Surreal conjunctions in sartorial contexts: A testing ground for human-animal relations

Mella Jaarsma, Dog Walk, 2015-16, cow, goat, sheep leather, stuffed feet, twelve costumes, created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Mie Cornoedus. Courtesy and © the artist.
Mella Jaarsma, Dog Walk, 2015–16, cow, goat, sheep leather, stuffed feet, twelve costumes, created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Mie Cornoedus. Courtesy and © the artist.

Mella Jaarsma’s Dogwalk engages tropes of contemporary haute couture to speculate on the broader ethics of our engagement with animals. The catwalks of fashion might seem a far remove from animal welfare and more philosophical discussions around our being with animals, yet there has long been a rich tradition combining animals and couture. The history of painting contains numerous examples of fashionable aristocrats showing off their animals in Arcadian settings for picnics or walks. Sartorial display affirmed wealth and class. The inclusion of treasured pets in family portraits indicated a moral generosity that extended towards fellow creatures and could be read as a form of propaganda consolidating the wealthy patron within a broader world of affective ties. In a Europe in which political and social power was largely based on rural wealth, the embrace of the animal within these paintings signified the broader moral responsibility of the master to the living beings within his domain of care. 

When twentieth century haute couture emerged in Europe’s industrialised cities, the animal temporarily faded from view. In their ateliers, now fledgling houses of fashion, in‑house models paraded collections to a wealthy clientele. Farming and rural connections deferred to industry relations with the fashion journals and newly arrived public relations companies. When the animal reappeared in the magazine glossies as a cute or lovable pet cuddled in the arms of a model or celebrity, the shot was staged to forge affective bonds. Cashing in on the warm and tactile feelings associated with animals became a staple of the burgeoning corporate industry encompassed under the moniker of fashion—and when not put to sentimental use, legions of stylists converted the animal to a fashion accessory.

In the twenty‑first century Mella Jaarsma reprises haute couture to restore the deeper lines of historical human–animal affinity. Staged for the Biennale of Sydney in 2016, where it is discussed in the literature as a subversion of the catwalk, Dogwalk muddies the conventions of haute couture with the promenade, and extends the idea of walking the dog to include bigger, messier domestic animals that belong on the farm, such as sheep, goats and cows. This restoration recalls the animal intimacies of the Surrealists. Like Elsa Schiaparelli, with her various lobster‑assemblages, and Méret Oppenheim’s provocative fur teacup, Object (1936), suggestive of sipping through bristles, Jaarsma’s engagement with fashion goes beyond the look to carry the whiff of the animal into the world of haute couture.

Like Dali’s walks with his anteater, Dogwalk is strange enough. Couture references also dominate. This is no ordinary stroll with a pet. The walkers are evidently models assuming catwalk poses, and the garments within this assemblage scream references to Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela and other high fashion deconstructionists. But the most eye‑catching aspect of Dogwalk, leaping out from the relative monotones of the clothes, is the bright red colour of the leashes and harnesses interconnecting both the dogs and the humans (in the installation and performance versions of the work). 

Mella Jaarsma, Dog Walk, 2015-16, cow, goat, sheep leather, stuffed feet, twelve costumes, created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Mie Cornoedus. Courtesy and © the artist.
Mella Jaarsma, Dog Walk, 2015–16, cow, goat, sheep leather, stuffed feet, twelve costumes, created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Mie Cornoedus. Courtesy and © the artist.

Both the human and animal walkers are unmistakably “under harness,” effectively walking each other. Worn over clothes the human harnesses carry no suggestion of sexual diversion, but soberly combine with various pinafores and tunics aligning the farrier’s apron with contemporary Japanese and Belgian influences in haute couture. The overall effect is to establish a plane of non‑hierarchy on which animals and humans stroll as equal partners. Rather than signifying human dominance, the interconnecting leashes and harnesses serve to visualise roles of co‑dependence. Additionally, the harnesses on the humans are suggestive of an inherent programmability that assures human compliance to the animals’ needs, and reflects human obligations of care.

Sartorially, the motif of the “harnessed human” also consolidates deeper links in the history of animal–human relations. In European folk tradition, embossed leather bib and braces were a form of human harness that held up the Lederhosen of Swiss and German herders. This reference, in combination with the skin and fleece aprons of Dogwalk, recalls the Heidi days of European folklore when farmers walked the mountain tops in the company of their animals. As such, Jaarsma’s human harnesses also affirm the kinship of her contemporary animal walkers with past generations of herder–carers. 

