There has been a significant increase in the visibility of horses in recent art. This is in spite of the fact that horse power was replaced by horsepower over a century ago, and the presence of horses in daily life has been limited to the arenas of leisure or sport for the few. The phantasmagorical return of what is extinct or absent from our lives was something John Berger warned about in his essay from 1977 “Why Look at Animals?”: “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.”
This revisioning of animals as pure spectacle in inverse proportion to their marginalisation from our everyday lives is one symptom of this “uneasy anthropomorphism” that theorists like Jacques Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am have attempted to overcome. Famously he wondered: “who is it that responds” in the name of “animal”? So too, Donna Haraway in her 1984 Cyborg Manifesto messes around with notional boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, as do more recent cultural theorists such as Cary Wolfe and Anat Pick who have striven to articulate a posthuman “creaturely” way of thinking as part of a broader pitch to becoming animal in terms of bodily affect, philosophical reasoning and the sheer quantification of our losses in renegotiating the relationship with our animals others.
Horses stand apart from other companion animals in terms of their size, strength and speed. But when things go well between us, we bridge the divide between animal–human and nature–culture in a way that is revelatory. Before Darwin, the horse was considered our closest relative in the animal kingdom and down through the centuries the horse has symbolised power, the sacred, and contact with higher worlds. But we cannot rely on horses not to overpower or hurt us; we can never know when they will revert to nature, which is also part of their desirability. Paradoxically, the company of horses also shows us most deeply what it is to be human in ways that can soothe and heal.
In what has come to be termed the “animal” century, the current repopulation of art with horses cannot simply be explained away as nostalgia, but rather as a set of considered responses by artists to new forms of renegotiating subject positions with one of human history’s most ubiquitous animal others. Major horse-based works of art by Jenny Watson, Art Orienté Objet and Berlinde De Bruyckere notably shift beyond the deployment of symbolism and allegory (the visual rhetoric typical of the “animaliers” of the nineteenth century such as Rosa Bonheur and Edwin Landseer) and the limitations of the “romantic and representational lens,” as discussed by Susan Ballard, to instead actuate ideas of a more entrenched empathy at both an imaginative and cellular level, expanding on the ethical dimensions of this new horse era.
In an analysis of these practices, I take the more specific analytical framework for this essay from the reference to “becoming-animal” and more specifically “becoming-horse,” as discussed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari taking up Freud’s famous case study of the agoraphobic five-year-old, “Little Hans.” Hans had become obsessed with horses after seeing one fall down in the streets of Vienna. Freud put his symptoms down to castration anxiety, caused by the boy’s observation of the horse’s trés grandes fait-pipis. Deleuze and Guattari counter this by arguing that Freud “fitted the theory to the patient” rather than allowing for the possibility that Hans experienced a “becoming,” that is, his self‑consciousness disappeared, borders dissolved and this identification led to him “becoming horse.”
One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most clear-sighted interlocutors, Ian Buchanan, suggests that becoming-horse is a significant concept because it moves the “domain of analysis from representation to affect.” Buchanan writes, “The horse no longer stands for something other than itself … it is now the aggregated sign of a particular kind of ‘feeling’.” And that feeling isn’t “defined by ‘horsiness’ or the sense that one is somehow horse-like; rather, it is defined by those specific affects that in a particular assemblage are associated with horses, such as having one’s eyes blocked, being restrained with bit and bridle, the sense of pride one is nevertheless able to maintain in spite of such restraints, and so on.”
Becoming-horse, in Buchanan’s understanding, is a sense of absorption in the attributes of a horse’s working life, not the fact of its existence. Australian painter Jenny Watson has embraced the motif of the companion horse with radical self-reflection and absorption since the beginning of her career in the 1970s. She herself has noted, “When I first started doing the horses I thought that was simply about horses, the nature of horses, and my horse in particular. But now … I realise the horse was in fact a kind of self-portrait.” In both White Horse With Telescope (2012), and He’ll Be My Mirror (2013), recently exhibited in Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne), we see the preliminary stages of this evocation of affect catalysed by specific assemblages associated with horses; in the former, their height, in the latter, their shiny reflective coats, used here as a literal “mirror”.
