterpretation, hoaxes, lies, and blind faith. For example, many people take it as fact that Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper depicts Mary Magdalene amongst the disciples and that this supports the idea of the Priory of Sion, an ancient secret society that has been protecting Christ’s bloodline (and including Leonardo da Vinci as a member). While I am not going to be drawn into the morass surrounding this particular aspect of hidden knowledge, it may be worth noting that the ‘real’ Priory of Sion (registered in Annemasse, France, 1956) included as a member Philippe de Cherisey, described by Steve Ash as “a talented hoaxer and an amateur Surrealist with a taste for bizarre mysteries.” Furthermore, an apparently genuine signature of Jean Cocteau is to be found on 1956 Priory documents.
Mainstream art history, and in particular that relating to what we might call fine art, has a tendency to marginalize certain theorists and practitioners, whether they be folk artists, outsider artists, black artists, woman artists, or occult artists. Ithell Colquhoun split from the English Surrealists over her occult practice, effectively being forced out due to Mesens’ prejudices. In Surrealism and the Occult, Nadia Choucha directs us to Whitney Chadwick’s book for information on the occult tendencies of the female Surrealists. The occultist and artist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956), who exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 19 and was an official war artist during the First World War, started out famous and slipped into obscurity. According to Michael Staley (himself an occultist) “the reason Spare’s work began to be ignored by the establishment in his own lifetime was due to his increasing involvement in the occult and occult themes” (Ahsan).
Staley is entitled to his opinion and, while I agree that Spare’s occult beliefs were at least a factor in the fading of his star, I do not think it was necessarily the only factor or even necessarily the major or a major factor; occult historians tend to emphasise the occult aspect of an artist’s life as much as mainstream art historians sideline it. Thus, there have been claims that Picasso fought an astral battle with Hitler.
There is also a tendency to emphasise the importance of artist’s from outside the mainstream who may be more significant as an artist within the sphere of the occultist, or exaggerate their importance. Thus, Lady Frieda Harris is significant as an artist in the history of occultism, as Aleister Crowley initiated her in order to assist in the design of the Thoth Tarot card deck. Similarly, Crowley was something of an artist himself and his work was very much tied up with his occult practices, although it would seem his work is more of interest because of who he was rather than as art of itself; it also hardly needs to be said that the influence of Crowley has crept into popular culture, art, and occultism in all manner of ways (fig. 3).
Crowley is also an excellent example of a further complication in examining occult artists: they lie. For example, Crowley would often take credit for misfortunes that befall those he felt had wronged him, to enhance his reputation as a caster of curses. More pertinently to the subject of the essay, in 1936 Adolf Hitler tried to commission a portrait from Austin Osman Spare, which the artist refused to do. According to Phil Baker, Spare’s version of this event a few years later involved the artist travelling to Germany, painting the Fuhrer and returning with the intention of creating an anti-Nazi work, possibly as a magical weapon (shades of Picasso versus Hitler on the astral plane). Both stories made the papers so could presumably be checked. Put another way, people in general lie, exaggerating their role in events, or playing up their involvement in already existing narratives; artists and occultists are no different than anyone else.
Except they are different. In some ways, the artist and the occultist are one and the same. Picasso, Dali and Max Ernst have been described as shamans (the latter being portrayed as such in Leonora Carrington’s 1939 portrait: fig. 4), Duchamp as an alchemist, Gauguin as a magus. These titles are often applied to the artist, who may also be ascribed visionary powers, being in touch with a world beyond the mundane. The idea of the artist as some kind of magician goes back to prehistory. The cave paintings at Lascaux, France are at least 17, 000 years old (fig. 5). Hidden deep within the earth, the paintings of prehistoric animals do not seem to have been meant for a wide and casual audience. In fact, they are –quite literally- occult. While we cannot be sure exactly why the paintings were made in the way and the place they were, it is not unreasonable to suggest they might represent a form of sympathetic magic (possibly as part of wider religious practices), intended to bring success in hunting or to encourage the return of migratory prey animals. While Janson and Janson are supremely patronising in suggesting that the cave painters could not tell the difference between the painted animal and its real counterpart, they are on steadier ground when they say that ‘even 20, 000 years ago…the painter was a special kind of person…we might say that he was mainly supposed to be a magician.’
For a variety of reasons, the historical record concerning occult art is hazy right up until the nineteenth century, when there was a widespread and enduring revival of interest in occultism. Séances were a popular pastime of the middle classes, and photography was supposedly producing proof of life after death. Queen Victoria had her own ‘court magician’ in the shape of the self-proclaimed clairvoyant Robert Lees, just as Queen Elizabeth the First had Dr. John Dee. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was formed, with famous members such as the writers Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and Edith Nesbit, the notorious Aleister Crowley, and the poet, William Butler Yeats. It was during this period that Alphonse Louis Constant wrote, as Eliphas Levi, The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic and from whom we get one of the most famous and recognisable images of the Devil (fig. 6) and who was “a profound influence on [Andre] Breton” (Choucha).
