Saturday, April 30, 2011

Maurizio Cattelan's Donkey

Dark, horror of darkness
My darkness, drowning, swirling around me
Crashing wave on wave – unspeakable, irresistible
Headwind, fatal harbor! Oh again,
The misery, all at once, over and over
The stabbing daggers, stab of memory
Raking me insane
‘Oedipus The King’ – Sophocles

There is a taxidermised donkey sitting forlornly facing the corner of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. It is an artwork by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan in the Mexico Expected/Unexpected exhibition. The donkey doesn’t face the panorama ocean views worthy of any Californian postcard.  He does not stand on his four legs as one might expect but rather sits with his legs spread apart and his ‘arms’ dropped down in front of him like a sulking child. This anthropomorphised donkey has a thin yellow ridge down his back that meets another line at his bottom to form a cross. This beast of burden is bearing his cross to the view of the ocean. As a viewer, you are initially struck by the sadness of this image of the burdened animal who can never see the picturesque scene at his back.

Donkeys are characterised by their hard work with little status and prestige as an animal. Unlike a horse, they are considered ugly, stupid, stubborn and lazy. The biblical donkeys that take pregnant Mary into Bethlehem at Christmas and Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday emphasise the miracle associated with a saviour that rides on such a humble animal. These donkeys plod along to the stable of the birth and the parade before the death.  That cross on the donkey’s back facing the view, creates a contrast we are familiar with from these stories.

Other donkeys in literature are characterised as pessimists. They are thinkers who know too much and think that nothing can be done. The cynical Benjamin from ‘Animal Farm’ knows the revolution won’t work and that nothing will ever change except those who hold power in their hands. Eyeore from ‘Winnie the Pooh’ who: “thought sadly to himself ‘why?’ and sometimes he thought ‘wherefore?’ and sometimes didn’t know what he was thinking about”. Francisco Goya’s donkeys in ‘Los Caprichos’ are dressed up as men of the Enlightenment. In comic and satiric poses they are having their pictures painted by monkeys, riding on men’s backs and researching their genealogy in books about horses. While one might simply want to tell these allegorical donkeys that there cynicism perpetuates their misery. They do nothing to help change the situation themselves. If only they could just turn around and see the world is a beautiful place. We know that this advice might work well on Oprah, but does little to address why one would want to stare at the corner in the first place.

Firstly, it may be argued the donkey doesn’t even know what is behind him. He is like the prisoners in Plato’s allegorical cave who watch the mere shadows of life on the wall. They believe that their experience of those shadows is reality. They are totally unaware of the existence of the sun lit real reality just outside. They interpret and make meaning of the shadows though they ultimately offer nothing but dark projections. The chained prisoners cannot know what they cannot know. 

In Freudian terms, the view of the wall may be acting as a foil—replacing what could be seen and understood. This could be seen as the nature of repression. The donkey represents the unconscious. In order to see the view he projects himself—his ego—onto the wall, which is, after all, facing the view. He thinks of himself as the wall. The wall becomes a screen by which the beach, the surf, the birds flying past can be seen as reality. You must face the cinema screen not the projector. If he were to turn around he would not see sunshine; he would not see anything. He would no longer have access to his mode of vision. The perceptual impulses of blue, turquoise and gold could not be seen by him. 

Truth is often put on a pedestal; painted in terms of sunshine and happy revelation to be sought after at all costs. We can just look to characters like Oedipus to see how this metaphorical ocean view of truth may want to make you stab your eyes out or at least just face the corner. It is undoubtable that we all continue to face certain corners of our minds. These are restricted areas that are used as a form of self preservation and protection. To turn around and face the view might make you aware of being a taxidermised donkey.

Another way to consider the work is that the donkey is fully aware of the view behind him and quite enjoys the corner. Like the thrill one may get from saving money for something special, but nothing is ever special enough to supersede the special joy of saving. The control and the saving is the best bit. Dieters know more than anyone that satisfaction of going without. Facing the corner on the chocolate cake and eagerly awaiting reward in the form of a loss on the scales.

Satisfaction can be achieved through denial. The truth can be a scary and confronting prospect that perhaps takes on the mask of a Californian sunset. We face the corner like the donkey to feel a sort of arbitrary control over ourselves and our existence. There is nothing like watching a beautiful sunset day in day out to serve as a well loved metaphor of time passing and how our own aging bodies will eventually give way like our taxidermised donkey friend. No wonder he faces the corner. 

Tim Alves & Anna Newbold