“While my own work is not based on any specified myth, nor pulled from any religion or history book, it echoes these transformations and hybrids and recalls a sense of history because of my illustrative style.” * * * * * * *
Mutated identities, accelerated extinction, sharp pointed myths in the Sustainability Age.
Introduction – Contemporary Mythology by Caitlin Hackett
In my work I am exploring the relationship between humans and animals; the idea of the human denial of our animal nature and of humans as the dominant species, as well as the mutation of the animal created by the human interpretation of the animal . My work alludes to the boundaries that separate humanity from animals both physically and metaphysically, as well as the objectification of and personification of animals. I invent creatures, anthropomorphic, mutated, or pseudo mythical in imagery , using my imaginary world and bringing it into the physical world in an attempt to create a language that speaks about the human animal relationship and the natural and unnatural elements of it. I am faced with the fact that we live in a planet in decline, where almost every natural ecosystem in the world is slipping away. Human kind has created a planet of refugees; animals forced to flee ever farther from the insatiable encroachment of urban development , victims of a war for space which they cannot hope to win. My drawings refer to this decline and to the refugees it has created. I am left with the question of what is natural; are we (human beings) still a part of nature? If so, does that make all that we have created, cities, vehicles, factories, all technology, part of nature as well? As we move into an increasingly plastic, electronic, and robotic culture how can we define our own fundamental nature as the nature of the world around us changes and our metaphysical identity evolves into something beyond the human as an animal? As we separate from our animal nature , will we be able to still see and understand the importance of other animals and our relationship to them? As we are able to remove ourselves from our own physical bodies and to come to experience life through the metaphysical, the digital, and the psychic , how will this distance from our own bodies and the physical experience of the world affect our relationship with nature and the way we see creatures who exist completely within their physical bodies and are defined by their physical needs?
As my work evolves I am beginning to think more and more about the way in which people bestow identity and how, deprived of identity, animals are reduced to a kind of living taxidermy subject to human apathy and mutated by human ideals of beauty or monstrosity. I am telling a story about disappearance and the rapid and extravagant destruction of the human-animal, and how this loss of our animal nature is affecting the way human kind views the animal world .
I am describing these questions through the use of paper and ink in the form of life sized anthropomorphic creatures , which are installation pieces. Done entirely in ballpoint pen, ink, watercolor and colored pencil, these massive creatures are a balance between the power and physical presence of the life sized and the intensity of the dense, delicate, and time consuming detail of the ballpoint pen and ink. By installing these animals cut out on the walls they are released into our world and become characters that must be addressed in terms of our physical space, and must be granted an identity .
‘I want my creatures to be (both) wraiths & living things, capable of both haunting and breathing.’ Mutated identities, accelerated extinction, sharp pointed myths for the Sustainability Age. Interview with Brooklyn Artist Caitlin Hackett by Willi Paul – PlanetShifter.com Magazine & openmythsource.com
* * * * * * *
I feel Graham Sutherland’s spirit-vision weaving in and out of the transformed bodies in your work. Reactions?
I had actually not been aware of Graham Sutherland’s work before this interview, but having now looked his work up though I can see a how my work resonates with his, in the way we both meld together separate bodies and energies within our work, overlapping human and animal forms to create a new beings. I certainly hope that my work has a spiritual sensibility to it, as I am fascinated by the idea of a creatures’ true essence; what it actually means to be human, to be an animal, and the lines that divide the reality of existence from the concept of existence. I want to understand where ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ fits into the true nature of any living thing, and how the spirit of a creature could alter its physical body, if only because of the way it is perceived by human kind. However in my own work when I combine the human and animal forms I am equally interested in the reality of the creature that I am drawing and how it would survive and function should it come to life, not only in creating a rumor of reality, a spirit. I want to in some way alter the viewer’s reality, to give them a sense of a corporal form even though the drawing is two-dimensional. I want my creatures to be simultaneously wraiths and living things, capable of both haunting, and breathing.
While I am fascinated with the way our emotional connection to the spirit of an animal can haunt us, the idea of something living and breathing that is both human and animal has more of an emotional impact on me. As a young child I longed to be an animal myself, and always dreamed that there would be a choice as I grew older, to choose whether you wanted to be a human, or an animal. Obviously I discovered that no such choice existed, however I spent much of my youth galloping about has a horse or a cat, howling at the moon and squirreling my way up the redwoods in my backyard. I tried as much as possible to bend my human body into an animal form, and it is that awkward attempt at transformation and mutation of the body that interests me, and how it has tied me to the natural world ever since. It is a very physical pain for me, to see the natural world ravaged, and to watch the vanishing of wilderness, more physical than spiritual, and that discomfort is put into all of my drawings.
Alchemy is about the process of creation and transmutation. Are you praying or meditating when you draw?