But the hoofs of Dogwalk are a different matter. For some gallery goers, the garments incorporate rather too much of the animals; in particular, the skin of their lower limbs still attached to the hooves. Suddenly, casting your eye over what appears to be regular and somewhat sober couture shapes, you notice the abject details of dismembered body parts: the animal feet (some small, some large, some of goat, cow or sheep). One outfit seems to incorporate a whole leg from a piebald cow. In this regard, Dogwalk connects direct to the abattoir. 

An earlier installation, The Senses Cheat You (2012), set the precedent for this “hoofs and all” couture. That said, the overall sobriety of the Dogwalk, with its classic shapes and restrained tones, holds the work within the precinct of haute couture. In many respects, the unsewn hides and numerous dismembered hooves remind that fashion is nonetheless predicated on a certain outrageousness, a coded improper through which fashion reinvents itself. In the 1990s Belgian designer Martin Margiela raided the concepts of French philosophy’s deconstruction with a collection of garments that (to paraphrase Derrida) affirm “the inside is the outside.” He called it semi‑couture. Leaving some garments intact in classical perfection, other components of his collection appeared inside out, exhibiting frayed seams and provisional tacking. He took tiny offcuts and rudely sewed them together. He made “unfinish” his finish.

Likewise, Jaarsma embraces the improper of “unfinish.” The hoofs attached to their ragged hides defy the high‑quality finishes expected of haute couture, and also index their slaughterhouse origin. But in respect of the double‑handed game in operation at the core of fashion epistemology, she demonstrates her knowledge of the codes through which fashion is regulated and renewed, furthermore inventing her own. In respect of her own practice, she determines a new rule: a refusal of the denaturing of the animal that rejects the inclusion of hoof. 

Mella Jaarsma, The Senses Cheat You (detail), 2012, cow leather, stuffed cow feet, five costumes. Courtesy and © the artist.
Mella Jaarsma, The Senses Cheat You (detail), 2012, cow leather, stuffed cow feet, five costumes. Courtesy and © the artist.

Jaarsma’s own deconstructive coup is about more than the staging. Her inclusion of the hoof refuses censorship of the animal’s death in a complex gesture that effectively resurrects the animal inside the embrace of being‑with, a Levinasian manner of ontological companionship that subverts classical subjectivities of being‑for‑self. The “hoofs and all” aspect of her couture foregrounds and subverts the repressive Christian hierarchy of civilisation over nature, and enshrined human domination over the animals. Her animal hoofs, rather than being a simple accusation of animal slaughter, resurrect earlier totemic modes of belief, acknowledging and paying respect to the animals sacrificed for our wellbeing. Further, her deployment of the catwalk and its cognate, the promenade, embraces walking‑with as a mode of being‑with that consolidates the human partnership with animals. 

An earlier work, Animals Have No Religion II (2011), flirted with a very different kinship with animals, one that deployed sartorial expressions to engage ethological considerations within discourses suggestive of future animal–human becomings and the more literal human–animal mutations. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming–animal from A Thousand Plateaus was in the theoretical air, disseminating through haute couture alongside Derrida’s trope of the “in‑between” from Of Grammatology. With garments that didn’t always correspond to human anatomy, Rei Kawakubo’s collections, under the Comme des Garcons label, mischievously embodied the sartorial equivalents of these ideas.

This is not to claim for Kawakubo a general practice of becoming–animal, or becoming–other, or something in‑between to sidestep the rigorous interrogation of these speculations within her subtle and serious play. Yet, her 1997 Object/Subject collection, included in the recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, demonstrated a definable entertainment of human mutation through the use of padding in unlikely places. With understated wit, this particular collection contoured the human form with imaginary deposits of fat and musculature, with one dress featuring a bulging pudenda, flattened chest and padding on the back and shoulders that transformed the wearer into a kind of sea mammal. Collections from the 1980s included garments with additional sleeves and armholes in anticipation of auxiliary limbs. A dart displaced from chest to abdomen, on an otherwise discreet cream woolen dress (1980), was slyly suggestive of the rows of teats of non‑human mammals. Simple extensions of overlong sleeves, while referencing the traditional Japanese kimono, also raised the possibility of human and inter‑species mutation. Like the “human mammal” of Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale (2013), a blimp with multiple udders that are ambiguously animal and human, a selection of Kawakubo’s garments addressed the possibility of hybrids of humans and animals. 

