Jim Carter

Gary Snyder has warned that if we fail to move into reciprocity with nature, it will revolt against us [and] submit non-negotiable demands about our stay on the earth. In the ancient world, portents of retribution came in the form of a prodigium, the incarnation of which as a strange incident suggested calamity if divine wrath was not assuaged through propitiation. Principal among my aims is to make work that functions as such expiatory acts in response to manifestations of humanity’s interference with nature. Maquettes such as Reliquary and Gabriel allude to wounds and agonies to be transfigured; they challenge the usual interpretation of sculpture as passive, revealing themselves as active artefacts with an apotropaic function: objects designed to defend against the defilement of habitat and which embody histories of animal affliction. Founded on an intimate engagement with the world, I think of them as dynamic events through which I negotiate my moral terrain.

Lindo and Ule suggest the idea of a shared life force and thresholds where human and animal converge. An amalgam of clay and organic materials, in both works a human mortal is interwoven with avian form, affirming Boria Sax's observation that ‘we merge with animals through magic, metaphor, or fantasy, growing their fangs and putting on their feathers.’ Such incongruous mixing of species in my art signifies equivalence, since each part of the hybrid strives for consonance with the other. Designed to stimulate ideas of mutuality, they exist in the fluid world of my imagination so that I can explore their meaning as metaphors for human-animal interdependence. In this respect, they are similar to primitive figurines which, according to Jill Cook, are ‘caught between two natures that exist simultaneously in one body capable of offering a unique perspective on relationships between the human and animal.’

Douglass Bailey writes that primitive objects that were petitioned and consulted, with power to ensure environmental harmony, makes them unsettling, causing the modern onlooker to respond irrationally. Lindo is a homunculus, measuring little more than 4cm in length, but its size suggests a function similar to primitive figurines whose miniature form makes them difficult to ignore whilst affording them qualities that evade complete comprehension; they are, as Cook observes, part of the psychological process of making the world intelligible and easier to control.

Among my motifs of suffering, perhaps the most overt are the encumbered bovines that through fragmentation and burning suggest the disappearing animal, in particular the victims of foot and mouth disease that afflicted the United Kingdom in 2001. In a succinct case study, Arran Stibbe draws attention to cognitive structures that became predominant during this crisis, whereby jingoist metaphors contributed to the slaughter of healthy animals. With the animal’s perspective absent from media reports, and attention given to human griefs perpetuated by the disease, contrary voices went almost unheard. An image of burning cattle was chosen by Will Self as his “photograph of the decade”. As Self points out with characteristic sobriety:

I still find this image the most telling, for such is our divorce from the great balance of the living world that we can look upon this immolation coolly, while when we see humans burn we flinch and turn away. Besides, the burning cows are our fatted calves and our golden calf, they are objects of wanton sacrifice and spurious worship, they are nature robbed of sentience and commodified, and as such they are synonymous with all our self-murdering, all our Promethean hubris, and all our Neronic fiddling about.

Self’s indictment of industrialised processes is akin to the strength of feeling with which I instil my work: a passion and a fury borne from injustice and a sense of our increasing alienation from other forms of life - an artistic remonstration without fanfare. The Prodigal Son, an artwork by Damien Hirst of a calf suspended in formaldehyde, and his 2005 God Knows Why, an eviscerated and crucified sheep, have been criticized as being part of a culture of spectacle that encourages artists to believe that chutzpah and controversy matter more than humility and an ethical grounding. As an artist dealing with notions of animal sanctity versus subjugation, I remain ambivalent. For it seems to me that Hirst has transformed these animals from the mundane into something singular and extraordinary: they have an oscillating quality of sanctity and disgrace, and possess a purgatory of form that admittedly denies them the right of dissolution but which illuminates their martyrdom on behalf of the griefs of their species.

Similarly, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Lost I and Behind Sadness are bodies in limbo. In both works horse skin has been sewn together to make an unsettling object not dissimilar to a carcass. The idea of limbo stems from the way in which they have been afflicted and yet also purified through the creative process. The artist, responding to Alastair Sooke’s criticism that her works are ‘abortive equine lumps […] for an age of genetic engineering’, insists she is representing a collective vulnerability: wounds are for her potent signs of change and gateways into new life. Liggende I, a mass of antlers, cloth and wax, never strays towards indecency but exemplifies an Ovidian metamorphosis in her work that is an avowal on the fragility of existence. Approximating to pallid, amorphous flesh confusingly transferred between species, it is an example of the genesis of my restricted palette. White being dominant, its attraction comes from a complex symbolic system: it is the colour of fresh milk, suggesting newness and innocence, but is also indicates mourning and surrender because it is the colour of the sacrificial lamb and the anaemic body of consumerism.

If, as Gay Bradshaw suggests, man is no longer involved in nature, having lost the profound emotional energy of his symbolic connection, perhaps controversial artworks succeed in highlighting the fact that human domination of animals causes suffering for both. Writing of the marginalisation of animals in industrial societies, John Berger observes that their reduction ‘is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.’ For Berger, modern humanity, inheriting a Levitican categorisation that privileges human purity over animal ambiguity, has deprived itself and the animal of total presence. Berger goes on to state with unnerving pessimism that ‘in the last two centuries animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them.’

This amounts to my own position, but I argue that an understanding of sacrifice in its physical manifestation can contribute to the creation of an aesthetic in art that can in turn operate as a powerful metaphor for understanding our relation to other forms of life. René Girard proposes a concept he calls the “sacrificial crisis” which states that rituals are weakened and equilibrium threatened when the animal loses its mimetic relation with man. Girard’s supposition is perhaps analogous to the manner in which modernity’s relation to animals has degenerated: without a reverential and ritualistic connection, our conception of animals has dwindled until all that remains of them are words, signs and all the repercussions this state of affairs has for the natural world.