10 November – 20 January, 2024


The line between human and animal is thin and unsteady. At once the ultimate other and the primordial self, across cultures, animals have served as mirrors: to our mortality, our desires, fears, and dreams. Nahual brings together contemporary practitioners who trace this line – at points, nearly unintelligible – into our fast disintegrating present. In a world at the brink of ecological collapse, what do animals signify? How do we relate to them? Or could it be that, in the face of precisely this catastrophe, the distinction between us and them has finally become futile to uphold?

In Mesoamerican folk religion, a nahual is a human being who has the ability to shapeshift into their tonal animal counterpart, thereby acquiring power and spiritual insight. Conversely, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to be turned into an animal is generally a punishment; humanity a privilege that may be withdrawn. Following this line, European art history has tended to represent animals in terms of ownership, a triumph over nature always underpinned by anxious awareness of its frailty. But as industrialisation really did seem to have steamrolled the Lord’s creation beyond repair, by the early 20th century the animal could mean neither punishment nor spiritual insight, but represented something outlandish and fargone. In 1910, the German expressionist artist Franz Marc called for “the animalisation of art”, asking: “Is there a more mysterious idea for an artist than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of an animal? How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a doe, or a dog?”

With the second world war, the holocaust and the hydrogen bomb, however, humanity witnessed its own collapse into barbarism. It became impossible to sustain the argument that culture and civilisation were in any way opposite to the savage. And so, in the brutal aesthetics of the post war period, the art historian Hal Foster writes, “the animal returns strongly and mutates variously into a beast, a God, a monster, or a creature, and in this last guise at registers, not as a natural state to reclaim, but a denatured condition to confront. Thus the animal has no stable meaning.” No longer quite a mirror so much as a horror vacui. Perhaps this is where we remain to this day: at a point where  the animal no longer is quite other, but has been folded into the anthropocene of everything else, while at the same time humanity can claim no more mastery over its instincts than any of the other species under the sun. Now everything is animal and nothing is.

Srijon Chowdury has pinned the perennial body of Christ onto a blood-red spiderweb. In our “denatured condition”, it appears, the nahual does not need to change form to achieve its insights but only proportion: Jesus, this small painting seems to say, was never sacrificed at the hands of men, but by the same impulse that commands a spider to trap a fly. Christian Kohn Munk’s works are similarly uncanny, portraying childish states of dreaming, though as if sprung from the unconscious of one who has seen all too much. His flat compositions in gold and maroon tones show humans fall into one with their surroundings, forms of metamorphosis that testify not to godly intervention but absence.

Other works draw on the spiritual and mythological power always bestowed upon animals. There are echoes of surrealism in Denis Scholl’s portrait of a stern young man, circled by two snakes, eating each other. “Man is the only animal that kills its kind, obstinately and furiously”, wrote Georges Bataille, and we see that harsh, mournful judgment in the eyes of Scholl’s youth, too; the snake as protagonist in the fall of man, the guardian of the tree of knowledge, now drinks its own blood. Nora Isabelle Zielinski’s paintings and sculptures achieve a similarly dream-like quality, taking animals as messengers from our unconscious. Again, there is deep connectedness, the inference of a sameness of experience quite contrary to Marc’s mystification of the animal world. In Zielinski’s Weight of the World a black dog vomits under the pressure of a globe—its burden is ours and it is neither heroic nor tragic but plain and brute.

The word animal comes from Latin animalis: “having breath”. In the writings of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Anima names the feminine unconscious of a man and Animus the masculine unconscious of a woman. They are terms associated with the deepest possible reckoning with oneself, confrontations with soul and spirit. Jung makes clear that this, the deepest layer of the human interior, is not easily reached. It is perhaps the encounter anticipated in Eli De Haas’s painting The First Time I Meet You: a winged creature descending upon the hollow-eyed shape of a human, as if delivering its missing half. Or perhaps, as in Roham Fayazi’s works, swirls of undifferentiated carnal life. From this perspective, that bygone distinction between human and animal is not worth mourning. In what comes after, we won’t have the time.


Opening 10 November, 2023
Closing 20 January, 2024
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