Every society emerges in its own eyes by giving the narrative its violence
There is, in Old English, the noun ongang, meaning an incursion or assault and, strangely, to worship, with the second root gang referring to a setting in motion of a journey. Although the word itself goes unspoken and unrecognised, in its composite meaning I find a clear description of my experience of the creative process, with the object and the fable here its analogues.
I have often thought that my work seeks answers to problems in animal life but that it is not an exclusive undertaking by which humankind is neglected. The point, I think, is that we are implicated and share in animal suffering, but the violent act, be it random or otherwise, is influential in that it liberates the presiding spirit. If we encounter in this guise a roving force and subsume the remains into our work, then all further assaults will awaken for the animal a surrogate fate.
For all the turbulence and distress, I think of the work as ceremonial: we invite communion, serving, perhaps unconsciously, as an advocate for the collective concerns of a species. Though it could be protested that we rob the animal of its completion in nature, I think of it only as a postponement during which we reflect on the struggles of an individual voice against the powers of law and persecution.
Of course, this dismemberment and reconfiguration of a reality is a necessary initiation for the shaman, but of the nature of roles in this dialogue I remain ambivalent. The work of art becomes, after a fashion, a ritual object that is animated through its organic properties and violent, material implementation. My view has been that the animal, as it lives on in the object, assists with a movement of sorts between worlds. It arbitrates an alliance of the dead and the living, the animal and the man. Though the artist strives to break down assumptions about how animals are understood, the rare and intimate dynamic is a volatile one. The object, as the wordless expression of fundamental aspects of a symbiotic relationship, becomes a power figure, though with a limited and transitory function.
It was in early February that I came across the corpse of the fox. It had been scattered across a patch of scrub beside a lane into the moor, and though I thought quite naturally to collect the skin and bones, I was anxious, thinking that such an act would be a desecration. One mostly feels justified in this regard, because the animal body is a treasure, and ultimately one’s purpose is selfless, thinking to advocate the rights of the victimised and misunderstood. If they have met a violent, gratuitous end, then what can I do but immortalise them through my work, rewriting, as it were, their lives with the sacrament in which I believe they live, but with a contrary fortune.
It felt, however, an impiety to disturb the bones, for the fox had died to a natural excarnation: a sky burial whereby, according to custom, it gave of its flesh in generosity to be scavenged or taken by the elements. For there remains a quality of ownership in our dealings with animal life, so that even with good intention, and forgiving personal preoccupations, my actions were no different in kind. I found the jewel of the head, and my compulsion was like that of the thief who strays unwitting into the sacred grove and cannot resist the lustre of miraculous things. Found under ivy and winter branches, partly preserved, the head was to me a magical object, possessed of all the power of the dead and their concomitant knowledge. Perhaps, I thought, the fox might speak from other worlds of the attitudes of the wild, pointing the way to its regeneration. This, I reasoned, was justification for at least temporary ownership, even if an audience with its active principle in the world was a dangerous venture and, to a point, forbidden.
What is clear is that something manifests from the other at times of crisis. The animal comes with illness, and we thus tend to apportion it a beneficent function, as though its world was from the beginning allotted to human duty. I think, however, that our vulnerable and extreme condition brings opportunity for the animal in an otherwise insensible world. It wants to communicate the facts of a mutual affliction, and perhaps also its remedy or further omen. There are paths everlasting through the maze of the wild unknown. It’s tenant is the poet, outsider and vagrant, of whose rare and hermetic nature the fox is, to me, a totem and natural embodiment. His is a kingdom in exile, of limits out of sight of the unjust and unsympathetic. The reductive attitude towards him and those on the margins of life put me in mind of the pharmakos of Ancient Greek religion. That there could be a living human symbol for the ills of society, ostracized or serving as an expiatory sacrifice, was no less applicable to animal life; and yet its links to the notion of the pharmakon, a drug with either healing or destructive qualities, recalled the hex of subtle creatures, and the fox a trickster counted among kings.