Misfit (goat/fawn)Thomas Grünfeld, , 2001
Courtesy Hidde van Seggelen
Gallery, London © DACS/London 2013
The beast has an immovable place in the history in Western culture. In the religious sphere, the Book of Revelations warns of the two beasts symbolising in turn the Antichrist and the False Prophet; the first rises up from the sea “having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” The second emerges from the earth to promote the authority of the first beast. One of the most enduring identifiers of the beast in popular culture also comes from Revelations 13:18 when John concludes his vision of the first beast with the riddle “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.”
In the realms of philosophy, Aristotle alluded to the nature of beasts in his Politics stating “Man is by nature a social animal” before continuing that “an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
The metaphor of the jungle is often used to encapsulate the political world with its internecine struggles for power and survival with the corollary that politicians who dominate the landscape in their era are classified as “big beasts”. George Orwell in Animal Farm, his allegorical tale of socialism subverted, deploys the term more literally in “Beasts of England” derived from the famous socialist anthem The Internationale when the porcine Old Major, representing Lenin, explains his dream of an animal-controlled society three nights before his death with the opening verse:
Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the Golden future time.
As the animals in the tale soon discover, there is to be no golden future, something the individuals living under the Soviet Communist yoke learned to their cost during the course of the twentieth century. Whilst less of an anthem by their standards, Messrs Richards and Jagger nevertheless proudly proclaimed in their 1978 single that they would not be “a beast of burden” whilst at the same time questioning if they were hard, rough or rich enough for the object of their desire.
This is an admittedly cursory traversal of religion, philosophy and politics but it provide an amuse-bouche of the ways beasts have been used to represent concepts and ideas throughout the centuries. Curator Laura Culpan evidently shares such a historical perspective noting that “from Bosch to Dürer to Dali, the beast has been an undeniable part of art history”.
Culpan and Dea Vanagan from the London-based curatorial collective Artwise are the curators of Beastly Hall an exhibition currently showing at Hall Place, a Grade I listed Tudor country house in Kent with a 17th century courtyard, set in award-winning formal gardens.
The Hall, built by Sir John Champneys, Lord Mayor of the City of London, in 1540 using recycled stone from a disbanded monastery can lay claim to a unique bestial pedigree with the only topiary versions of the Queen’s Beasts, ten real and mythical creatures originally carved in stone to mark the Queen’s Coronation in 1953: the lion of England, the griffin of Edward III, the falcon of the Plantagenets, the black bull of Clarence, the yale of Beaufort, the white lion of Mortimer, the White Greyhound of Richmond, the red dragon of Wales, the unicorn of Scotland, and the white horse of Hanover.
Sixty years after the Coronation, Beastly Hall delves into the mind of 26 contemporary artists to explore the subversive, contemplative and sometimes humorous idea of ‘beasts’. The range of works on display are a testament to the diversity of the subject including paintings, sculptures, taxidermy, ceramics, sound, bone and bronze and specially created site-specific installations.
Fox with issues by Nina Saunders 2012 image ©
The list of artists is equally impressive with works by Francis Alys, Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan and Matt Collishaw alongside Danish artist Nina Saunders and Korean artist Hyungkoo Lee who are both displaying new pieces of work for the first time in the UK.
The exhibition is as visually striking as one would expect from artists of this calibre; however what is even more impressive is how an exhibition which is ostensibly about beasts represented in art is able to bring in and explore the themes of beasts in a wider cultural sense. For example, as one marvels at the delicate intricacies of Tessa Farmer’s “A Wounded Herring Gull”, following her well-known theme of a larger taxidermy animal being attacked by a swarm of miniature menacing skeletal fairies, it is hard not to picture the Lilliputians pinning down Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s satire or the macabre tales of the Brothers Grimm.
The literary theme is also apparent in one of the highlights of the exhibition, a full-room installation by Claire Morgan titled “Heart of Darkness”, referencing Joseph Conrad’s novel, in which a mass of flies are suspended in mid-air in perfect geometric form. This most chaotic of insects of the order of Diptera are brought to order and yet, by shifting one’s gaze slightly, they appear to return to a state of chaos before returning back into order as the laws of geometry exert their immutable force.
Wounded herring gull by Tessa Farmer © Bexley
Heritage Trust /A.Purkiss
Breaking free from any equivalent shackles is the fox in “The Nightwatch” by Francis Alys, a piece commissioned by Artangel in 2004 in which a fox was released into the National Portrait Gallery overnight with its meanderings recorded for posterity on the gallery’s CCTV - shades of Orwell again and the nature of modern day surveillance in Britain where an estimated 2 million cameras ensure the beady eye of Big Brother rarely leaves us unobserved as we go about our daily lives.
The preservation of beasts has been one of the defining traits of Damien Hirst’s work and his subsequent notoriety; one of the works on show here, “Sacred Heart (with Hope)” plays on the religious theme with a dagger plunged into a bulls heart which is sprouting angelic wings.
Caroline Worthington, Chief Executive of Bexley Heritage Trust, the charity which runs Hall Place said “we know that it will certainly appeal to the curious, the art lovers – and anyone with a sense of adventure.” From the humorous interpretation of psychiatry displayed in Nina Saunder’s “Fox with Issues” to Thomas Grunfeld’s manipulation of the laws of genetics to create new ‘species’ in his “misfits” series, Beastly Hall is an imaginative, thought-provoking and stimulating journey through the land of beasts and which encourages us to reconsider our preconceptions and prejudices of what constitutes a beast.
Heart of Darkness by Claire Morgan / © Bexley
Beastly Hall runs until July 2013
Hall Place & Gardens, Bourne Road, Bexley, Kent, DA5 1PQ