General themes drawn from this occult revival found their way into the art of many artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites and –in particular- the Symbolists. Josephin Peladan, a man who was “infatuated with occultism and mysticism, and [who] behaved as a magician during the whole of his life” (Cassou), attempted to establish a mystical order, the Rose + Croix. This was, however, best remembered for exhibitions of the works of Symbolist painters, their sympathy to Peladan being based on a shared interest in esoteric mysticism. Many of the Symbolists had at least an interest in occultism. For example, according to The Concise Encyclopaedia of Symbolism, Aubrey Beardsley was “involved with black magic”, Jean Delvilles was a disciple of Peladan and “struggled tirelessly in his capacity of initiate to awaken the world to the knowledge of ancient esoteric traditions”, Alfons Maria Mucha was “very interested in spiritual phenomena”, and Felicien Rops made blasphemous etchings celebrating Satanism. While some of those with an interest may have been more deeply involved in the occult, it seems that in most cases the influence of the occult was thematic. Beardsley lifestyle choices and Rops’ blasphemous pornography were meant to shock, to titillate, to cause outrage, and to draw attention. Delvilles later switched from Rosicrucianism, to Theosophy, to Krishnamurti, while Mucha seems just to have been genuinely and generally interested in the esoteric.
In 1818, Jacques Albin Simon Collin, capitalising on the popularity of the occult revival, published the Dictionnaire Infernale under the name of Collin de Plancy, one of many pseudo-occult works he published under various names, which was reissued and expanded for years afterwards. According to Fred Gettings, this book had an influence on “one or two of the French Dada artists”, but does not tell us who or how (and Collin de Plancy’s work is not strictly speaking ‘occult’ in terms of this essay, being very much ‘popular’ rather than scholarly). What is more certain is that the demon Stolas (fig. 7) was chosen from that book by Max Ernst as one of the illustrations for “Some Data on the Youth of M. E., As Told By Himself”, an autobiographical essay (which also include his own natal horoscope).
Max Ernst was not the only artist of the Dada and Surrealist movements to have an interest in the occult. While the influence of the occult is much more readily identifiable in the work of the Surrealists, Nadia Choucha points out that some Dadaists “arrived at an experience of a consciousness that they found could only be defined in occult or mystical terms.”
Probably the greatest artistic magical act of the twentieth century was that performed by the alchemist, Marcel Duchamp. Alchemy is usually thought of as the quest for a Philosopher’s Stone that allows the transformation of base metals into gold, but another interpretation is that it is not tied to the material world and that the Stone is knowledge and the gold is enlightenment, the transformation of consciousness. By signing a urinal and displaying it in a gallery, Duchamp not only effected a physical transformation (urinal to artwork), he managed to transform consciousness. He changed what art was, and we can still feel the effects of that act even today.
When looked at as a piece of history, Fountain may well be Duchamp’s true ‘Great Work’ (the study and practice of alchemy), but it does not seem that he necessarily saw it so. Nadia Choucha reports that J.F. Moffitt traced the influence of occultism –and in particular alchemy- on Duchamp, in his essay Marcel Duchamp: Alchemist of the Avant-Garde. Moffitt believes that Duchamp studied alchemical primary sources as his interest in the subject grew, and that the recurring motif of the circular form in the artist’s work are based on the alchemical symbol for gold. Apparently influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Duchamp was already exploring the idea that art had the ability to directly change consciousness when he began work on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) in 1915, two years before Fountain. “Duchamp was a modern alchemist, and The Large Glass was his ‘Great Work’ (Choucha), and, as with many of the alchemists of the past, the work was left unfinished: Duchamp was still making notes and diagrams up until he died in 1968, and Nadia Choucha believes it has its origin in two seventeenth century alchemical parables.
Max Ernst was another artist who crossed the bridge between Dada and Surrealism, and the influence of alchemy on his work has already been mentioned. This influence is examined in Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth by M. E. Warlick, the discovery of the existence of which was too late for me to obtain it for inclusion in my research, so instead I will briefly point out that Ernst had felt he was aware of the occult world since his childhood, and described himself as “a young man aspiring to become a magician” following his ‘death’ at the beginning of the First World War and ‘resuscitation’ at the end; a symbolic initiation.
As has been noted previously, the writings of Eliphas Levi were influential upon Andre Breton. In the 1920s, the Surrealists borrowed the spiritualist practice of automatic drawing and writing, and by the 1940s, according to Choucha, “we find concepts and imagery borrowed from Alchemy, the Tarot, Gnosticism, Tantra, Shamanism amongst others, not only as subject matter, but influencing production and technique.” As a group, the Surrealists were fairly open-minded when it came to occult ideas.
