In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.” She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”
Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.
But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.
This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.
For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.
We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings. Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.
The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.
Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?
Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.
Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years. In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.
Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.
But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance. Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.