The Fate of the Animals: On Horses, the Apocalypse, and Painting as Prophesy (Three Paintings Trilogy), by Morgan Meis, Slant
Review by Leanne Ogasawara
The discovery of a book of letters written by a soldier and artist to his wife during World War I, and the recognition of this book of letters drives us into a consideration of the Great War, which was a kind of Apocalypse.
In 2011, philosopher and art critic Morgan Meis is wandering the halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A show on German Expressionism is on, and Meis finds himself transfixed by a certain picture. It is Franz Marc’s 1913 oil, The World Cow. The languid rust-colored creature in the painting calls to mind a cow seen in real life. Recognizing those eyes, Meis recalls its patient stare. Wasn’t there perhaps a hint of rebuke in the cow’s eyes?
This cow becomes the moment of possession. Or perhaps it was more like the first beckoning; for a year or so later Meis stumbles on a book of collected letters that the German painter wrote to his wife whilst a soldier in the Great War. It would be in the war where Franz Marc would lose his life, his skull shattered by a bullet.
Meis is hooked.
Meis’s next stop is Switzerland, where he and his dear friend Abbas Raza—to whom the book is dedicated– stand before Franz Marc’s monumental 1913 The Fate of the Animals, in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. At first glance, he thinks it is a work of early abstract art. With its strong slashes of primary colors, the immediate impression is one of violence. Looking closer, however, the animals come into focus. There is a bluish deer in the lower center, appearing in grave distress. Is the deer being sacrificed? And if so, to what purpose, he wonders. Other animals—including boars and horses—can be just made out among the shafts of color. Is this the end of the world? Read more »
The masked actor walks slowly forward. Pausing, he ever so slightly tilts his head upward. The audience is astonished; for with that tiniest upward tilt of his head, the facial expression of the mask is transformed –and he now appears smiling. How had these mask carvers, now long dead, managed to create these works of art that appear so different depending on the angle they are viewed?
The Noh theater is often cited as being the longest continuously-performed theater tradition in the world—with masks considered to be amongst the finest ever created.
Attending a performance, the first thing you might notice is the way time itself immediately slows down and takes on a stretched-out quality.
You suddenly have time to notice all kinds of things.
Like how long it takes the actor to walk toward center butai stage from the curtain. Several years ago, I worked on a translation on the traditional Japanese walking style, Nanba aruki. Commonly associated with Edo period samurai dramas, the style is to walk with knees slightly more bent and to move the arms as little as possible—But if moved the right arm moves in tandem with the right leg, the opposite of modern styles of walking.
At first, it was surprising to realize that people might not have always have walked like we do now. But some people think this nanba aruki style is healthier since hips and shoulders move together, rather than opposed. Also, I learned that because the center of gravity is lower due to slightly bent knees with feet gliding on the surface, it is an effective way of moving through marshes or other tough terrain. Read more »
And You May Find Yourself Living in an Age of Mass Extinction…. So begins Timothy Morton’s latest book, All Art is Ecological.
Published as part of Penguin’s new Green Ideas Series, this slim paperback sits alongside nineteen other works of environmental writing. From farmers and biologists to artists and philosophers, spanning decades, the books offer a wide range of perspectives, which Chloe Currens, the editor of the series, says serves to present an evolving ecosystem of environmental writing.
Along with classics like Masanobu Fukuoka’s The Dragonfly Will Be the Messiah and Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; there is the work of many contemporary thinkers, such as Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Amitav Ghosh’s Uncanny and Improbable Events, and George Monbiot’s This can’t be happening.
I wanted to read them all—but I started with Timothy Morton, who has been called “the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene.” A big fan of his writing, I think Timothy Morton is pretty much the most exciting thinker alive. I was, therefore, not surprised to find myself challenged from the very first sentence.
What does this mean exactly: You MIGHT find yourself living in an age of mass extinction?
It’s getting late, and your friends are leaving; however, you decide to linger for a bit at the bar, enjoying a last drink, perhaps quietly observing the people around you. As your gaze sweeps the room, it suddenly locks onto another’s, and your idle attention snaps into focus. You feel a strange fluttering sensation in your stomach intensifying as they hold your gaze, and your tentative smile is returned. Emboldened by the smile and the effect of the drinks before this ‘last’ one that will not remain the last, you move over and strike up a conversation. You end up leaving the bar together.
The following months are love and bliss. The harmony is effortless and immediate. Getting to know each other becomes intimacy, becomes familiarity. You move in together, pick out wallpaper and dishware, begin the work of crafting a life together.
But in the end, it doesn’t last. Small irritations become fault lines, become trenches. The mood sours; perhaps you suspect there may be someone else involved. Otherwise, how to explain this sudden coldness? The turning away with downcast eyes?
Yet when they leave you, it hurts more than you thought it would. It hurts for a long time, too, and although the wound eventually scabs over, then scars, it leaves a tender spot that will be with you for the rest of your life, occasional flare-ups indicating a change in cosmic weather you don’t quite understand. You lie awake at night sometimes, wondering how things might be if you still were together—or even, if you’d never met them. Would you be happier? Or would there be something intangible, yet profound, missing in your life? Read more »
Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.
They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.
Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!
My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths! Read more »
David Attenborough reserves a certain mournful tone for narrating death in the natural world. In the Jungles episode of BBC’s epic documentary series Planet Earth, we hear that voice, interspersed with the rich, crackling sound of splintering wood, as we see a massive rain forest tree collapse under its own weight after centuries of growth. Just as the tree’s last branches fall out of view through the canopy, Attenborough, in his reassuringly authentic British accent, opines: “the death of a forest giant is always saddening, but it has to happen if the forest is to remain healthy.” After the surrounding trees spring back into place, we descend to the rain forest floor, and enter a realm whose usual gloom has been suddenly washed away by the new hole in its leafy ceiling. Here we can see, with the help of Planet Earth’s signature time-lapse cinematography, how the flood of light that now reaches the forest floor triggers a race to the top by the unbelievable variety of plant life struggling to collect that valuable light. The narration explains how each species has its own strategy for besting its competitors. Vines climb up neighboring trees, sacrificing structural strength for rapid vertical growth. Broad-leaved pioneers such as macarangas are the clear winners at this early stage; their huge leaves provide them with enough energy to grow up to eight meters in a single year. But “the ultimate winners are the tortoises, the slow and steady hardwoods,” which will continue striving for their places in the light-drenched canopy for centuries to come.
The series’ unmatched capacity to bring the natural world to life, as it were, has made it both the premier wildlife documentary of its day and the most enjoyable toy for twenty-first century stoned college students. Time-lapse photography and stunning footage of impossibly rare animals transport us, as viewers, into virgin territory, a territory that operates according to its own natural laws, thus far spared from human interference. While the show’s inventive cinematography animates the natural world, Attenborough is able to give meaning to natural processes by articulating the concealed, organic logic that organizes life. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, or seen from above, Planet Earth explains nature’s apparent randomness by casting the world’s plants and animals as players in an epic struggle for survival. The planet’s breathtaking beauty – along with its inhabitants’ sometimes-bizarre bodies and behaviors – is the integrated result of countless relations between harsh climates, scarce resources, and living things competing to exist. But if this is the narrative of the natural world, does it accurately reflect an already existent reality? What artifacts can we find of this production of meaning about the world? Is there a difference between Nature and the natural world? And most importantly, where do we – as viewers, as humans, as people – fit into this story?