Friday, 31 July 2015

Violent zoology: Walton Ford’s watercolours

Full title: Pancha Tantra
Author: Walton Ford. Edited by Bill Buford
Genre: Art
Attributes: 304 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Taschen (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Walton Ford’s watercolors aren't meant to be viewed. They're meant to be read. There's a pregnant narrative quality to every single one of these tableaux vivants, where animals partake in a silent show full of arrested action. They are fables and not quite fables. They have the diction of animal tales meant to be read as allegories (as something other than they are). But this fableness of theirs has a problem when it comes to moralitas. You don’t get the this-is-what-happens-if-you-do-that kind of lesson from these watercolours. The message is much more invested than this early-childhood, easy-morality tone.

Taking their inspiration from books researched by Ford (see quotes written across painted surfaces, scientific denominations, various references, research notes), these paintings do the intelligent work usually ascribed to quotations. They are not illustrations, but rather references. They point at events as well as their unexplored possibilities.

But let’s talk about the subject matter. Animals, yes, but what animals?

Trapped animals.

Indeed, a lot of Ford’s creatures are caught in all manner of setups: snares just about to close around their necks, hooves on the point of being severed, the mouth of a snake swallowing a whole flock of birds like a cage about to close forever. This idea of imprisonment leading to death is everywhere: a domestication-in-the-making, the approaching of the hour of becoming-food, deaths by riffles or by fangs. These, as well as their multiple variants. There’s a cow being killed by a jaguar, monkeys eaten by crocodiles, birds swallowing fish larger than their own bodies, a parrot strangled by a macaque, a secretary eating a cobra while at the same time many other cobras are trying to eat her. An entire zoology of violence takes place in Ford’s works. There are killings every step of the way, there are things animals do to other animals, things that are aimed at annihilation.

But there are also the violent acts enabled by civilization, and these are of much more import. One example: Pantherausbruch, a haunting description of a hunt for a panther escaped from a Swiss zoo, with the animal in the foreground, a close-up on its panic, winter fog laced around its mouth; all against the background of an Alpine village, humans carrying torches, their noises lost in the distance but approaching ever so slowly, the killing machine closing on the animal step by step.

Even more striking (already observable in Panterausbruch) is the placement of animals within human environments. Just as the original texts quoted by Ford were records of first-hand witnesses, Ford’s canvases too are interested in putting the animal between quotation marks (symbols of the alphabet, traces of signification, distributions of human power against natural order).

In Le Jardin, a rather faithful rendition of George Catlin’s 19th-century painting Buffalo Hunt (minus the bull’s posture: disarticulated, near-expired, in Catlin’s version; only tired, still capable of glory, in Ford’s), the animals are placed in a colonial garden. The only spectator to the carnage, a crow perched on top of a stone vase. Given the background, the composition takes on an interesting conceptual quality. It’s within the human frame that the incident unfolding in the centre converts into calamity. As made apparent by a quote from Catlin’s own notes, the event becomes a tragedy only when regarded by the human observer, who forces the establishment of an improbable relationship only for the sake of a story told in anthropocentric terms:

“I rode nearer to the pitiful object as he stood bleeding and trembling before me, and said to him, ‘Now is your time, old fellow, and you better be off.’ Though blind and nearly destroyed, there seemed to be evidently a recognition of a friend in me, as [the buffalo] straightened up, and, trembling with excitement, dashed off at full speed upon the prairie, in a straight line.”

In Ford’s version, the human gaze is replaced by human signs. The garden, with its pointed hedge structures and its vastness bounded by stone fences, does not need the gaze; the human is there in every object. The human, symbolized, with great irony, by the watching crow.

One needs to check the details of these paintings, because a lot of the story lies in these particulars.

Take the example of La Fontaine: a life-and-death battle between a lion and an alligator. Once again, the scene is placed in a distinct human environment. Another garden, another arena. But it’s not only the fountain that makes the human presence apparent. Scattered all over the foreground there are flowers, squashed or simply fallen to the ground; flowers that appear to have been part of a lost bouquet. In other words, flowers picked by a human hand (violence done to vegetation for a presumed aesthetic purpose). And to make things more explicit, there lies, in the lower left corner, a fan. Likely to have been dropped to the ground when the terrible affair between the two animals came centre-stage. Humans vacating a scene of animal violence, but a kind of violence that takes place precisely within the precincts of a human structure. See the stone fence visible in the background, and like a joke, like a terrible irony, a passageway left open – the promise of an escape that won’t take place. This is a case of perverse return upon origins, a circular tale that confuses stages in order to highlight the crux.

But that’s not all. It’s not just any human that’s left traces in the landscape. The fan is a woman’s object. One meant to suggest fragility. The fragility of the female race, their animal-like condition: tamed by the male, reduced to aesthetic fatality, chased out of the social sphere. What was the woman doing here? Here, in this arena where the animals fight their ultimate battle? Must there be a connection? There must. There is. Two tragedies of the same imprisonment, two types of escape.

These are the references made by Walton Ford’s watercolours. He doesn’t stop at the fable stage. His works are not field notes either. No. His paintings are references to the human that once decided to bring the animals into their circle of violence. Panchatantra in the twenty-first century.