Yet the figure of the horse in Watson’s work seems like one among many in her method of “confessional symbolism,” informed by her repertoire of resistant “girlie” sub-cultures, as recently discussed by Wes Hill in reflection on the recurring references to ballerinas, ponies and Alice in Wonderland imagery as stand-in for the self. This girliness within the girl-horse trope appears notably in the Paintings with Veils and False Tails series exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1993 in which Watson painted over taffeta and red velvet and then added veiling, horse false tails and sequins to the canvases. Here she takes the equine hair accessories of horse‑showing (false tails, tail weights, horse makeup, sequins and sparkle dust) to conjure something more exotic and strange, shifted as they are from the surface of the horse’s body to the surface of the canvas. By incorporating equine beauty products into her work Watson initiates us into this closed world of “show prep” that might appear fetishistic or at the very least bizarre to outsiders. And it is this conflation of the narcissistic woman prettifying her pony that takes the work into the territory of horse–girl transference drawn on in the formula of pony books, where the ordinary girl and her ordinary pony transform themselves together into becoming beautiful prize-winners.
The history of the girl–pony story, has been deftly critiqued by Alison Haymans, who described it as owing much to both traditional fairy tales, focusing as they do on the transformation of gauche girls with neglected ponies and to the formula love story: girl meets pony, girl loses pony, girl gets pony. Horses in Watson’s work clearly draw on this trope—witness the “handsome horse” of He’ll Be My Mirror with his large and seductive black eyes providing both a mirror, a moral education and a “best friend” for the “pony girl” as part of the passage or journey to adulthood. This sentimental education privileges a layered narrative of becoming, with the figure of the horse slipping between “being-itself” and being an emotional and idealised projection.
May the Horse Live in Me, the 2011 performance work of Art Orienté Objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin) takes this evolutionary notion of becoming to a more radical kinaesthetic and molecular level in an extreme form of medical self-experimentation that privileges an actual “transfection of potent DNA,” carrying with it the risk of “annihilation and death.” Awarded the Golden Nica at the Ars Electronica Festival in 2011, this complex multi-phase work enfolds together an array of topical concerns in bio and hybrid art into an intensive series of performative acts, documented in video and a series of (highly) photogenic still portraits.
May the Horse Live in Me “hybridizes” fields and disciplines such as immunology and ethology, body art and classical mythology, biomedical self-experimentation and contemporary technoculture, as well as human and animal bodies. The work is constituted by three phases that mark the process of becoming-horse. In the months prior to its first performance on 22 February 2011 at Galerija Kapelica in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Laval-Jeantet received a series of horse blood plasma injections that included different kinds of equine immunoglobins in small amounts in order to give her body a chance to develop a progressive tolerance, thus avoiding anaphylactic shock during the actual performance at which she would be injected with the full spectrum of “horse blood.” These immunoglobins gradually bonded with those of her own system, accentuating her body’s response to foreign proteins. This process parallels the latest research in using animal immunoglobins as “therapeutic boosters” for human systems, and in this way “the animal becomes the future of the human.”
The next stage involved Laval-Jeantet spending ten days “getting to know” the blood donor horse “Viny” (although we have no proof they were the same as the horse in the performance, as one was in France and the other, in Slovenia). The importance of this phase becomes obvious in the video when before a live audience she and the horse performed by just touching bodies gently, and walking around the gallery together. The horse, an older Slovenian warmblood gelding, was calm and relaxed and clearly comfortable with the environment. This stage was further complicated by the fact that Laval-Jeantet had an assistant strap her into a set of leg extending stilts that were engineered to mimic the suspensory spring-and-lever structure of a horse’s hind leg.
These were high enough to bring her up to the “horse’s eye view” and line of vision, and to duplicate the swinging motion of a horse at walk. The strap-on horse-leg stilts tend to be an overlooked part of the performance (as they’re mechanical, rather than biomechanical) but they reference Deleuze and Guattari’s theory that imitation can be the first stage of “becoming-horse.” They say “what was intended as an imitation turns into a becoming: ‘we can be thrown into a becoming by anything at all … a little detail that starts to swell and carries you off’.” The use of the stilts of course also evokes the centaur myth, which is drawn up heavily by scholars in equine anthropology such as Anne Game, suggesting just how far back our desires to become-horse go.
