Crystal, Debpig, Homer, and the Two-Headed Camel
Marvel at the Demon Debpig from Valhalla, and Homer’s weirdly distended cheek. One’s eyes are drawn to the hypnotising smiles of each subject, like a triptych of mammal Mona Lisas, and we might ask; what thoughts are passing through those fuzzy heads? Benevolence or malevolence? Amusement at the folly of art, or the hint of anticipation towards the eventual sating of lettuce-based hunger?
The artist is, at present, anonymous. All we know is that it was produced by a staff or volunteer at the Manchester & Salford RSPCA and that Hannah deliberately asked for, and I quote, ‘someone who can’t draw’. Such an assessment is unfair, I feel. Sure, there’s wonkiness, but such is the spirit of the guinea pig life, is it not? Homer’s oddly stretched face simply strives to capture his innate cheekiness as a creature, and captures it well. The pencil strokes are lively, the shading of detail is delicate (note in particular the hay strands snagged on Crystal’s fur), the fierceness of Debpig’s red eyes evokes the deep void that yawns between human-animal understanding. The more we study the image, the more its status as modern masterpiece becomes apparent. No doubt we’ll soon seeing it hanging in the Tate.
(Actually, that’s quite a good idea. Why not gather up all these ‘badly drawn pets’ and create a proper exhibition out of them? So much of art is so pretentious, disappearing as often as it likes up its own arty arse, so why not celebrate the heartfelt sketches of the ordinary folk? Let the people giggle at our shared failure to be Caravaggio, let the art critics ponder whether a hastily dashed off cat picture by a busy person with no formal art training is actually in any real way worse than a Picasso. Is art merely for the elites? Can we consider a collective effort towards a fundraiser for a kitten incubator a sort of collective art engagement with more ‘truth’ and ‘soul’ than a £15-a-ticket exhibition of someone we’ve barely heard of? Come on; I can see the Guardian article already!)
Animals, I like to believe, are our founding cornerstone of art. Way back in cave times, when we began to turn to ourselves and think of ourselves as ourselves, the other creatures who were similar but very much not ourselves quickly became the archetypal other. Art, for me, in all its guises, is always about wrestling with this fundamental Otherness of ourselves in relation to our world: why we are, how we are, where we are. Animals represent difference, and difference is what fires us up and charges us forward. If we’re right in thinking that the 17,000 year old images of horses and bison and other creatures on the walls of the Grotte de Lascaux are among our earliest forms of art, then the evidence of the centrality of animals to art is right there for literally the entirety of human history to see. Even when we paint or sculpt or film ourselves, we’re depicting animals. There’s no getting away from it.
Its the same in writing, although I’m often a bit annoyed by the lazy handling of animals in fictions - most often there to convey some sort of human-centric metaphor, or as a doom-laden device for the danger that lurks ahead (the dog will always die first in your common horror/thriller/drama fare). In my own writing, I’ve been trying to capture something of the chaotic essence of animal life beyond the hollow metaphor that often tells us very little of the reality of the animal used. I always felt sorry for the snake in the Garden of Eden. Maybe it wasn’t the devil in disguise. Maybe it was just a snake minding its own business, perhaps a little perturbed at the trumped up monkeys who’d come knocking around its nest. If you’re interested in an example of my own writing where the animal is reconsidered, try my story 'Broadcast of the Foxes' in issue 13 of Structo Magazine (which can be read for free here).
The other significant animal I encountered yesterday was a two-headed camel. Let me explain. Last night I hosted the first in a series of Creative Writing workshops I’ll be running throughout October, designed specifically for a group of autistic adults. I’m pleased to say it went very well - all the participants seemed to enjoy getting some writing done and we all had a very productive and (I hope) quite mindful time. One of the exercises involved using this Random Art Generator to help inspire a sense of place or character, depending on what it threw up. By this stage in the workshop I had relaxed a little, so I took part in the exercise myself and the image the randomizer generated for me was The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens. There, at the back, is the two-headed camel (which, of course, is just two camels, but go with it). I spun out a wonky tale about a window-cleaner visiting a two-headed camel called Twosie in an office building in some built-up city, with whom he shares a meaningful moment through the glass of the window. What did this off-the-cuff tale mean or attempt to convey? I’m not really sure, but there was a sense there of trying to capture something of that animal-human distance, as well as our tendency to freeze and preserve the image of animals in art although rarely getting at who or what they actually are.
I think this is what I’m trying to say: with no pretensions at metaphor or meaning, nor any concerted and sincere effort to convey the ‘spirit’ of creaturedom, the anonymous Badly Drawn Pet guinea pig triptych simply tries to draw Crystal, Debpig and Homer. And through that simple effort, absolutely manages to convey their spirits and fills them through with the purest of meaning: here they are, and they are their badass selves. Now if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
*Incidentally, the Badly Drawn Pets fundraiser is very, very close to hitting its £3000 target. Might you be able to help? Check it out here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/bdps