From: Kit Wise
Category: Other stuff
Date: 22 March 2002



Kit Wise

It is strange to have spent the last five years listening for the tick of a detonator inside your head. Being a typically impoverished art-student in London in the nineties, whatever food I did eat was cheap, and in the case of meat, even cheaper. Toad-in-the-hole, sausage rolls and black pudding are mother’s milk to the English, and so, the slow-dawning realisation that I had been deceived about the safety of bovine foodstuffs by my own government was quite literally mind blowing. Although the first case of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy was identified in 1985, the nation was reassured by the Southwood report in 1989 that it posed no risk. Even after the first human death from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, vCJD, in March 1995, it was not until May 1996 that the Conservative government announced that BSE was the cause. If this wasn’t bad enough, the official BSE Report published in 2000 after three years of investigation specifically identified the government as having appallingly mismanaged research into the new disease, greatly delaying any response to the danger. The worst aspect of the crisis was therefore that nothing could be done about it. BSE is currently thought to be transmitted through the medium of ‘prions’, pure particles of protein devoid of DNA or RNA. Their capacity to jump the species gap, considered impossible before, is only beginning to be understood, but is related to moments of similarity between the genetic make up of one species and another: the greater the degree of similarity in gene sequences, the greater the risk. While studying in Rome a few years later the spread of BSE to mainland Europe reminded me of an earlier incarnation of a dangerous love of beef and this shadowy overlap between species – the Minotaur. Ovid described this creature as a ‘monstrous hybrid beast’, while Plutarch was more specific, borrowing from Euripides to describe the ‘Bull of Minos’ as:

A mingled form, where two strange shapes combined And different natures, man and bull, were joined.

