g39
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Programme

anima

It’s a matter of life and death. The face turns to the wall and we give up the ghost to wherever it came from. Temporary measures are all we have in life, we animate things with our beliefs, we make them breathe and live until we leave and they revert to their inanimate and inert selves - our bodies, our possessions, our lovers, our children, our memories. All these things obey the same immutable law of dissolution, these things are suspended in brief moments of time until the spirit moves and then it all collapses in a heap that rots and decays.


Artists replicate this process. They animate, they suspend, they breathe life into the inert for a brief spell. ‘Anima’ engages with this dichotomy of the stationary, sedentary, dead and the moving, animated, alive. There are reminders throughout the exhibition that wherever one state exists, equally the other is inevitably present. The artists are divided into those that bring stasis to a fluctuating world and those that animate the apparently inert. This raises the question of what it is that marks the difference between them. In the past it was the soul that was identified as the key attribute being present in one state and absent in the other but in contemporary language the word ‘soul’ has become an inadequate catch-all term, and its meaning has been diffused. It has been subsumed into religious terminology and placed at the mercy of good or evil. Consequently it is difficult to find a word that can stand in its place without generating these preconceptions.

We take our title from Aristotle’s essay ‘De Anima’, in which he makes a thorough investigation of this life force and what possesses it. Long before Jung took anima and divided it into a gendered binary of the male psyche ‘animus’ and the female psyche ‘anima’ as parts of the ego, Aristotle made this division of movement and stillness central to his debate.

Writing in 350 BC he began exploring theories previously put forward, that the soul was quicksilver; that it was in round atoms that roll to produce movement; that it was in the flow of blood. These all connected the existence of life with movement. He made locomotion a key characteristic with the ability to initiate movement (as opposed to simply moving), in defining those beings that have life. The basis for this is clear. When a person dies they do not cease to exist (immediately) but they do cease to breathe and move. So, being able to connect life directly within generated motion we are also able to connect the absence of life with the absence of motion.

Within the exhibition Michael Cousin’s diptych Sleepers’ is a reminder that even in those moments when we are unconscious we are not immobile. He shows the twitches and restlessness of slumber when waking consciousness is absent. Manon de Pauw also presents us with a video series that explores these dichotomies of presence and absence by creating, repeating and erasing actions.

Aristotle’s key characteristic of locomotion may need revising in the mechanised era, when objects are apparently able to initiate movement themselves. Nevertheless, in line with his theories it is unsurprising that we still tend to anthropomorphise those items that are mechanically animate. Cars are given names and computers become friends or frustrating enemies. On my journey home each night I imagine that a certain streetlight waits for me before switching on, I often thank it out loud before it flickers off again as I pass. Rather than attributing this to a faulty fuse that makes it switch on and off constantly, I prefer to believe that we have struck up a rapport. Pamela Landry takes this a step further. Her sculptures are not content to sit and wait for us to pay attention, but actively seek to catch our eye. Combining familiar inanimate objects with kinetic energy she produces a new dynamic, somewhere between the living and the inert.

Apart from these mechanical examples of anthropomorphism, there are others that are less apparent. Even with the simple equation of motion equalling life in our minds, we often treat inanimate objects around us as if they too possessed life. A plastic bag caught in the wind appears to have a will of its own as it is lifted and dropped by a force that we cannot see. We know it is being moved and not moving itself, but it appears helpless. At the heart of the film American Beauty the dance of a piece of rubbish in the wind acts as a catalyst for one of the main protagonists to recognise the tragedy of life, of his own helplessness.

This degree of empathy comes from a desire to see human attributes in things around us. Philippa Lawrence and Manuela Lalic play on our tendencies towards anthropomorphism. Apparently inanimate objects appear to have grown or evolved and have taken on sinister lives of their own, multiplying like spores or insects, or disrupting our perceptions of their everyday functions. We want to understand the world around us in the same way that we understand ourselves. We strive to make sense of random cloud formations, transforming them into recognisable entities; we see Jesus in the skirting board or within the pattern of some cucumber pips, looking for that familiar pattern of features. Renée Lavaillant’s drawings respond to the accidental and haphazard nature of inanimate things. She incorporates an order into the chaos of everyday randomness and underlines our desire to absorb inanimate objects into our animate world.

We interact, we see and feel, hear and move. We breathe in, we breathe out without thinking about it. These things define our existence. The root of ‘anima’ is an ancient word for breath, and it is an important key to understanding this exhibition, an over-arching link between the artists shown. Some of the artists take objects that are inanimate and ‘breathe life’ into them; their static state becomes questionable as our expectations of those objects are thrown off-balance.

Other artists take the familiar photographic idea of the frozen moment where time is captured and replace it with a much more ongoing stillness that isn’t stillness at all, but drawn-out time. Often, nothing much happens, the artists immobilise movement, offering the illusion of seeing, of having the time to see. Adad Hannah’s seemingly still photographs are actually frozen tableaux. The participants’ apparent ‘rest’ or frozen photographic ease is actually a concentrated balancing act. The trick is in remaining motionless but every sinew in the subjects’ bodies is straining to move, upsetting the stillness. In such stillness we are forced to become aware of our own breath, overcome with a sense of our own existence. We hold our breath, waiting for the grand finale, the conclusion where it all makes sense. But it may never come.

In Sara Rees’s work we are witness to a moment of collapse held before us in a static but precarious scenario. She creates a rent in the fabric of the building, spilling out the cables and pipes that give it life, and suspends it on the threshold of momentous change. Expectancy is light when imbued with desire and fantasy but becomes heavy with its obstruction. We are often left waiting, still holding our breath before moving on.

Nevertheless the cycle goes on. We breathe in, we breathe out. Then we stop. Someone else breathes in, someone else breathes out. Like one endless relay we pass the baton of existence from generation to generation, hoping that what we do will make a difference. Artists continue to animate, to suspend, and to breathe life into the inert for brief spells, allowing the work to leave them and perform in front of an audience; often oblivious in equal measures to successes and failures; often unsure whether what they intended has been achieved. Bedwyr Williams literally creates a new life as part of the exhibition, developing a new persona and creating a new identity and behaviour patterns for a short time before extinguishing him. Rachel Thorlby’s Darren pushes this further. She has created a hybrid, half-dog, half-hooded youth that explores the extraordinarily close world between man and his best friend. The piece is unsettling and familiar as we engage with his posture and clothing but look into canine eyes. Michel Boulanger also animates a new life, a goat, unwittingly held between its own grazing and the tilting, sliding world of art. Its maker sends it on a bizarre journey, in control of its destiny and end, just as he was in control of its birth. Perhaps it is these small births and departures that drive artists to continue to produce work, and from this uncertainty they go on to produce more work. These brief lives are all that the work has, to exist in front of an audience; in these moments the work is animated.

The artists in this show do not deal, though, with life and death in black and white. This collection of works operates in a much more subtle way. Richard Higlett’s animated work depicts idle thumb-twiddling, the point of cognitive silence before an idea or action arrives. It becomes a timepiece that focuses on its own repetitious movement, calibrating the passage of our time spent with it, frame by frame, second by second. Like the exhibition it exists in the grey area between stasis and change; here, in flux there is motion, a movement and perhaps it is cyclical.

While there’s life, there’s hope the cliché runs, but conversely maybe where there is hope artists will continue to create other lives.

Anthony Shapland 2005