Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives
Catherine Bell

The young woman sits on a darkened stage. Her blond hair, light skin and the pink felt suit she is wearing make her conspicuous in the darkness. She grabs an octopus, sucks out its ink and stains herself with the dark color. She then reaches for the next octopus and the next one, sucking and spitting and increasingly melting into the background. She needs 40 animals before her felt suit, face, hands, feet, even hair are completely soaked in dark sepia and the artist is nearly no longer perceptible: She has vanished in the black ink.

In Western cultural history, octopi do not play any laudible role. Particularly in Christian symbolism, its ability to change skin color makes it the very embodiment of the liar, deceiver and clown. They escape to freedom by forcing themselves through the smallest of fissures: Thus they become symbols of spineless, shady con artists who, to top it all off, confuse their opponents by enveloping them a cloud of ink, thereby robbing them of their judgment. For artists, however, octopi are also endowed with positive associations. Back in the ancient world Plinius the Elder was familiar with sepia as a tool for writing which finally made artistic work possible: The artist as ink splatterer, as confirmed by Friedrich Schiller. Philosopher Vilém Flusser noted that with their clouds of ink octopi are actually creating their own self-portraits which hoodwink predators with the illusion of a meal for the time it takes the polyp to glide to safety.

Catherine Bell chose this positive octopus tradition. She has staged the performance of “Felt is the Past Tense of Feel” only once, in 2006. It represents her reaction to her father’s death, a traumatic experience for her, and the desire to dissolve and disappear. The wordplay in the title revolves around “felt” which simultaneously signifies a material and the desire for an unbearable feeling to be gone. The disturbing imitation of the octopus strategy, of dissolving oneself in a cloud of sepia, reflects both a mourning ritual and a regression into an animal state. Of this connection to the animal state she says, “...there is an emphasis on the body, embodiment, shared experience and transmutation. Animals are the partners for these ideas and I am conscious of how my contact with them breaches the bodily boundaries of both human and animal. […] The squid’s ink disguises my identity and facilitates my escape into the darkness.”

The psychoanalytical association of the octopus with the uncanny as well as the unspoken sexual, the use of felt – a natural animal product which has been lent an association with isolation by such influential artists as Joseph Beuys and Robert Morris – and the ambivalence of the darkness between grace and danger affords this work its particular depth. Becoming human, Catherine Bell shows unambiguously, is not possible without the aid of animals.

Friedrich Weltzien

© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

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