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between, installation view, Object/Subject, 1997. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between, installation view, Object/Subject, 1997. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The orange caftans, with overlong trouser–sleeves, of Jaarsma’s Animals Have No Religion II, share certain correspondences with Kawakubo’s oeuvre but make no pretense to her finesse or serious alignment with haute couture. Instead, Jaarsma employs the license of sartorial experimentation with clumsier, and more ludic, parallels that deploy a cruder humour as a form of critique. The insertion of her human models into caftans that transform the human biped with two hands and feet into an awkward four‑footed creature serves to draw out behavioural limits to ethological fantasies of future human becomings. Any imagined kinship within the socius of fleet, four‑legged animals that band together to travel and forage—horses, bison, deer, and so on—is comically denied in one glance at those four vulnerable, forward‑pointing human feet. These determine an altogether different, and somewhat ridiculous, ambulatory kinship with other fleshy‑footed, multi‑legged creatures—shuffling, slow‑moving centipedes and millipedes. René Magritte’s well‑known painting of a pair of sturdy boots steadily transforming into a vulnerable and fleshy pair of human feet planted on stony ground comes to mind, as do supplementary memories of an old animated cartoon of a centipede marching in fifty pairs of army boots over rough terrain. 

Jaarsma’s modes of engaging with human–animal relationships are diverse, ranging from the husbandry of a restorative ethics in Dogwalk to the ethological considerations of Animals Have No Religion II. Common to her practice is the employment of sartorial means to address these issues through the living body shared by animals and humans alike.

In contrast, Aboriginal performance artist and photographer Christian Thompson reprises Surrealism’s engagement with the animal through the ellipsis of its omission. What stands out in Thompson’s oeuvre are his many mergers with minerals, rocks, trees and flowers, and his use of the clothed human form as a substitute trunk or support. But direct totemic human–animal relationships are rare and overcoded with transcultural references like Nijinsky’s dance as a faun (The Devil Made Him Do It, from the series Remix, 2011). Another remarkable aspect is that Thompson’s face—like the animal—is largely erased. When the face does linger, it is no more than a substrate.

Christian Thompson, The Devil Made Him 	Do It, 2011, C-type print from the Native Instincts series. Courtesy and © the artist.
Christian Thompson, The Devil Made Him            Do It, 2011, C-type print from the Native Instincts series. Courtesy and © the artist.
 Christian Thompson, Black Gum 3, 2008, C-type print from the Australian Graffiti series. Courtesy and © the artist.
 
Christian Thompson, Black Gum 3, 2008, C-type print from the Australian Graffiti series. Courtesy and © the artist.

Black Gum 3 from Thompson’s series Australian Graffiti (2008) is more than a photograph of a human dressing up as a tree: it is a strange kind of hybrid reminiscent of Surrealist disjunction. The trunk consists of a body wearing a black hoodie and a tumble of gum flowers dangles from the dark interior of the hood where the face should be. There is no longer any trace of the expressive gaze, of language, or of human communication. Instead, there’s a kind of lewdness in the direct interfacing of nature into culture, signified in the metonym of the hoodie. Slavoj Žižek had an understanding of such uncomfortable conjunctions in his documentary The Perverts Guide to Cinema when he called flowers obscene.

He perceived them for what they were. Their business of oozing scent and bursting into colour had a singular intent—seduction and reproduction. He didn't buy into all the romantic nonsense of the language of flowers and their symbolism in the sentimental exchanges of human love. He saw them naked and expressive of a kind of lust, the drive through which the life forms on the planet renew. Like Žižek, Thompson cuts to the chase of the brute forces in play: the twin drives of civilisation, as a kind of force that is no longer perceived as particularly human (hence it has no need of an identifying face), and the counterforce of nature seeking its own renewal. Like the lack of need of the particular of the human there is no longer any need for the particular of the animal.

Ann Finegan is a writer, educator and former co‑director of Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival, Kandos.

Card: Mella Jaarsma, Dogwalk, 2015-16, cow, goat, sheep leather, stuffed feet, twelve costumes, created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Photo: Mie Cornoedus. Courtesy and © the artist

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