Rekindling the spirit of the great Aurochs

I am including here again an essay that I wrote in reaction to Jess Wallace’s art. Perhaps it’s more important than ever, at a depressing time when the UK government set on deciding that animals aren’t sentient beings after all.


According to Lakota Elder John Lame Deer, domesticated cows have lost the wild spirit of their buffalo ancestors: ‘You have not only despoiled the Earth, the rocks, the minerals, all of which you call “dead” but are very much alive’, he addresses Western man, ‘you have even changed the animals, which are part of us, part of the Great Spirit, changed in a horrible way, so no-one can recognise them. There is power in a buffalo – spiritual, magic power – but there is no power in an Angus, in a Hereford.’ There was a time however when aurochs, bisons, and mammoths, the great herbivores of the Ice Age steppes, played for paleolithic Europeans a similar role to the buffalo for indigenous Americans. We might never know for certain while Cro-Magnon people crawled into the depths of caves to represent them, but the fact remains that their engravings, drawings, or paintings are precisely observed and sensitively executed, with a sureness of line that even impressed Picasso.

Lascaux painting
Aurochs, deer & horses, Lascaux, France

On a recent visit to the paleolithic engravings of Cresswell Craggs, England, our guide mentioned that animals had been more important then. This caused me to stop. Had they? Are we eating less meat? Or rather, have we all but forgotten that meat does in fact come from living animals? Which is so easily done in Western consumer society where unrecognisable bits of them are readily available, wrapped in plastic, on supermarket shelves. The guide’s benign comment illustrated only too vividly the broken link between the living animal and the food; between the cow in the pastures, and the steak on the plate. And there is more: I rarely think of my leather belt as once part of a calf. I bought it from a market stall. I didn’t have to stalk the aurochs, kill it with a stone pointed spear, dismember it with a flint knife, etc… In those hunting gathering days, like in many surviving indigenous cultures, there was respect for the natural world, respect for the animal that gave its life, and no waste.
The great herbivores have all but disappeared from the European landscape – wild bisons just about survive at the border of Poland and Belarus, in a remnant primeval forest. For most of us, however, they have been replaced by shadows of themselves, tame cows. This sad transformation happened to all domesticated animals: ‘There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote. You have made him into a freak – a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog’, Lame Deer writes on. However much I understood his point, something in his statements puzzled me and I couldn’t quite agree with their definitive sense of gloom. It took me time to figure out why, but I understood: when I read Lame Deer’s book, I had already come across Jess Wallace’s art, and met her models. Her sculptures showed me that the spirit of the wild aurochs still lives on, even in the tamest of cow breeds.

Jess grew up puzzled. Why do we eat some animals, when others are accepted as family companions? Unable to resolve this conundrum, she stopped eating meat. Jess’s youth was spent around horses, riding ponies by the Pinewood studios as a child, then entering a racing career as a National Hunt jockey. There she learned a lot about these animals, in a man-controlled environment. Years later, she renewed her partnership with them, but took the time to work on their terms. She shared their existence in a non-competitve environment, inviting rather than demanding; observing more, but indirectly; building a deeper, more understanding, truly ‘I-thou’ relationship. She writes: ‘A lifetime of contact with and observation of this enduring species has caused me to have a profoundly respectful appreciation for their ancient wisdom and innate generosity. They adapted and survived for over 50 million years before we appeared on the planet. We have used them as food, drones, engines of empires and sports machines, but despite being domesticated by us and bred and enslaved for our own purposes for thousands of years, they have retained their dignity, intrinsic nature and life force intact’. Their “life force”, “intact”; in spite of domestication, selective breeding, and abuse. An answer to Lame Deer’s statements, a plea to notice that in spite of the damage, all is not lost if you look with openness, empathy, patience and no agenda. Jess sees the animals as integral beings, not as food stores, slaves or dolls, and she respects them for who they are.
Jess began by sculpting the animals she knew best, our so-called ‘companions’, horses and dogs. She doesn’t illustrate their anatomy (although details are perfectly observed), nor does she personify some sort human quality; there is no heroism, nor sentimentality. Her horses and dogs are depictions of horses and dogs, the most truthful, compassionate, and alive I have ever seen. They reach to the essence of the species and breed, yet they retain the individual qualities of the specific being represented. Border Collie Stalking shows all the tension of a working herding dog, yet it remains undoubtedly Tess.

Border Collie Stalking (Tess)

Her animal’s postures are unconventional. Jess spends much time looking and sketching. Approaching her subjects with no preconceptions, she remains receptive to the animal’s truth. Her eye doesn’t look for anything, it doesn’t objectify, but receives and sets free. Jess can see the wildness in horses and dogs not as a display of primal strength but as their essential, untamed spirit, who they uniquely are, the “life force” still flowing below the layers of human conditioning. Deeply buried in the ever herding Tess, she can see the hunting wolf. In addition Jess’s sculpted animals are free from human interference: the dogs have no collars, the horses no bridles, no saddles. If the human link is hinted at, as in her early Galloping Horse, then it is from the animal’s point of view. The work represents Moonee River, whom she rode on the track. When the horse is at full stretch, as the piece shows, the rider has to blend with them simply to stay on top: the human is the one who needs to adapt.

Galloping horse (Moonee River)

Later, life brought Jess in close contact with cows and pigs, and her vision expanded. What she found in horses and dogs, she appreciated in them too. She saw them as what they were, other complete beings, “other nations” as Henry Beston would have it, not as walking larders, or milk taps. Jess’s sculpture Two Cows, Sleeping is just that, two cows sleeping, completely themselves and completely free, and that is the point. She saw the beauty in them, she saw their spirit: the spirit of the great aurochs ancestor painted in Lascaux, the “life force” that despite all his efforts, Western man hasn’t managed to eradicate. She saw it, and she showed me, patiently, inobtrusively and quite unbeknown to me, even though I had then very little interest in either cows or pigs, or even I daresay, in art itself.

Two Cows, Sleeping (Ernest & Pugley)

Jess’s sculptures have this arresting quality, they stop you on your tracks, they make you look, and you can’t help but notice the life that flows through them. Looking at Border Collie & three Pigs when the light is dimmed, or catching them with a corner of the eye, you can’t help but wonder whether that pig has indeed moved, or whether Tess hasn’t inched a step closer.

Border Collie & three Pigs  (Tess, Eos, Echo & Bertie) – detail

In this time of crisis, our survival as a species depends on our ability to relate to the living world and its inhabitants. By splitting ourselves from Nature, we have lost our own wild spirit, our identity as part of the great web of life. Just as we have imprisoned animals behind barriers and fences, we have imprisoned ourselves in a virtual reality disconnected from our earthly beginnings. ‘You have not only altered, declawed and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves’, Lame Deer adds. But it’s not too late to learn. Jess’s sculptures are a timely reminder that the “life force” still exists, and that we have the ability to open to a true encounter with the great Animal Spirits, and with Nature.
Jess’s art brings hope to a century that began full of doom and gloom. As overused pictures of damaged or tortured animals fail to shock us into action, Jess takes a radically different approach. She has an answer to Lame Deer: she sees the life force and celebrates it. Once you share her look, once you have met the animals on their grounds and see them as the individual beings that they are, there is no going back. You realise that it is time to act for the respect and preservation of the natural world; that it is time to honour it, free it, and in doing so, free ourselves.

Lame Deer quotes from Lame Deer, Seeker of visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes (1972), Pocket Books enriched classics, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1994 edition, p.120.

 

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