The Metamorphosis of Objects
Following up my previous contextual practice essay, How Ordinary Objects Become Extraordinary, the animated objects with reference to psychological and biological aspect will be discussed in depth in this essay. Underpinned by my experience in London’s Royal Parks, this essay will investigate how artists transform nature objects into human hybrids, while changing the object’s content and meaning. I will first review the relationship between objects and human in terms of memory and nostalgia. Then, I will discuss how fictional narratives are attached to objects in psychological and biological aspects, in which Grotesque and Surrealism will be touched. Lastly, I will examine a number of artists’ practices and analysis the metamorphosis within their work.
Objects and Memories
There are two features of an object, function and meaning. Regardless of the level of functionality, objects with rich meaning always have high value and connection to us. These kinds of objects can be souvenirs, antiques or mythological objects. Baudrillard (1968:80) suggested there is “nostalgia for origins” and “the obsession with authenticity” within the mythology of the antique. We are always fascinated by the story behind an object. It may be an object equipped with mythology or folklore, like the history of the Holy Grail and the legend of Excalibur, no matter it is the original object or replica; or an object that once was part of an event and now becomes remnant of that experience, serving as memory restoration medium for that particular person. Stewart (1984) described this as “events whose materiality have escaped us and events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative”. Souvenir is the evocative object that links to memory and experiences of the possessor. Hence, object is not merely itself but the narrative of the possessor.
Both Baudrillard and Stewart proposed that the authentic experience of souvenir is eccentric and elusive. Stewart (1984) explained that souvenir is an incomplete and “now-distanced experience” that can only “evoke and resonate to, and can never entire recoup”, and it must remain incomplete to make room for a narrative discourse. Memory is not accurate. We forget, mistaken, and have tendency to idealize the past. Foster (1993) suggested that ‘each new object is a substitute for the lost one, that and the lost object is a fantasy’, and the lost object can ‘never be recovered, is forever sought and repeated’. Since memory is never a real thing, it’s hard to distinguish the original memory from imagination. Therefore, the restoration and the narrative of the souvenir involve fiction and imagination.
Landscape and Human Body
Now if we look at the landscape, artists actually transform the experience of nature into Arts, which Arts become the souvenir of the nature. The context of the nature object is lost and replaced with the creator’s narrative and new context. Stewart (1984) mentioned that there is always “an abstract projection of the body upon the natural world.” This is indeed a valid argument as human body is always used to depict the geographical features of the nature. In the mythology of world creation from a different version, there is always a primeval giant who sacrifices their body parts and transform them into natural environment and various life forms.
In The Timaeus, Plato (1888) suggested the cosmos is a living organism and is a copy of the transitory world of “becoming”. Based on this, Stewart (1984) added that there are abstract qualities of human ”nature” and physical aspects of the universe, while Napier (1870) suggested that these human characters are illustrated in all departments of nature. These abstract qualities of human nature are shown in many landscape paintings. There are a number of artists who depict the nature with human features. In Paul Nash’s World War I portrayals of the battlefields, the trees always look like body parts of corpses, which resonate with his experience of the war. He also called the natural place “the genius of loci”, that he believed spirit existed in the landscape. Similar kind of nature-human hybrids can also be found in the landscape work of Graham Sutherland, but in a more ambiguous way. In his painting 'Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods', the wood looks as if a body of unknown creatures lying on the ground. It acquires the human features like legs or the curve of a lying body with the non-human elements, creating sense of uncanny.
Figure 1: ‘We are Making a New World’ by Paul Nash, 1918
Figure 2: ‘Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods’ by Graham Sutherland, 1940
Perception and Projection
It is interesting that we always see these abstract qualities of human nature in the nature. We all have experienced the moment of pareidolia in the nature that we thought the trees or the stones look like faces or other human characteristics. According to a scientific study on learning process by Takeo Watanable (2007), it is shown that the more frequent we see an object, the higher sensitivity we will develop it in our brain. In other words, if we are exposed to a certain repeated object, we become highly sensitive to that object that we will easily mistaken other things that look like that object. This eventually interferes with our perception of reality because we see things even when they are not really existed.
Uexküll (2010) stated that every animal lives in its own subjective realities, that it only distinguishes objects that it can carry out action in its environment. Take the living room as an example, a human (Figure 3) can see many objects including the books and chairs, whereas a fly (Figure 4) can only recognize food containers as objects but fails to see others because it doesn’t have any interaction with those objects. For a fly, those objects are just part of the background. Uexküll (2010) then used an Oak tree to explain how the same object is seen differently in different environment. The forester (Figure 5) only sees the oak, which is merely just a tree for doing his job to measure the tree whereas the little girl is scared to see the face feature of the oak (Figure 6).
Figure 3: ‘The human being’s room'
Figure 4: ‘The fly’s room'
Figure 5: ‘Forester and oak'
Figure 6: ‘Girl and oak'
illustrations from “A Foray into the worlds of Animals and Humans
Contrasting to Uexküll‘s argument, psychologists believe such kind of pictorial form can be seen not only because of the need of organism but also the mood and act as a mental reflection of the person. In relation to Arts, Arnheim (1968) suggested that Arts can be interpreted psychologically by means of isomorphic symbolism, and “structure characteristics of visual form which are spontaneously related to a similar characteristic in human behaviours.” This means that the relative reality we see involves the projection of our minds and visions, and when we reconstruct the subjective reality through Arts, we project our personality and mood in it. In addition to this, Jung’s views on ‘otherness’ and ‘the shadow’ (1995) support that monsters are the projection of our unconscious personality – that is the part of personality we choose to repress and reject. Stewart (1984) suggested the constant projection of ourselves to the world image return to us onto the mirror, the animals or the artistic image. We project ourselves to nature objects and see the illusion as the returned images. This returned images are the result of metamorphosis of nature objects, which are also the imaginary creatures in the Grotesque and Surrealism.
