Sheep's Parade II, the Big Sheep

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"Sheep", "Triptych - The Lost Sheep" and "Quixotes and Sheep"

by Edward Picot

During the spring and early summer of this year, I submitted three works to Regina on the subject of sheep. The first was a contribution to the Sheep's Parade, which she started in March 2005, and to which I sent a piece in May called (boringly) "Sheep". Then she announced the Big Sheep project at the beginning of June, and I submitted "Triptych - The Lost Sheep" . The third piece was "Don Quixote's Dream", which I submitted to the "Quixotes and Sheep" project at the beginning of July. These three pieces, in their original forms, can now be seen on my website at . All three were put together out of material originated by other people (although I wrote the texts for "Don Quixote's Dream" myself), and this is the first time I've made extensive use of "found" or "sampled" material.

Regina wrote a commentary on the first piece, "Sheep", in the Museum Newsletter. The piece is based on two paintings by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. Regina noticed, of course, the political content of "Sheep" - it includes images of Tony Blair, Saddam Hussein and anonymous voters - but she added "I have no idea of the reason why Edward chose William Holman Hunt to illustrate his work".

I will briefly explain what I was trying to do. The first Holman Hunt painting is called "Strayed Sheep (Our English Coasts)", and although it may look like an idyllic English landscape at first it's actually a highly-charged symbolic account of the state of the nation. In an earlier painting, "The Hireling Shepherd", Hunt shows a brawny-looking shepherd making love to a peasant girl in the foreground, while in the background his flock goes untended. One of the sheep has found its way into a cornfield, and its head can just be seen poking up amongst the ripe corn. The painting can be read as an allegory of the irresponsibility of sensual self-indulgence; or of the Church's failure to tend to its flock; or of the political establishment's failure to look after the rank and file of society. "The Hireling Shepherd" was painted in 1851, and "Strayed Sheep", which is dated 1852, reworks the same theme. This time around, however, Hunt changes his target from society in general to England in particular by transferring his flock to an English-looking clifftop above the sea and (just to underline the point) subtitling the work "Our English Coasts". This time, furthermore, the sheep are not straying into a cornfield but teetering on the edge of a cliff; the shepherd is not distracted by earthly pleasures but missing altogether; and the most lost of all the sheep, instead of appearing as a background detail, poking its head up from a field of corn, has become the focal point of the picture, and is struggling chin-deep in a thicket of brambles.

The second Holman Hunt painting used in my piece is "The Scapegoat", painted in 1854, while Hunt was on a visit to Israel. The painting was inspired by the Talmudic tradition of driving a sacrificial white goat into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, with all the sins of the tribe on its back. The goat is symbolic of Christ, a point which Hunt drives home by inscribing the frame of the painting with Biblical quotations: "Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows..." (Isaiah 53:4). The painting is daringly ugly and uncompromising for a religious work of the Victorian era: the goat is tottering in the front and centre of the picture, evidently on the point of collapse, with its tongue lolling between its teeth and its yellow eyes rolling upwards. Behind it is a desert spiky with the bones of previous victims and glossy with mirages: on the horizon, a line of brown-and-purple mountains, which seem to belong in a painting by Salvador Dali or Georgia O'Keefe.

At the time when I produced "Sheep", Britain was just about to have a general election. I suppose the simplest idea I wanted to express was that the British electorate was like a flock of sheep, powerless to make any real difference to the course of events. I was drawn to "Strayed Sheep" because to me it seemed to embody this sense of powerlessness and moral confusion. I was drawn to "The Scapegoat" because out of this powerlessness and moral confusion had arisen a situation (the war in Iraq) where we in the West had allowed ourselves to victimise another nation as a scapegoat for all the wrongs of our world. Hunt's paintings seemed appropriate to what I was trying to say, and the Middle Eastern setting of "The Scapegoat" seemed especially apposite.

On the other hand, although all these meanings seemed plain to me, what I perhaps didn't consider carefully enough was whether they would be equally plain to other observers, perhaps observers from other parts of the world, who might might be unfamiliar with English art, with the Pre-Raphaelites, and with Hunt's work in particular. In other words I may have been guilty of a bit of cultural arrogance. Furthermore I was relying very heavily on my own interpretation of the paintings, and there might be other people who were just as familiar with them, but who interpreted them in quite a different way. Since I put "Sheep" together, for example, I have become more conscious that "The Scapegoat" could be regarded as an anti-Semitic painting. After all, it wasn't the Jews who killed Jesus, it was the Romans: but to represent Jesus as a scapegoat, driven to death by the Israelites, is very much in line with the Christian tradition of blaming the Jews rather than the Romans for his crucifiction. If a viewer were to adopt this reading of "The Scapegoat", and carry it over to my piece about sheep, then he or she might come away with the idea that I was blaming the Jews rather than the USA for making a scapegoat out of Iraq, in the same way that Hunt is blaming the Jews rather than the Romans for making a scapegoat of Jesus: and this is something which I certainly didn't intend.