After Laval-Jeantet and the gelding had concluded their promenade around the gallery, their respective (by now) hybrid “centaur” bloods were extracted and freeze-dried together in a “gold vial.” Through this refusal to submit to conventional laboratory protocols (an art space isn’t sterile) Art Orienté Objet play with the spectacle of bio art rather than its use of standard and stringent laboratory protocols. But within that parodic framework, and amongst their forest of unverifiable claims, there is no doubt that what happened in that performance was an intentional, imitative, and technical exchange at the cellular level of “becoming-horse.” In her commentary on the three-phase process, Laval-Jeantet claims to have experienced “alterations” to the point where she did indeed “become” horse: “I was sleeping for one hour, then I was awake the next, exactly like a horse, in the way they sleep in short bursts. I was feeling very strong, very powerful, I was eating a lot, and at the same time, when someone touched me, I was afraid of everything.”
Art Orienté Objet’s exploration of our hybridity with other animals has already been exploited in science by the process of transfection (i.e. the insertion of genetic material, such as DNA and double-stranded RNA, into mammalian cells). Yet their casual attitude to the fear of contamination echoes Donna Haraway’s account in The Companion Species Manifesto of love as a trigger for sharing genetic material—an idea that occurred to Haraway while kissing her Australian kelpie Cayenne, in response to which she wrote, “I bet if you checked our DNA, you’d find some potent transfections between us.”
Here the horse is certainly instrumentalised, but he is also known, caressed, given food rewards, and his needs for a calm environment and a familiar handler met. Sadly, in another real laboratory/stable somewhere in the world this gelding’s pregnant sisters are being milked of their urine to produce Premarin, used in hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women and transsexuals undergoing re-assignment therapies. The undeniable fact that “the animal is the future of the human” realised through these therapeutic wet forms of biology, is yet one more example of rapidly developing techno-ecologies adopted by the “hum-animals” for self-betterment.
In a remarkable body of work that also functions to memorialise the sacrifice of animals, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All flesh (2012) controversially incorporates real body parts. Here, we encounter the flayed, dismembered and hung bodies of two horses conjoined monstrously via a massive central wound through which one body is sealed upon another, giving the appearance of “slithering” together in an erotic union. They have no heads to think with, nor eyes to see; they are (merely) meat that once lived, bearing shocking witness to the extreme experiences that run through the history of all living things.
De Bruyckere’s work has been described by Angela Mengoni as operating on the principle of a kind of “de-figuralised” memory, with associations to death, terror, displacement and human cruelty, but with particular reference to World War I. De Bruyckere started using horses in her work ten years ago when she was given an artist-in-residence commission by the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. She based the work, an installation of five large horse bodies, on images from the Museum’s archive of documentary photographs from Belgium during WWI showing empty streets littered with the bodies of dead horses, hanging from fences or frozen in the mud in their death throes.
The bringing together of the body of the horse, the Belgian Front of WWI, and suffering as a form of sacrifice takes us into the terrain of the culpable character of Joey from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse, adapted for stage and screen (most notably in the 2011 film version by Steven Spielberg). This work by De Bruyckere also recalls the “visceral gothic” of Flemish Trecento art and in particular the iconography of the Christus patiens (the suffering Christ). In Christus patiens, unlike Christus triumphans or dolens Jesus hangs dead, head lolling, eyes closed; his slumped body, hanging off the nails of the Cross, indicates that the agony is over.
Crucifixion imagery is itself “hung” on large panels, suspended from the ceiling of the church or altar. This Roman Catholic preoccupation with suffering flesh as a display threads back through art from the Flemish Trecento to Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox (1655), Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef (1925) and Eli Lotar’s photographs of calves’ legs in the laneway, Slaughterhouse (1930), referred to by Georges Bataille in his exploration of transgressive sexuality. Here there is a further link to the work of Art Orienté Objet through the suggestion of the consubstantiality between the flesh of the horses and that of the Son of God, with the horse as stand in for the body of Christ. We humans are no longer to be conceived as the summit of creation, as it states in the Christian Catechism, linking the proposition of the transubstantiation of the Host during Mass, with the “potent transfections of DNA” achieved in these two bodies of work.