I neither pray nor mediate while I draw, I work almost solely at night, (partially due to my work schedule, partly because that’s when I am most creative) I spread out my larger pieces onto the wood floor of my apartment, and then sitting on top of them barefooted I move slowly around to work on whatever sections snag my mind or hand. I don’t listen to music really, or ever have television on, I like to work in silence most often because the stories that go through my mind influence the way the drawing works out, and my mental and emotional narrative feeds into the piece. Due to how long the pieces take to complete they alter slowly over time, and morph far from what I originally envisioned, which is part of the process that I find most exciting.
Give us a deeper understanding of “pseudo mythical imagery.” Are there humans in this space with you?
There is a long history throughout the mythologies of the world of humans being transformed into animals, trees, insects, and a menagerie of other creatures. In Greek mythology we have Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree, Aedon who was transformed into the first nightingale, the half dragon-half man Cecrops, Arachne who was turned into a spider for offending Athena, and countless others. In Hindu mythology there are also countless instances of humans being transformed into animals, humans with animal attributes and limbs, gods with animal attributes and limbs, or who are wholly animal in form, and princes and princesses spawned from fish, birds and deer whom manage to receive the kings seed. While my own work is not based on any specified myth, nor pulled from any religion or history book, it echoes these transformations and hybrids and recalls a sense of history because of my illustrative style. There are always human’s in my mental space, as well as my creative space, just as there are always animals floating through my consciousness. I am interested in human relationships with nature, as well as with human behavior in general, and our own essential animal nature. I live in New York City, so there are always people around me. Even as a sleep I can hear the sounds of people throughout my apartment building through the night, footsteps and doors slamming, cars honking, people yelling or laughing, music that never stops, there is a constant hum of human activity that reflects in my mind the hum of the entire world, which buzzes ceaselessly with human life. In my work I seek to reveal the remnants, the outer edge of the human buzz, where it mingles with what is left of wilderness and natural spaces, where the friction between what is human and what is animal sparks.
Do you see national parks and nature preserves as sacred or heartfelt these days?
To me they are sacred and heartfelt spaces, they are island sanctuaries amid constant development, the last refuge for many an interrupted migration and hunted species. It’s hard for me to say if they are sacred in the national conscience, although I was heartened recently by an ad series in the subways of New York that honored the national parks, and the documentary series that PBS put out about them. However I feel that most people are unaware of the treasure that we have preserved, nor the risk that many of our other remaining wild spaces face, as logging roads cut ever deeper into forests, and housing developments push ceaselessly outward. Living in New York is interesting in many ways, as it provides a world in miniature, we have our parks, Fort Green, Prospect Park, Central Park, amongst many others, and you have millions of people living together, however we live stacked up, so that we take up very little space. In my mind, although I miss living in the wild, empty spaces surrounded by trees, and rolling hills in northern California, I know that this is the best way to preserve wilderness, instead of each resident having their two cars and 1.5 acres in the suburbs, we take the subway and live in 600 square feet of space (or less).
Why not close all of the world’s zoos and return the animals to the “wild?”
While there are many zoos which are failing, especially in these harsh economic times, it is impractical to ‘release’ the animals living there, most of them were bred in captivity, and could not hope to survive in their native habitats without human help. Also, many zoos play an important role in introducing people, especially children, to animals, and attempting to build respect and compassion towards them. In places like New York City, or Chicago, or LA where there is neither a lot of wilderness, nor many ‘wild’ animals to be found, these zoos provide one of the few windows to the wild creatures of the world. However if I could choose a path for the worlds zoos, it would be to slowly specialize, to transform zoos over time to cater to specific species, especially those most endangered. Specializing in just a few species would allow for zoos to focus their limited space, funds, and energy more effectively, and could promote breeding programs for endangered species as well as better educating people on the effects of over development, poaching, deforestation, etc. However this is only my uneducated dream, what it takes to run a zoo and what it would take to transform so many zoos is hard for me to say, it would certainly have to a gradual change, and many zoos would probably opt to continue running as they have, in hopes of attracting a wider crowd with a wider selection of animals.
“The mutation of the animal created by the human interpretation of the animal.” Where are we taught this? How can we learn a more loving way?
The way we are taught as children to interact with animals can last a life time, growing up I personified, rather than objectified, all the animals in my life, which is perhaps a no more realistic view on their true nature, but at least it lead me to care for and respect them. However the way I grew up is not typical for this country, although it is typical for the place I grew up in. I was raised backpacking, and running through the woods, my parents taught me at a young age to respect nature, and to love animals, and my passion for them bloomed at a very young age. People ask me when I started to draw animals, and my answer is that I have always, they were the only things I ever wanted to draw, there were never people in my early drawings, only cats and horses and foxes, countless creatures danced across the images of my youth.
