Flesh fills the screen and forms an interface. As the camera retracts, what appeared human in its supple flex reveals itself to be nonhuman in its supple flex. Flesh is flesh, but flesh is also relative in the hands of men, artist Yalda Afsah reminds us. In ‘Centaur’ (2020), the broad hand of a dressage trainer strokes that equine flesh with a firmness both instructional and affectionate. Man’s care of, and control over, animals is at the heart of Afsah’s work and her first institutional solo exhibition at Kunstverein München titled ‘every word was once an animal’. Here, she traces versions of domestication through four film works—from ‘Centaur’, to pigeon breeding (‘SSRC’, 2022), bull-fighting (‘Tourneur’, 2018) and an ill-defined human contact sport in France (‘Vidourle’, 2019). Through static frames, lingering tracking shots and slow motion, we bear witness to the animals trapped within the frame and at the mercy of men—only ever men.
The accompanying text pays heed to the philosopher Fahim Amir who marks a euro-centric social space as one in which ‘neither animals, plants, slaves nor women had access, but only the free anthropoid loitering smartly.’ As for animals, so too for women. Amir and Afsah draw important associations between the two—both subordinated by domestication and unable to roam freely—and extend it to all those that live and breathe outside of the patriarchy. The masters of Afsah’s films loiter within her frame, dominating and illustrating that our ‘limited world view—as well as our limited understanding—of the other living creatures that surround us’ is still defined by these monumental structures. Demonstrated here in lordy portraiture and the material trappings of whips and mobile phones.
To tame something ‘wild’ is to assert control and affirm hierarchy—don’t bite the hand that feeds you, someone’s always saying. The German Iranian filmmaker and artist undermines this system through a staged documentary style in which the man thinks he is taming the beast, while Afsah tames the man and the work becomes retributory. Across the three gallery spaces, in which natural light is blocked out, screens are suspended on towering steel frames resembling backstage structures: they present Afsah’s footage on a grand scale with a majesty and theatre that befits their subjects—men performing masculinity through the control and precision of animals, under their wing.
Afsah’s stark and stylised footage imparts a subject precision and the subject’s position, reified through versions of uniformity—the motioning leg of the horse in step with that of the trainer in ‘Centaur’, the generic washed cottons and mobile phones of the Compton pigeon breeders in ‘SSRC’ replacing the guidance and communication system of the whip, the protective bubble armoury used for sparring with bulls in ‘Tourneur’, and the clipped dance of grown men in ‘Vidourle’, with their absurd foam instruments. Despite their divergence in tone and emotional registers—from absurd to cacophonous and quietly weighty—these films converge in the use of repetition as a means of control. In ‘SSRC’, pigeons are intensively trained to ‘roll’ and ‘tumble’ in a particular formation, so that even the flight of freedom becomes choreographed dance. The horse motions back and forth through a wooden frame in a perfect trot, later canter, to the audible tick tick of the dressage trainer.
But as time passes—in the films and in their sequencing in the gallery—things break down. Afsah disrupts order by filling the frame with plumes of feathers and wings, and with the sand and dust of thudding hooves, with the iridescent foam of bullrings, impressing an inevitable chaos and man’s relative frailty when faced with the full force of a trapped animal. While in the final room and the final throes of the show, seriousness dissolves into absurdity. ‘Tourneur‘ and ‘Vidourle’ turns the camera on man—his opposition, animal or other, rarely if ever seen—and into the object of this spectator sport.
Man runs amok.
In a discussion with Arthur Jafa about race and identity within film, the late bell hooks asks ‘how do we break free of the frame,’ what is going on ‘outside the frame’ of a film and who is positioned outside the frame of the film, or marginalised. She continues, ‘how do we move away from the frame of the film in which our representations have to be ‘real’ in ‘the imagination of the estranged filmmaker’ and move into the frame that ‘honours a kind of charismatic humanity in which much is possible.’ Afsah’s illusory and staged documentary challenges these mechanisms of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. But she is also acknowledging and then undermining surveillance culture, which, hooks reminds us, is another kind of violence.
Early on in ‘Centaur’, space is constricted by frames within frames, magisterial paintings of men on horseback and the regimented bars and stalls of the stable. But later, and in ‘Tourneur’ too, the camera becomes still and the animal moves with relative freedom in and out of the frame, sometimes deserting it altogether. Towards the end of ‘SSRC’, the pigeons fly the coop and fly the frame, into an Azul-blue West Coast sky. Men are complicit in these emancipatory acts, after all, ‘liberation’ means that someone was once or still is in charge. But by keeping her camera still, Afsah releases the animals from the frame and allows us to imagine the other sentient beings that might wait beyond its edges—and new forms of cohabitation.
‘Every word was once an animal’ is a fitting title for a collection of works in which words are made indecipherable, returning us to a time before human language became the tongue of reason. ‘Our bodies cannot speak freely while they are under surveillance,’ hooks says. Afsah transforms the cannot into will not. She heightens and distorts the sonic imprint of both human and animal, making them inseparable: the pigeon breeders’ muffled conversation whispered into phone handsets, the orated clicks of the dressage trainer and the hooves of the horse, the reverberations of human flesh hitting water. Lifted and amplified during post production, sounds seep into one another, like submersion, like drone and I am reminded of the indistinguishable flesh wall of ‘Centaur’—taking its name from the anthropomorphised figure of Greek mythology, itself half-man half-horse—and the moment when horse and man meet within Asfah’s frame—eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder akin in physiology and sentience, if not in society.
Our semblance to animals is brought to the surface by Afsah, who makes tonal and textural associations between subjects—flesh becomes a connective tissue, the bleached cotton of the men in ‘SSRC’ alludes to the greyscale wings of the pigeons, the traditional tweed of the dressage trainer incites the fine brown coat of the horse—inciting the potential for kinship. This proximity becomes explicit in close-ups that frame moments of intimacy while simultaneously returning us to the violence of care as a form of control—the flesh of a forearm, a lined and padded palm, or a slick wet abdomen taming a fragile wing, brushing a horse’s mane. In ‘SRCC’ a man spreads a pigeon’s pale wings like a fan like an instrument and points to a black feather buried within its white plumage. He says that it means blood—that this bird will not fly today. And I wonder again, if it cannot not, or will not.
Rose Higham-Stainton writes about new feminisms through material and immaterial cultures. Her work has been published by MAP Magazine, Art Monthly, PIN—UP Magazine, The Skirt Chronicles, Ache, Worms, Deleuzine, SPAM PLAZA, forthcoming in The White Review. She is the author of Herēma (Sticky Fingers Publishing) and Foam of the Daze (Bottlecap Press). She co-runs Devotion writing workshops with the poet Sophie Robinson.
Yalda Afsah, Every word was once an animal, Kunstverein München, 15 January-10 April, 2022