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Apichatpong Weerasethakul, ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives’ (2010)

I saw snakes
secretly spilling through my sandal straps.
I walked across the playground
careful not to agitate them.

On my palm
a winged red insect
pinning small sacs to my skin
neatly lined up in a row.

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‘Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light-of-glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it. […] But it is as if, at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales…’ [1]

Animals offer an evocative vocabulary in moving image and cinema, blurring anamorphic and anthropomorphic projection to near astrological effect. In Ildikó Enyedi’s most recent film, On Body and Soul (2017), two abattoir employees discover they meet one another in recurrent shared dreams, incarnated as a pair of deer. Other examples that come to mind include Guy Maddin’s depiction of a frozen lake of petrified horses in My Winnipeg (2007), an exploration of local and personal mythologies; the coexistence of humans, animals and supernatural entities in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (2010); and dog excrement as narrative undertone in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018). These depictions encourage loose association and interpretation, where significance feels intuited rather than rationalised.

Enyedi’s directorial debut, My 20th Century (1989), follows twin sisters Lili and Dora, separated at a young age. Their wildly divergent paths are depicted in parallel to Thomas Edison’s revolutionary innovations in telegraphy, electric lighting and motion picture technologies. As their lives intersect along the Orient Express line in an increasingly connected world, animals appear in multiple instances as emblems of communication, distance, selfhood and fate, offering a wooly thread through a labyrinth of narratives. A dog escapes a laboratory after being shown a cinematic montage by a cluster of interventional stars; a caged chimpanzee recounts the moment of his capture to two passersby; a donkey walks the snowy streets on the night of the twins separation and reappears in their adulthood, shepherding them to their ultimate reunion in a hall of mirrors under a constellation of light bulbs.

At various points in the film, protagonists read passages from Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a collection of essays written by anarchist and natural biologist Peter Kropotkin exploring cooperative behaviour as an evolutionary factor in both animal and human social structures. The structure of the film similarly seems compelled by how visual and narrative explorations benefit from a collective reading, creating a circuit of ideas that compliment and diffract one another to varying degrees of opacity. Central to this is the trope of the animal as a fable-like symbol, accruing an evolving mystical value in the face of technological advancement. A homing pigeon faces its own obsolescence as it bears witness to the first transatlantic telegraphic transmission, perched on a window ledge.

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Ildikó Enyedi, ‘My 20th Century’ (1989)

In The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway writes:

Reality is an active verb, and the nouns all seem to be gerunds with more appendages than an octopus. Through their reaching into each other, through their “prehensions” or graspings, beings constitute each other and themselves. Beings do not preexist their relatings. “Prehensions” have consequences. The world is a knot in motion. […] There are no pre-constituted subjects and objects, and no single sources, unitary actors, or final ends. In Judith Butler’s terms, there are only “contingent foundations”; bodies that matter are the result. A bestiary of agencies, kinds of relatings, and scores of time trump the imaginings of even the most baroque cosmologists.’ (p. 6)

The moving image feels like a particularly hospitable medium to explore these ‘contingent foundations’, understanding reality and its interpretation as relational. One visceral image crystallises in my mind, deeply embedded in my understanding of cinematic language: a woman staring straight into the camera, eyelids held apart, her eye spliced open with a quick motion of the hand. [2] I understand it to be a visual trick, a cow’s eye used as proxy. Nevertheless, I cannot watch it without it reverberating through my body.

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BBC, ‘Lands of the Monsoon’ (2014)

Zodiac (n.): From Old French zodiaque, from Latin zodiacus “zodiac,” from Greek zodiakos (kyklos) “zodiac (circle),” literally “circle of little animals,” from zodiaion, diminutive of zoion “animal”. [3]

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Disney’s ‘Blue Bayou’ from ‘Make Mine Music’, 1946. Originally conceived as part of ‘Fantasia’, 1940.

The boy trundled along the dirt road trailing his mother and sisters, surrounded by the hissing foliage and incessant heat. The walk seemed interminable but was always rewarded with the promise of an hour or two basking by the river. Adults and children alike wore a uniform of sun hats, bathing suits, oversized t-shirts and towels, usually in a garish and decidedly uncoordinated colour palette. The family set their belongings down on the river bank and took to the water, balancing their sparkling jelly shoes on the rockbed.

After the initial chill had subsided [4], the boy and his sisters started to explore with their toy buckets and cheap fishing nets in tow. Initially they banded together, but soon moved apart to conduct their little investigations by themselves. The boy found a secluded patch on the opposite bank, where a slight bend in the river’s contours obscured the other water revellers from view.

He spotted a shoal of miniscule minnows darting between his legs. Steadying himself, he lowered his plastic accessory beneath the water and launched it back up with a clumsy sweeping motion. He checked the net and counted a haul of at least five tiny thrashing glimmers. He studied them before attempting to pick one up with his thumb and forefinger. His first attempt failed, as did his second, third, and fourth, each fish wriggling free out of his chubby hands back into clear unnetted waters. He tried to tame his frustrations before his final go. To his surprise, he managed it efficiently, before realising he had no idea what to do next. His impulses scared him.

The boy spotted a rock that peaked just above the water surface. He walked over to it with great caution, his back hunched and eyes fixed on the minnow, which in turn desperately met his gaze. He arranged his catch on the rock and perched down beside it. He stared at it so long that after a while he couldn’t determine the distinction between the minnow’s scales and the mineral constitution of the surface it was lying on.

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In the evenings, the family would gather their bedding and lie down on the veranda to stare up at the night sky, watching for shooting stars. The boy never got over fear that consumed him each time he thought he could feel himself falling upwards.


[1] Berger, John, (2009). Why Look at Animals? London: Penguin Books. P. 11

[2] Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929).

[3] Definition paraphrased from www.etymonline.com.

[4] In some languages, i.e. Spanish and Dutch, the literal translation of the term goosebumps is chicken skin (la piel de gallina, kippenvel).

Suzanne van der Lingen is an artist and writer currently based in Nottingham. She guest edited ‘Footnoting the Archive’ with Claire Walsh, MAP 2016, mapmagazine.co.uk/inde… and served as a committee member at EMBASSY Gallery (2015-2016). She recently completed a year-long studio residency at BACKLIT (2017).