So this illustrates two of the dangers of incorporating other people's work into your own: firstly that your audience might not understand what you saw in it when you chose it; and secondly that they might find something else in it, which you overlooked yourself. And a third problem is this: that the other images I used in "Sheep" - Blair, Saddam Hussein, shoppers in a shopping mall and voters putting crosses onto voting papers - were comparatively simple to interpret. They were photographs discovered on the Internet, rather than complex works of art with highly-wrought symbolic meanings. So to my eye at least, looking at "Sheep" again now, there seems to be an imbalance between the "weight" of Holman Hunt's paintings, and the "weight" of these other photographic images.

One reason why "Triptych - The Lost Sheep", my second piece, strikes me as more solidly-built is because it doesn't have the same imbalance between its ingredients. As a matter of fact there are really only two ingredients in it: one is a picture which I discovered on the Web, showing a bony-looking lamb in a rough field (the image actually comes from a veterinary site and is entitled "Parasitic lamb"); and the other is a photograph of the sky, which I took from the upstairs window of my house. Partly because of its simplicity, I feel more thoroughly in control of the meanings of this piece. The images are ambiguous, but the ambiguity is of a poetic variety with which I feel comfortable. Has the lamb died and gone to heaven, or has it died and gone to nowhere? I don't want to over-analyse "Triptych", because it's only a slight piece, but it seems to work by suggesting a range of ideas about presence and absence, life and death, earth and sky, solidity and emptiness, materiality and spirituality, and so forth - plus the idea that death is a sort of getting-lost, both from the point of view of those left behind ("Where's that person gone?") and from the point of view of the one who dies ("Where am I going now?").

The third piece, "Don Quixote's Dream", is probably the least satisfactory of the three. It was an attempt to take the three-panel format and animate it. Regina's call for contributions to the "Don Quixotes and Sheep" project mentioned the eighteenth chapter of Cervantes' novel, in which Don Quixote attacks a flock of sheep, imagining them to be an army of pagans. This struck me as being an appropriate image for those of us who work in the New Media field: we imagine ourselves to be heroic figures, and we launch furious assaults on the sheep-like complacency and indifference of the general public, all to no avail. Hence the slant of the texts which I added to the work: "He dreams of battles with sheep", "He dreams his struggle is heroic", etc. It was only after I'd finished the piece and submitted it that I started to notice how irritatingly clocklike the transitions are from one image to the next in each of the three panels. It was also only at this stage that I realised Regina had been looking for a different slant on the subject: she actually defined the project as follows: "The general theme is a simple scream/question to 'sick Quixotes' and 'glutton Panzas': we are sheep??!!" In other words, while I was identifying myself with Don Quixote, the self-deluded loner, Regina was taking the side of the sheep, imagining Don Quixote as a madman (in the style of George Bush) who attacks innocent flocks because he has somehow managed to convince himself of their evil intent. I'd got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Furthermore, wanting to experiment with the principle of borrowing/cloning images by other artists, which Regina was espousing in "The Big Sheep" blog, and also feeling that "Don Quixote's Dream" needed a larger array of sheep pictures than I could easily produce myself, I raided "The Big Sheep" for material, and it was only after the piece was complete that I began to wonder whether some of this material was really appropriate. Is Isabel Saij's spiky green robot-sheep, for example, really a fitting illustration for my idea of Don Quixote as a deluded artist-knight attacking a sheeplike public? Come to that, what about my own image of a sheep-silhouette full of sky? In the end, I was left with the feeling that my use of borrowed material had only served to dilute and muddle the idea on which "Don Quixote's Dream" was based, instead of augmenting it.

When "Don Quixote's Dream" was incorporated into "Quixotes and Sheep", however, all of its problems seemed to disappear, and I found this rather startling. The reason for this transformation, I eventually decided, that it was very difficult to pay "Quixotes and Sheep" the kind of detailed attention which would highlight the weaknesses of my own work - and in this, it seemed representative of a lot of big new media works.

