The owl, 2015-2016
When I was a boy I lived in Dudley a town at that time in the English county of Worcestershire. It was overlooked by an ancient castle the grounds of which had been used as a zoo since 1937. Visiting the zoo as a child in the 1950s was a regular experience. One of my school friends was the son of a zoo keeper and as they lived in a house within the zoo grounds, when I visited my friend I began to see another side of the zoo, the mundane everyday reality of looking after captured and penned up animals.
I could never look at the animals as if they were emotionless others. I always felt some sort of affinity with them and I read into their actions emotions, emotions that were of course human ones and ones I worked out by finding visual analogies with my own feelings.
Dudley zoo: Polar Bears and their 'Tecton' enclosure
Dudley Zoo: A blueprint for a new world
Of all the animals trapped in that space it was the polar bears that had the most effect upon my young self. Their modernist enclosure may well have been a wonderful example of 1930s tectonic design, but the movements and attitudes of the bears were unmistakably tragic. They would stand for what seemed hours, swaying backwards and forwards or rocking from side to side, exactly the same movements I've observed sometimes with distressed homeless people sheltering in city doorways, those with severe mental health issues or people recovering from a stroke. The contrast between the clean edged modernist design of the polar bear enclosure and the world from which these magnificent animals came from could not have been sharper. The whiteness of modernity tolled a bell that only now years later would I hear. The white bears with a white ice and snow heritage, trapped in the dirty white modernism of an architectural idea, an idea that was still being praised as being inspiring, whilst the very ice and snow landscapes of the Artic were beginning to melt under the pressures of global warming. The zoo's encloses had been designed by the Tecton Group, led by the Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin. I find it ironic that the group's first commission was the 1932-1934 gorilla house for London zoo, followed by a penguin pool, a design that with it's unique double helix walkway has won many awards and has been cited as an iconic modernist piece. The perceived success of these designs meant that other zoos became interested in taking up the Tecton Group's architectural services. During this time geometric abstraction then became the design mode for people too and as modernist flats were constructed and people moved into them, an eerily parallel situation developed. Creatures that for their physical and mental well being needed contact with the environment they were brought up in, were dislocated and transported into the architectural products of visions arrived at on drawing boards and in the minds of human visionaries.
The drawings below are some of the designs for the zoo. They look futuristic and could almost be plans for some sort of spacecraft or future city.
These types of visions of future worlds were also being realised in the sets for the film 'Things to Come', a 1930s adaption of H G Wells' writings. The film ends with an account of humanity's unending quest for knowledge and advancement, told to us as a spaceship is launched and humankind sets out to conquer planets beyond the Earth, the final line of the film stating, "All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be? ..." The sets look as if they could be Dudley zoo animal enclosures, sterile places where living is acted out rather than lived, spaces not unlike those developed by Frances Bacon for his existentialist paintings. Lurking behind the geometric harmony of mathematical perfection, is the emotional dilemma of the mess of being human.
Things to come: Film still
No wonder that when I first encountered Bacon's paintings that they seemed strangely familiar, his visions were the products of a 1930s designer turned artist.
Frances Bacon: 1930s interior designs
The curved space frame occurs over and over again, both in design and fine art. It will eventually become an idea that forgets its origins, something embedded in the visual fabric of modernism like an old bear trap, one that you unexpectedly step into when looking for something else. One that for myself lay in the background of a polar bear pit, its sweeping curves enclosing the seed of an analogy with traps that would become very important to my future self.
Bear foot trap, technical drawing and digital realisation
It was John Berger that alerted us to the wider implications of looking at animals. He stated, 'With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals — hence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.
This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man'. John Berger in ‘Why Look at Animals?’ It is this loneliness that perhaps leads us to do the things we do. If we saw the world as our friend we would not mine it for its minerals and its oil, we would not pollute it and care much more about the results of our pollution and desecration of wildlife habitats and other natural resources. Berger at one point states that the animal's gaze is inconsequential, it doesn't matter. But for myself it was the polar bears' gaze that affected me deeply. They stared out at the humans that in their turn stared down on them. Their eyes locked with mine as I tried to see into their minds, their rocking backwards and forwards reflecting a need to go back into their mother's bellies, to go back to a time before time, to their pre-existence when they were just a feeling in their mother's wombs. They made me ashamed of what I was doing, ashamed of my cowardice and inability to do anything about their condition. I have made images of animals over and over again, they surface unbidden and they are at times sentimental and kitsch in their effect. I used to worry about this but not any more, these times are too difficult to start unpicking whether or not one particular way of making images is better than another, what we just need are images that may at some point become effective, images that might help change someone's mind. The print I made a few years ago below being my response to what I found out about the use of the crow cone. The fact that the cone is also the form of ku klux klan hats, a dunce's cap, a capirote, a party hat and is almost like a beak when seen from the side, cementing the idea in my mind as one applicable to the plight of both humans and birds. As we trap them, we trap ourselves.
I have also drawn pigs in many guises, the drawing below a fully humanised pig reading a how to recognise animal tracks book, a suggestion that as humans began to wear clothes they lost the ability to read nature directly and became one remove from it.
Humans have drawn animals for over 40,000 years and the depiction of animals has allowed humans to enter into a relationship with the world of other species, by in many ways giving us voices clothed in animal forms. We are able to take part in nature through the bodies of the animals we depict. Marlene Dumas is usually associated with her portraits which rather than representing actual people, represent emotions or states of mind. In the same way her owl can be taken to represent the spirit of the moment of being an owl, the flap of wings, frozen within differing washes of tonal value and a change of brush that adds a darker textural bite. Sometimes we need to draw animals in order to be able to see our own animal nature.
Victor Koulbak uses silverpoint to produce drawings that remind us of the fragility of life. It is interesting to compare his use of silverpoint with other artists using the same medium, such as Des Lawrence's Obituary portrait of James Stewart that I looked at in an earlier post. Koulbak's decision to have the monkey's portrait drawn so that it stares straight into the viewer's face is an interesting one, in that it suggests an internal reflexive mind, now examining and returning the gaze of those that would gaze upon it.
Hendrick Goltzius however shows us a more realistic state of nature in the hands of humankind. I can't help but feel sorry for Goltzius's chained up monkey, it feels as if all the spirit has been drained from it, it is now a ghost of its former self. If it could turn its face to stare back, I feel it would have hollow eyes. In contrast his drawing of a lumpfish below, seems to suggest that the fish has a rich life of its own, it also has a face that suggests that it is slowly transforming into a man/fish or similar hybrid creature.