Our families teach us much about how to treat animals, as do our schools as we grow up, and our peers. Where I grew up I was taught about invasive species in school, was taken on school trips to the beach and to the local creeks to do biology projects about the effects of pollution and the effects of invasive species on the native ones, the affect of development, my friends loved to go camping, and my family spent every summer camping and hiking through the wilderness, and redwood forest was my backyard, and thus my love for the natural world was nourished on all sides. This does not often happen though, if you grow up in a city, without pets, or without any idea of the natural world, it is hard to have respect for what you don’t know or care about. Within our educational system there needs to be a focus on respect for all living things, you don’t need to love camping, or be a fan of every animal you meet, but if when people are young they are taught to respect living creatures, then we will see much of the cruelty towards animals disappear. Within families it is more challenging, if the family a child is raised in is cruel to their pets, or speaks with cruelty or disregard to animal life, then it is hard to undue that damage, but we can make an effort in our schools, and should.
Please explain (through your work?) how you are ‘creating a language that speaks about the human animal relationship and the natural and unnatural elements of it.’
By combining human and animal forms I am attempting to create a visual language, a kind of a trigger for the viewer’s muscle memory, to feel what it is to be an animal. By nature, we are all animals, humans are simply another species, a dominant species, but another large land dwelling mammal all the same. Because of that there comes the question of what is natural, if we are just another animal, building our colonies and digging our tunnels, then does that make all that we have made natural as well? Are our cities, our suburbs, our factories, our vehicles and our pollution, all as natural as termite mounds? However, our predators are few, we hunt each other, and we are prone to diseases and natural disaster, but unlike almost every other animal on this planet, we do not have a natural predator, no other creature which hunts us or keeps our population in check, because we have become the top predator. I don’t know the answer to the question, but I hope that in the narrative quality of my work I am asking the question and in so asking creating a dialogue with the viewer, a set of hieroglyphics that are meant to make the viewer question their own body, and what they feel separates it from the body of an animal.
How can your vision and art help the viewer “experience life through the metaphysical, the digital, and the psychic?”
These are actually the things that I would like to, with my work, remind people to turn away from, from time to time. We live in a world where we are all perpetually hooked into the Internet, it is aptly called the digital age, where we are blasted with political and spiritual views and opinions. I am interested in the physical world, in our relationship with our own bodies, our animal bodies, which are rooted in the health of the world. Nature, however transcendental I may be at heart, is most of all a physical thing, a survival game. Animals must survive, they are dominated by their physical needs most of the time, they have to eat, and raise their young, and protect their dwindling territories, in a world where they have been sidelined. No matter our philosophies, our religions, our facebook status’ or whether or not we have an i-pad, what nation we live in or political party we support, we all have to survive on this planet, we all have these corporal bodies, which tote around our human minds and spirits, and hold us to this world. I am interested in bodies, in the physical needs that make the health of the natural world relevant to everyone, whether or not they care to know about it. It is our animal bodies which relate us so keenly to the other animals we share this world with, even if it is our human minds that allows us to love, accept, ignore or deny this connection.
How do you compare animal identity with human identify?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that, and when I was younger I thought I knew the answer; that animals were somehow pure, wild and free and noble in their actions, free of human greed and rage and pollution. However, that was a mask, an idea as false as the notions of old that animals were like automatons, moving through life on a set track, acting out set actions at set times, without desire or feeling. Animal identity is of course, much more complicated than either view, much as is human identity. To be honest, I don’t know how to compare animal identity with human identity, because for all that I personify animals, it is just that, laying my human emotions and ideas on top of the animal form, it is impossible for me to say if I am close or far from the mark. Although I am an animal, I am a human animal and I have only ever lived as a human, despite my childhood desires.
People and animals are driven by instincts, by desires, greed, lust, familial love, however most humans have the luxury of not having to fight for their survival every day, we have grocery stores, apartments, plumbing, electricity, animals for the most part do not have this luxury, and most of their energy throughout their lives is spent defending their territory and hunting for food, while raising their babies. It seems to me, however, that they must feel somewhat as we do, even if this is just a romantic idea of mine, that they have compassion that is not simply instinct, they have greed and wage wars; they are neither dark eyed reflections of innocence, nor heartless automatons wandering vacantly through the receding forests of the world. Where their true identity lies though, I don’t think that I am qualified to say, it is what I wonder in my work, a patchwork of concepts, wondering about the enigma of identity, human and animal alike.
Would you call your work science fiction or fantasy?
It’s a little bit of both I would say, as I have neither in mind specifically as I work, some pieces I envision as future worlds, patchwork creatures left in the husk of the future, manmade wrecks, more along the lines of science fiction. Other drawings I see most as ghosts, or wraiths of creatures of old, from forgotten lands, or long cleared forests, which I suppose would fall more into fantasy. My ideas are constantly shifting, and the stories that I have in mind for each piece alter over time. They are preludes, and warnings, futures visions and mad love stories between development and wilderness, some part fantasy and some part science.
What are the key lessons from your animals that you wish to bestow to children?
To value life, and the lives of the creatures that we share this world with, because we are only one life form amongst countless others, and we are more similar to them that we like to think at times. To respect that which is ‘other’ than themselves, and to have a sense of kindred spirit with all those creatures that live amongst us.
hackett.caitlin1 at gmail.com