Do animals experience samsara?

“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”  Piet Hein

Today during a visit to the Art Gallery of Victoria, I was captivated by Nicholas Vandergugten’s work “What Comes First,” a series of four monitors showing nine looping films of artists’ hands as they worked. The film focuses on process, not product, calling attention to the practice of creation—the incomplete, the unpolished, the fits and starts. We see artists’ hands doing and pausing and making. Hands turn the pages of an art bullet journal, hands etch and paint, hands turn over found objects: bones and feathers. Hands rest on the paint-flecked table as if considering their next move. Here, I document the process/progress of making eight pennants in a similar spirit.

In the last several days, I finished “loss,” then “fame.” Three pennants are complete. I enjoyed creating “fame.” The steps leading up to it included an hour wandering through Fabricland, searching for deer-themed fabric. To my surprise, there was a lot to choose from.

Yet soon discomfort seeped in. Not about the materials themselves, but about the concept. When I created the first pennant, “gain,” I arbitrarily used a tiny deer puppet that I had hanging around my studio. It was part of a set of knitted finger puppets I gave IMG_0546to a little girl, but somehow the deer got away from the set and I ended up with it. It seemed a perfect way to make the abstract concrete: to have someone or something experiencing gain. So my deer was soon cosseted by silks and feathers, zipped into a cocoon of wealth. A narrative emerged: Rainer the reindeer enjoys his gains, not realizing he’ll soon experience loss.

Unwittingly, I had committed myself to a story about a deer, a narrative that  would need to continue through all of the eight worldly winds to maintain coherence. For loss, I represented the biggest loss—death—inside of an empty purse. Fame was fun and whimsical—deer of the year.

But a problem emerged. Animals do not experience the eight worldly winds in the same way humans do. Perhaps they feel pleasure and pain, but can they be famous amongst themselves? Or can a deer be disreputable according to other deer? What about praise and blame—do animals feel these? I doubt it. (Buddhist texts depict those in the animal realm as driven by impulse and instinct, and thus living a life of mostly suffering.)

In using an animal to represent how humans experience samsara, I unintentionally introduced irony. Now I had the problem of how to show Rainer experiencing the eight worldly winds without being too cute in my anthropomorphism (for example, replicating a Disney version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer). Could Rainer stand in for human experience and at the same time retain his essential deerness?

I seemed to be throwing the heaviness of human subjectivity over the antlers of a proud autonomous deer. Oh dear… there I go again. “Proud” is the inevitable human perspective—I cannot escape it.  When I think of disrepute I conjure up Rudolph’s red nose. When I think of a famous deer, the mythical white stag comes to mind. As soon as I, human subject, try to imagine deer subjectivity, I colour deer as object.

I remembered a poem I wrote about meeting a stag.* Inevitably self-referential, the speaker soon slips from confrontation with an alien creature into being Susan in Narnia. The stag becomes C.S. Lewis’s literary creation. How to stay in a space that respects difference?

But then again, I am not sure it really matters. Ultimately, continuing to work on a series is to have faith that everything will hang together eventually and that there is some kind of value–if not in the product, then in the process. As I work on the next five pennants, I will continually reshape the question of how to show a deer stuck in samsara and probably wish I’d never started it.

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

I faced a stag
in the darkening light,
felt his animal breath
warm, familiar
looked into his glassy
dispassionate eye
felt  a whoosh of joy
to share the earth.

There was a moment of
recognition. How did
you raise forty points
on urban marigolds?
I wanted to ask, and wanted
him to answer, plunging us from
Oak Bay to Narnia.

I could be Susan,
Archeress,
Surefooted older sister,
gentle, strong,
doubtful at first, but
then devoted to Aslan.

Stag, turn white and take me there,
let me blow danger with my
magic horn before I get
beguiled by the material world.

But suddenly
mind flings back to body,
yours— pivot of bone branches,
smooth quivering hide,
and mine—sagging on two legs
in this sad outlandish standoff.

*This is a modified version of the original poem published in my book Birth of the Uncool

IMG_0568

Suffering?

 

 

 

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