I had better say immediately that I think "Quixotes and Sheep" is a wonderful and tremendously kinetic piece of design. Considering how many different artists have contributed to it, and how many distinct styles can be distinguished within it, one of its most striking characteristics is its visual unity. aLexandre Venera, who put the piece together, has managed to fit all the contributions into a single tightly-controlled format without sacrificing any of their individuality; and although the audio content of the piece is just as varied as the visual, he has done exactly the same thing with that. The sounds are randomised so that a given section of visual imagery will be accompanied by a different audio segment each time you visit it; yet whichever audio segment you end up with, it always seems to suit what you're looking at - a powerful piece of evidence in favour of those random juxtapositions so often used by new media artists.

It's only when you start to look at the different sections of imagery and text in terms of what they mean that the structure of the piece begins to creak. Babel's contribution seems to be at least partly about genetic engineeering - a hypodermic syringe touches a sheep, which rapidly multiplies itself into a small army of identical clones. aLexandre Venera's two contributions, on the other hand, both reference consumerism and international politics. One of them shows a lofty skyscraper with the ominous silhouettes of planes crossing in front of it; evidently a reference to 9/11; but instead an explosion or smoke billowing out of the building, we get the fluffy heads of sheep popping up all over it. A text alongside says "fashion sheep/quixotes' style train". Venera's second piece features sheep heads again, plus the MacDonalds logo, a picture of Che Guevara and the question "war against terror?" spelt out in big yellow letters. My own contribution, as I have said, is about new media artists and their audience. Genetic engineering; politics and consumerism; new media artists and their audience - how do these different themes dovetail together? The short answer is that they don't. They have simply been co-opted into a larger structure.

Most people who look at "Quixotes and Sheep" probably won't get as far as pondering the individual sections and trying to work out what their "messages" are, or whether these different messages harmonise with one another. And in a sense this is just as it should be, because "Quixotes and Sheep" doesn't particularly invite this type of attention. It does give you the option of looking at individual sections in detail if that's what you want to do, but the overall impression it makes on you is one of hurry and fragmentation. There's never just one thing on-screen at any given moment: instead, the available space is always divided into subsections, with different things happening simultaneously in different places. The contents of each subsection are always changing, and the layout of the screen keeps changing too. Bits of text appear, but disappear again before you get a proper chance to read them. The sound-track is fragmented in just the same way; loud one moment, silent the next; and you can't quite make out what the sounds are, although you can pick out details such as baaing and train-noises. All in all, you find yourself confronted by a host of signifiers, all jostling up against each other and demanding your attention at the same time. There's too much to take in. It's all happening too quickly. The end result is excitement and stimulation combined with a confusion of the senses and the mind.

The critic Harold Bloom once remarked that pre-Romantic art tends to spread its content more thinly and explain it more fully, whereas the tendency from the Romantics onwards has been to give us more and more signifiers with less and less explanation of what they mean. The reader or viewer is drawn into the post-Romantic work of art by a need to decode it. We are presented not with answers but with questions. With the advent of Modernism, things are taken a stage further: the images with which we are confronted are not merely puzzling and ambiguous but deliberately fragmented. We are required not simply to decode them, to produce answers to the questions they pose, but to undergo an experience of fragmentation ourselves, and to accept that some of the questions may be unanswerable. New media art, with its subdivisions of the screen, its combinations of image, text and audio, its randomness and its rapidity, takes things further still: it frequently presents us with more than we can possibly assimilate. It draws on the tradition of bricolage which comes from Modernism, but also on the tradition of sampling which comes from rap music - and as with sampling, it incorporates material from many sources at least partly because thanks to digital technology that material is now readily available and the means of incorporating it are available too. It presents that material to us in rapidly-changing combinations, again at least partly because digital technology makes that simple to do as well: you put your source materials into arrays, you randomise the arrays, you add a timer, and so forth. And the end result is something which feels right for our times. We are bewildered and overloaded by a work such as "Quixotes and Sheep" in just the same way that we are bewildered and overloaded by the ever-increasing wealth of information available on the Web or on our television screens. The messages of its individual sections are unimportant compared to the impact of the work as a whole. Its form is its message, and its message is hurry, fragmentation, overload.

I must admit that I do find myself, particularly when putting together work of my own, experiencing an anally-retentive desire to keep control of all the meanings of a piece. I also find myself drawn to work which is comparatively simple, small-scale and still - work which allows us to assimilate it at our own pace rather than experiencing it as a kind of deluge or onslaught. But I can't deny the power of a work like "Quixotes and Sheep", or that it captures something of what it feels like to live in the digital age.