‘Animal Love: Kate Ellis’, Un. Magazine, Issue No. 4, Winter 2005
Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
29 October – 20 November, 2004
Emerging in 16th century Europe, a new type of inquisitiveness about the world expressed itself in the form of cabinets of curiosity or wunderkammer. These cabinets – first assembled by doctors and apothecaries – presented rare and curious artefacts for private display. Automata and scientific instruments were included, although the cabinets mostly contained odd natural history specimens, such as skeletal fragments of rare beasts, deformed eggs or mistakes of nature, like a two-headed calf. Over the 19th century these collections of rarities were dispersed and re-assembled in the new institution of the public museum. I think of the public’s first encounter with these collections, and the marvel in the face of such objects may be parallel to the wonder we experience in front of Kate Ellis’s enchanting and uncanny cabinets des animaux.
Carefully laid out in white museum display cases, rest an assortment of cast wax limbs: a woman’s arm, whippet-thin; the diminutive form of a poodle’s paw. Only two species are included in these cases – canine and human – and the dismembered limbs are strangely peaceful, as if reconciled to their life as curios. Their smooth skin is embellished with spiralling rings of thread, and eccentric fluffs of hair, pressed into the surface. On the gallery floor, another specimen: the waxy body of a reclining dog. But this is no ordinary dog, rather a mutant – woman and beast, conjoined. The hybrid forms repeat on the gallery wall, in drawings of poodle-girls fashioned from poodle fur.
There is an edge of pathology here. What deviant coupling produced these Skyllas? Freud speaks of fetishism as the warping of normative sexual desire into a fantasy of inappropriate subsitutes. The foot, for example, has long been understood as a sexual symbol, which when overinvested, transforms into the fetish. Here, arms and fingers join the fetishistic panoply. But the sex is displaced – the tops of the pre-pubescent legs sketched on the wall end in tutu tufts.
In spite of the suggestion of aberrant desire, there is also something innocent in these girlish doodles, these blonde limbs. As if Freud’s preoccupation with penis-envy was all wrong, that female desire was altogether more primal; to be of beast, not man, to dissolve the fixity of discrete animal/human bodies into the commingling of a single flesh. The gestural language of Ellis’s hybrid creatures certainly implies that the fusion is a tranquil one: the delicately poised fingers (like a paw), the hind legs in repose.
But is this woman desiring to become animal, or the other way round? As the first domesticated beast, the dog has long been man’s best friend. For over 10,000 years they have served the human need to hunt and travel. Dogs as pets – like the museum – only became prevalent in the 19th century, when a growing bourgeousie needed emblems of a new-found wealth. In contemporary biology radical theories claim that dogs, in fact, chose domestication. If so, the partnership has been mutually sought. Ellis takes this union into another realm; of macabre longing and taboo love, hinting that something deep in the neurochemistry of dog and human is closely linked.
1 Tony Bennet, The Birth of the Museum, Routledge, London, 1995
Kate Ellis, Untitled, 2004, wax and poodle fur.