The exact origins of this early example of genetic engineering are often forgotten. The Bull was a symbol of Poseidon, and it was the gift of a particularly fine example, from the god to King Minos of Crete, that was the start of the problem. Minos refused to sacrifice the beast, despite having promised Poseidon that he would do so. In response, the sea god sent Aphrodite to visit Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, and caused her to fall in love with the bull. Disguised in a synthetic heifer made specifically for the purpose by Daedalus – the man responsible for that other famous, and equally doomed attempt at hybridity, the wings fashioned for his son Icarus - Pasiphae consummated her passion for the beast. There is a double illusion in this myth. Not only is Pasiphae caused to go ‘mad’ with desire, deluded into viewing the bull as her lover: but the bull is too. What an amazing object the hollow, wooden heifer must have been, capable of arousing the prize-winning animal. It was also perhaps one of the earliest examples of a deliberate blurring of the distinction between human and animal, such that both parties were unconscious of their unnatural practices: the first man-made vehicle for transgenics. The offspring from this monstrous union was bound to be trouble; but even so, the Minotaur has had a particularly bad press. It was fed only once a year - on young folk from mainland Greece, a bizarre parallel to the cannibalism that BSE is thought to have developed from – and kept in solitary confinement for its entire life. Hardly free-range farming. Some argue that he was simply the deformed, retarded and illegitimate son of Queen Pasiphae, whom Theseus as usurper was able to describe as he saw fit. What seems clear is that ‘Minotaur’ as a concept was something inherently evil, monstrous – abnormal – outside of or beyond nature. Yet to the contemporary mind, this sense of revulsion would seem very close to awe. Kant’s essay, the ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ identifies ‘where pleasure is gained from one's inability to understand the idea of the whole’. As an inversion of the meaning of this famous passage, a more apposite description of the horrific synthesis that was the Minotaur would be hard to come by. A rumour went through London in the mid-nineties that David Bowie and Damien Hirst were planning to make a minotaur from body parts left specifically for the purpose, accommodated in a labyrinth, on some remote Mediterranean island. This may have been just another urban myth, a hallucinatory projection of the vCJD invisibly coursing through our veins at that time: but Mother and Child Divided, 1993, did set the tone for an art-school generation. The coolly butchered carcasses of a cow and her calf were presented in formaldehyde, cut lengthwise in cross-section, as if they were lobster thermidor. The result was a still, silent, near monotone image that could have been an anatomical engraving by Vesalius. However, the poetry of the floating shark from 1991, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was lacking. (Motionless and therefore dead, as we are told sharks must always keep moving to survive, the title half implies our difficulty with believing this fact post-Jaws). Also missing was the relative subtlety of Away from the flock, 1994, the proverbial innocent lamb forever gambolling in an arcadian haze. Nevertheless: the intensely visceral experience of being able to walk, ghost-like, through a cow and her calf remained utterly fascinating. It was like seeing the blue-print for life on this planet – a medieval half-imagined map of the world - far beyond anything David Attenborough or the Discovery Channel could offer. It was also impossible to avoid the scent of eroticism amongst the carnage. As Bataille understood: every nook and cranny of what was once warm flesh was there to be explored, like it or not. There was lust amongst the monstrosity. Hirst’s more recent work, such as his 2000 show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings, has moved progressively away from Bacon (no pun intended) and gore, to Koons and kitsch, substituting seafood for red meat along the way. As Jeffrey Kastner points out, Hirst’s work now falls ‘somewhere between a side-show attraction and some hidden corridor of a natural history museum’, engendering what Peter Schjeldahl has described as ‘narrative dementia’ – perhaps comparable to the spongiform variety. An example would be the visually punning Love Lost (Large River Fish) and Lost Love(Bright Fish), two enormous aquariums filled with schools of tropical fish, that spend their days roaming through gynaecological apparatus. I wonder if Hirst has read Suetonius’s account of the young boys or ‘minnows’ that the Emperor Tiberius trained to nibble between his legs, while he swam at his private villa in Capri. But enough of sushi. Returning to the real meat: fellow Brit Mark Wallinger’s photo-realist paintings of thoroughbred horses, or to be exact, parts of thoroughbreds, turn from the bovine to the equestrian, one English obsession to another. Wallinger like Hirst seemed to recognise the significance of ‘the cut’ in the nineties psyche – the finger-tip mouse click of cut&paste taken to a logical extreme. In Wallinger’s series of life-size horse-portraits, the front half of one stallion would be wed with the hind quarters of another, both born from the same mare, as a pair of abutted canvases. Curiously reminiscent of nineteenth century fabrications of mermaids, fashioned from chimpanzees and eels, Wallinger re-affirmed on one level the obsessions of a self-proclaimed nation of animal lovers: not since George Stubbs had such an accurate depiction of the relationship between the British and their animals been formulated. However, it was the cut, or moment of juncture beween one beast and another, that was the punctum of Wallinger’s canvases. While the possibilities for humour in this combination Wallinger left for works such as ‘Oh No He’s Not, Oh Yes He Is’,1995, an unusual variation on the theme of the pantomine horse, it is more immediately apparent in the paintings of John Kelly. Curiously similar to the image in Wallinger’s Half-Brother (Exit to Nowhere/Machiavellian), 1993, or in Kelly’s Man looking into the rear, 1997, is the description of the Centaur from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: ‘half-man, half-horse… joined in double breasts. Mary Renault, classicist and popular author, imaginatively conjectures that the notion of the Centaur may have been derived from a Greek tribe of expert horse-riders. Perhaps the first people on earth to tame wild horses, this barely civilised race were little different from the beasts they rode. She imagines them as squat and hairy, clinging onto their mounts with legs and toes, such that, through a layer of dirt and near-fur, they seemed continuous with the horse. It is not impossible to imagine that this may well have been the case. However, this feral, symbiotic relationship is very different from the shaven chested, well spoken centaur of Harry Potter fame; and equally difficult to imagine as the ravager of brides portrayed by Ovid. Heather B. Swann gets closer to the truth about what these ancient hybrids may have actually been like, ‘rugged creatures… conceived in clouds, they say’. Herd, a stampede of her four-legged sculptures currently on view in the National Sculpture Prize at the National Gallery of Australia, is an exquisitely sensuous meditation on what Swann describes as ‘night creatures’. Her combination of highly-worked black saddle leather with delicate tapered legs, that could equally belong to a new-born foal or some catwalk model, falls somewhere between the matador and the ballerina. Her work also returns us to imagining the erotic disguise that Daedalus created for Pasiphae, in order to allow the ‘discordem’ that engendered the Minotaur to take place. In Swann’s words: ‘the dark beast has no shape until it appears’. Both Centaur and Minotaur are perhaps amongst the earliest attempts to describe the shape of that beast. Still in the realm of popular mythologies: the up-coming Spiderman movie from Columbia Pictures is in many ways simply the latest manifestation of the Minotaur phenomenon. With intermediary incarnations such as Yogi bear and Mickey Mouse, Spiderman reminds us of the diminishing gap between science fact and science fiction in the popular imagination, synchronous with the ever more real splicing of the animal and the human. However, gone are the cute and cuddly talking mammals. The genre of comic-book character driven films has itself evolved in tandem with these new technologies – from the fresh-faced, boy-next-door Superman, to the nocturnal, half masked Batman, and now the faceless, erratic creepy-crawly that is Spiderman. There has been a subtle down-grading of the degree of ‘likeness’ necessary for the audience to empathise with the creations of cinema: anthropomorphism in reverse. This new taste for insect life is a clear change in direction; but it is perhaps symptomatic of the age of the web, that Kafka’s Samsa is now seen as a super-hero. A recent installation work by Sally Rees at LSSp in Hobart, A Loft, brought my attention to how people could be reacting to this new, insidious position in their own homes. Any animal lover can appreciate the depth of feeling that feathers and birdsong can produce – especially when the animal has learned to imitate its owner. Imitation is, they say, the greatest flattery: a budgie knows that saying hello will bring bird seed. But what happens to you, when the budgie speaks, day after day, with your voice? In the infinite mental space of the private home, both Spiderman and the Minotaur already exist. Even before BSE made manifest the ability of one species to monstrously and seemingly impossibly interface with another, the boundary between the beloved pet on one side of the bars and the equally loved foster-parent on the other was permeable. If Lacan identifies the so-called Mirror-phase as the moment when language creates identity and the Other, what happens when language causes the Other to become you; when the object of adoration achieves synthesis, simultaneity with oneself - and yet when that Other isn’t human? You wouldn’t Adam and Eve it.

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