De Bruyckere’s horse installations have been described as truly Deleuzian “bodies without organs.” As anamorphs or mutants, yet on a more heroic scale, they also entertain the possibility of inter‑species bodies. De Bruyckere has spoken candidly about her relationship with the Bruges University Veterinary Clinic, who contact her when they have a deceased equine patient. De Bruyckere chooses the bodies with care and consideration. She doesn’t take every horse carcass she is offered; she must, in her own words, “fall in love with” a particular body, find it beautiful or moving, as the deathly inversion of Watson’s girl-pony desire symptomatic of an earlier stage and threshold of life.
This perception links back to the concept of “becoming horse” as “certain bodies in lines of becoming,” as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari. Here, we might argue that De Bruyckere’s very construction process mimics or simulates this Deleuzian inter‑corporeality between human and horse as consisting rhizome‑style, of surfaces connecting skin to skin, assembling a rich visual and literary culture of interlocking “gears” with no aim other than their own proliferation. As Rosi Braidotti has said, our current crisis as humans has “opened an ontological gap through which other species came galloping.”
The implications for knowledge of these engagements with the horse in contemporary art are profound new directions that trouble human-centric orderings. This creaturely thinking about horses on the part of artists demonstrates in more ways than one that Haraway was right when she wrote, “a becoming is always a becoming with,” reflecting our longing for intimacy across the species divide in these times of ethical crisis. It is, as Marion Laval‑Jeantet portentously writes “through artistic action that the alterity of the animal comes into itself as the figure that human consciousness needs to visualize the future.”
- ^ John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?,” in About Looking, London: Bloomsbury London, 1980, pp. 1–26.
- ^ Susan Ballard, “Stretching Out: Species Extinction and. Planetary Aesthetics in Contemporary Art,” Australia and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 17, no. 1, 2017.
- ^ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, The Athlone Press, London 1988, p. 259.
- ^ Ian Buchanan, “The Little Hans Assemblage,” Visual Arts Research, vol. 39, no. 1, issue 76, Summer 2013, pp. 9–17.
- ^ Correspondence between Jenny Watson and Ashley Crawford in “Jenny Watson,” Art & Australia, vol. 28, no.3, Autumn 1991, p. 345.
- ^ Wes Hill, “Jenny Watson’s right to look,” Artlink 37:4, December 2017, pp. 30–35: www.artlink.com.au/articles/4640/jenny-watsons-right-to-look/.
- ^ Oron Catts, Bronac Ferran, Jens Hauser, Dietmar Offenhuber and Daria Parkhomenko, in “Unknown Aesthetic Objects” in CyberArts 2011 International Compendium, Prix Ars Electronica and Hatje Cantz, 2011 pp. 106–07.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Deleuze and Guattari op. cit., p. 292.
- ^ Thanks to Flore Sivell for her translation of the Casino Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain video interview with Marion Laval-Jeantet at the Casino Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 15 May 2011: http://www.casino-luxembourg.lu/en/Casino-Channel/Art-Oriente-objet.
- ^ Donna J. Haraway, “Emergent Naturecultures” in The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, p. 2.
- ^ Juliana Engberg, commissioning curator, Berlinde De Bruyckere, We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2012: https://acca.melbourne/exhibition/berlinde-de-bruyckere-we-are-all-flesh/.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Berlinde De Bruyckere interviewed by Michael Cathcart, Books & Arts, 19 June 2012: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/poetic-or-provocative3a-we-are-all-flesh/4076888.
- ^ Deleuze and Guattari, op. cit., p.21.
- ^ Rosi Braidotti (2013), quoted in Carlo Salzani, “From Post-Human to Post-Animal: Posthumanism and the Animal Turn,” Lo Sguardo—Rivista di Filosofia, no. 24, 2017, (II) p. 98.
- ^ Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 244.
- ^ Marion Lavel‑Jeantet quoted in Leon J. Hilton “The Horse in My Flesh: Transpecies Performance and Affective Athleticism,” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Duke University Press, vol. 19, no. 4, 2013, p. 488.
Georgina Downey is an art historian and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. She is a dressage rider (with Classic, a bay warmblood gelding) and a columnist on art for Horses & People magazine.
Card image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, We Are All Flesh, 2011-12, epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel. Purchased through the Art Gallery of South Australia's Contemporary Collectors Director's Project, 2012, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. © Berlinde de Bruyckere, image commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Andrew Curtis