The Hybrids in Arts
The hybrids in Arts are always the fantasy beings from folkloric, mythology and religious context throughout the history. They are monsters combining different animals and human parts such as Minotaur, Medusa and centaurs. Then when it comes to the increasing role of science and technology in the modern era, integration of technology with human beings started to form, such as the creature from Frankenstein and the humanoid robots in Metropolis. According to Wood (2008), it was the World Wars and the downfall of human ideals that drove the desire of artists to search for ways of articulating new statements about man by fusing the human figure, with vegetal forms in particular. Both Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland were war artists who were commissioned to record the war events. Unlike Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland’s works didn’t put the war and nature together. Instead, the curious organic forms are vague with personal interpretation projected into them. According to P.Morton Shand’s writing (1939) on Nash’s paintings, Nash referred these metamorphic objects as ‘personage’ in 1934. Nash saw these personage objects as a kind of human being with distinctive a personality. George Shaw (2018) suggested that these are their potential self-portraits. These human-plant hybrids have included the quality of surrealism.
Andre Breton (cited in Pfeiffer, 2011) once said the Surrealist idea is from metamorphoses. In this case, the grotesque in Surrealism would be perfect to examine Arts that interprets ‘personage’ within hybrid form, sculptures in. Wood (2008) stated that sculpture is always a medium for artists to “reconfigure and reinvent human, animal and plant forms. In the exhibition catalogue of “Against Nature: The Hybrid Forms of Modern Sculpture”, hybrid forms are divided into three groups: metamorphic creatures, modern monsters and hortisculpture. Metamorphic creatures are figures sources from mythology and folklore that we have already discussed earlier. Modern monsters are the mixture of mythology and psychology, and hortisculptures are hybrids mixed with plants and human. I would like to talk about Louise Bouregois’ ‘Nature Study’ as modern monsters and Max Ernst’s ‘Lunar Asparagus’ as a hortisculpture.
Louise Bourgeois’ works are always related to her painful and traumatic past. They are the reconstruction of the past, putting fragments and pieces together into an object that represents the present. In her ‘Nature Study’ (Figure 7 and 8), the hybrids are composed with displaced multiplied organs. They are an incomplete grotesque body of parts with, and then this exaggerated part becomes an independent life displaced on their own. This must be what Bakhtin(1981) said about grotesque body as “body in the act of becoming.” Bourgeois (2008) said that the purpose of her works is to express her emotions, which she described that they were her demons. ‘The Surrealists strove to integrate and bring the forgotten and the represses in the human being to light.” (Pfeiffer, 2011). The forgotten and the represses must be the shadow that Jung mentioned, that is the hidden personality we want to abandon.
Figure 7: Lousie Bourgeois’ “Nature Study”, 1984
Figure 9:Max Ernst’s “Lunar Asparagus”, 1935
Figure 8: Lousie Bourgeois’ “Nature Study”, 1986
Differing from Bourgeois’ works that always feature sexuality, Max Ernst’s works are androgynous. In ‘Lunar Asparagus’, the asparagus is covered with ivory white plaster with the shapes of bones and joints. This skeletal quality of the human-plant hybrid suggested that this object is between the state of life and death. This state of life and death can also be found not only in surrealism sculptures but also paintings, including hybrids in Bourgeois, Nash and Sutherland we discussed before.
‘The work of art defined as an experience turns out to be a Gestalt of the highest degree.’ (Arnheim, 1968). Therefore, the work of art will always be the remnants of our past and the projection of our personality. Arts is all about metamorphoses. The fictional creatures within arts are the souvenir of the experiences and memory in evolved forms. There will always be a way to trace back their origins, but also resonate with the present at the same time. That is how a work associates with the creator’s personal experiences and creates a new context and connection with other individuals – with their hybrid forms that allows memory to be in flux, providing spaces for others to interpret. Based on this idea, my works will be involved with metamorphoses of the objects into animated hybrids.
Arnheim, R. (1968) 'Gestalt Psychology and Artistic Form’, in Whyte, L. (ed.) Aspects of Form.2nd edn. London: Lund Humphries.
Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Emersion, C. and Holquist, M. Austin: University of Texas Press
Baudrillard, J. (2005) The System of Objects. London:Verso.
Bourgeois (2008) Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMdWNwOWnng (Accessed: 10 May 2018).
Foster, H. (1993) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jung, C. (1995) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Translated. by Jaffé, A. London: Harper Collins.
Shand, M.(1939) ‘Object and Landscape’, Country Life, 3 June 1939, pp.593.
Napier, C. (1870) The Book of Nature and the Book of Man. London:J.C. Hotten.
Plato. (1888) The Timaeus of Plato. Translated by Archer-Hind R. D. Cambridge: Macmillan.
Shaw, G. (2018) Email to George Shaw, 7 May.
Stewart, S. (1984) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Takeo, W. (2007) 'Science unravels why we see faces everywhere'. Interview with Takeo Watanable. Interviewed by Elizabeth Svoboda for The New York Times, 13 Feb of interview. Available at: (Accessed: 2 Dec 2018).
Uexküll, J. (2010) A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wood, J. (2008) Against Nature: The Hybrid Forms of Modern Sculpture Exhibition held at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Feb – May 2008 [Exhibition catalogue].
Pfeiffer, I. (2011) 'Surreal Objects Yesterday and Today', in Pfeiffer, I. (ed.) Surreal Objects. London: The MIT Press.