Daniel is an artist in residence at the VCA, who spoke to us about his work recently for our Centre for Ideas class. He had lots of interesting things to show, in particular I loved the photographs of a cat he had taken while hiking with friends (which are available on the artist’s website, along with documentation of his other work).
“On December 31 I walked with three friends up a hill in Tuhringen, near Ilmenau. We found a dead cat lying on its back. Her position seemed as if death caught her by surprise in a moment of joy and play. In the night, we lightened firecrackers. It started snowing. Next day, January 1, we decided to walk up the hill again.”
I found these pictures to be very moving, if somewhat confronting. I showed these photos to M, who found them to be offensive in an exploitative Damien Hirst-esque way, which I understand. It’s a strange thing for an artist to encounter something sad and beautiful, a small observation in the context of the wider world, but the momentous and final events in the existence of this particular cat, and then exhibit this in a way that doesn’t necessarily show full respect to this being. But how do we show this respect, and why? The cat is dead, after all.
To me, anthropomorphising the appropriate way to mark the death of an animal (wild, or perhaps feral, abandoned, or simply and sadly lost) seems odd also. I wonder if bringing the domesticated cat into our human society as pets affects the ethical dimensions of how we treat these creatures in death. For me this work asks all of these questions, without taking a sledge-hammer to moral codes (which themselves are often hypocritical given the common brutality of the way animals are treated by humans industrially and environmentally), as other more confronting works regarding animals and death may have.
What do I find so affecting about these images? Firstly it is the playful pose the poor cat (surely small enough to still be a kitten) assumes in death. One wonders how and why it has met its untimely end. The second picture shows the same frame, but almost magically filled with snow, which is somehow already amazing, to see this volume of whiteness occupy the space around the cat. The cat buried in snow is a ghostly image, and a very soft and gentle image of death, and imminent decay. A helpless furry kitten paws gently at the surface of a soft blanket of snow, its last gesture towards life. It is also a gentle presentation of the cat’s dire situation, I am not overwhelmed by the deliberate pathos of the image, but can appreciate its tragedy without feeling overly manipulated.
The other main object of interest to me in Daniel’s talk was the power of revealing something through the imagination, by obscuring it. He showed various examples of this:
- a newspaper photograph of the murder scene of a child – obscured by big white cinema-screen like sheets, which were part of a privacy screen constructed by police, which left a surface to project our own horrific imaginings onto, more powerful than what might have been revealed
- the cat obscured by snow (as seen above – though here we saw it both revealed, and obscured, in two separate photographs, and were more affected by its concealment)
- the famous image of Nosferatu’s shadow in Murnau’s German Expressionist horror film of 1922
- my personal favourite – the deep waters of Loch Ness – a perfect place to project our deep fears and curiousities, illustrated by fervent imagination