Female Surrealists found strong role models in the female archetypes arising from mythology and occultism, identifying with goddesses and witches. The Surrealist poet, Valentine Penrose, “liked to think of herself as a witch, [according to] Noma Copley” (Chadwick). Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Ithell Colquhoun were just some of the female artists who drew on the occult in their work. As we have already seen, Ithell Colquhoun was a serious occultist and Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo both had a shared interest in the magical world. Carrington went through a harrowing ‘initiation’, her rape and institutionalisation during the Second World War being an encounter with madness and destruction of the self that she survived, and wrote about using alchemical symbolism. In Mexico, she developed a close relationship with fellow artist, Remedios Varo, and the two of them explored the magical possibilities of creativity, working with occult themes. They exchanged ‘magical formulae’ (though it is not certain how seriously they took them as one of Varo’s includes corsets, hats and false moustaches, although a modern Chaos Magician might see the value more clearly) and Carrington mentions casting a spell against the evil eye in a note to Varo. While they might not have been occult practitioners in the strict sense, a sense of magic pervades their work (fig. 8).
Ithell Colquhoun had left the English Surrealist group to pursue her occult studies almost a decade before she published her essay “The Mantic Stain” in 1949. Her conclusion is that Surrealist techniques of automatism are close to the processes of divination. Sfumage, ecremage, frottage, decalomania, automatic writing and drawing are no different to reading tealeaves, or staring into a crystal ball. Soror Kieja 115 recommends these Surrealist techniques as useful for Chaos Magicians, in effect returning the favour.
For some ten years before the French Surrealists began experimenting with automatism, the English artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare had been producing automatic drawings. Spare was no Surrealist, preferring a style (fig. 9) that owed something to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, but “his automatism and some of his ideas come so close to surrealism, it is difficult to believe that they had never heard of him, yet all the evidence points to the fact that he was totally unknown to them” (Choucha). However, Spare believed that automatism was only of real use to one already possessing artistic ability, rather than as a way of subverting the traditional creative process. It is important to remember that a great deal of Spare’s work was supposed to represent actual occult experiences.
Spare’s most enduring legacy is not in the artistic sphere but in the occult. Much as Duchamp created a paradigm shift in the art world, Spare did the same in the occult world. As well as developing his own theoretical system, Spare also created a practical system using magical sigils, which he would sometimes incorporate into his work. Put very simplistically, in sigil magic the individual writes down their desire and then uses the letters to construct a symbol, which is then used as a focus for the will(fig. 10). This technique is widely praised as being highly effective, and modern practicing occultists owe more to Spare than to Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi or Cornelius Agrippa.
It has been demonstrated that occultism has had an influence on the theory and practice of art, although obtaining authoritative evidence is sometimes hard. Alchemy was obviously a key influence on some of the Surrealists, and it could be argued that Duchamp was more successful in the ‘Great Work’ than a whole legion of mediaeval proto-scientists eager for gold. However, it would seem that there were few who seriously combined art and the occult -Ithell Colquhoun and Austin Osman Spare being notable exceptions- while receiving the interest of those outside specialist circles. The profusion of ‘minor figures’ has led me to exclude a number of interesting individuals who could not fit the narrative I was constructing, such as Hilma af Klint, the Swedish mystic who requested that her clairvoyant paintings not be viewed until twenty years after her death, and Rosaleen Norton, the Australian occult artist whose work and lifestyle disproportionately scandalised the conservative establishment and led to censorship and harassment. Even Austin Spare is included more for his contribution to occultism than his place in mainstream art history, showing –along with Ithell Colquoun’s “The Mantic Stain”- that the current of influence runs both ways.
Nowadays occult artists can be more open about their affiliations and intentions, in part because occultism has become interwoven with popular culture. Artists who are also occult practitioners are no longer as isolated or as secretive, as we can see from the films of Kenneth Anger, a number of which are explicit in being Crowleyian occult rituals, and the work of individuals such as Genesis P-Orridge, and bands such as Coil, who blur the line between music, performance art and ritual.
Given the blurred line that exists between art and magic it should be no surprise that a group such as The HermAphroditic ChAOrder of the Silver Dusk (their format) exists and I will give them the last word: “The Silver Dusk is a counter-point to The Golden Dawn -that where the Golden Dawn was a magickal order established by poets and artists, the Silver Dusk is an art movement instigated by magicians and sorcerers.”
Figure 1: Comparison of alchemical illustration with Une semaine de bonte
I can’t find the image I originally used as an example, so for the time being you’ll have to take my word for it.
Figure 3: Hierophant card from the Thoth Tarot/ Self-portrait of Crowley
Figure 4: Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) by Leonora Carrington
Figure 5: Hall of Bulls in Lascaux Caves
Figure 6: Eliphas Levi’s Goat of Mendes
Figure 7: The demon Stolas, as it appears in Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernale.
Figure 8: Queira ser Pajaro (1960) by Leonora Carrington/ To Be Reborn (1960) by Remedios Varo.
Figure 9: Head with Green Hair in the Depths of Hell (c.1939)/ Astral Body (1925) by Austin Osman Spare.
Figure 10: Example of the sigilisation process
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