in Frieze | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Animal Instinct

Lucy Gunning

in Frieze | 06 MAR 95

A girl is in a bare room. She is moving, slowly and with visible effort, around the space. Her crimson gown, set against the white walls, stands out as a gash of red lipstick on a pale face. With animal agility, she circles the room, her naked feet never once touching the floor. She edges along the skirting-board and reaches an alcove ranked with shelves. She levers herself into the first of these deep crevices, rolling her body in, out, and up, to scale the wall. At the top she stretches her legs back down and shuffles easily along the mantelpiece. Now, a difficult manoeuvre: she hoists herself onto a high shelf, squeezed just below the ceiling, and wriggles along its entire length. At the end, she catches her weight, her big toe curled excruciatingly around a coathook, before slithering down the door, flesh squeaking on the wood, to find another foothold on the skirting. The girl is absorbed, even serene, in her concentration. She grunts and puffs every so often at her exertions. She clambers over the final obstacle, a large Victorian wardrobe, and her circuit of the room finishes, only to begin again.

As impossible as a dream, Lucy Gunning's videowork Climbing Round My Room (1993) has the intensity of a fantasy born from hours of idle introspection, alone in one's bedroom. With its elusive goal, its protagonist's extravagant exertions, her endless, rhythmic circling of the limits of the space, and her thorough exploration of the room's secret nooks and crannies, it is difficult to resist interpreting the scene as a metaphorically sexual one: the body might be the bedroom, and the act, played by a solitary performer, auto-erotic. This is not to reduce the piece to crude symbolism or to sexual theatre (although, with its emphasis on real time and energy, Climbing Round My Room is related to physical theatre) but to try to account for its strangely arresting effect. Gunning's scenario describes something precarious and pleasurable, something dangerously yet delicately achieved. It is an image of excess, an enactment of desire in a landscape at once known and unknown. If, for Lacan, Bernini's enrapt Saint Theresa represented the unrepresentable, a moment of jouissance frozen in stone, then Gunning's video suggests jouissance not as one (or even many) particular moments, but as a psychic event played out in a cycle of perpetual, physical, motion.

A sense of the unfinished surfaces again in Horse Impressionists (1994), with its titular stress on the 'impression', the unfinished picture, at the expense of the definitive representation. Horse Impressionists, too, presents an idea of impossible, transgressive desire. But where Climbing Round My Room literally pictured a subject transgressing physical limits - gravity, height, space - as metaphoric of desire, this work suggests a disintegration of the psychological borders between subject and object, sexual self and sexual other.

In the early hours of the morning, as a nightclub winds down somewhere in London, the room is pierced with the extraordinary sounds of high-pitched neighing. The lights go up, but the horse impersonator is gone. Lucy Gunning, haunted by the noise, resolves to find her. She takes out ads in newspapers, pins up notices in colleges, stables, community centres, asks around. The woman is not found. But, unexpectedly, many others come forward. For the horse impersonator is not unique in her passions.

Gunning visits and films these subjects, and compiles a video of their collected impressions. Though their solitary practice might appear comic, a harmless hobby, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no simple enthusiasm.

A middle-aged woman, conservatively dressed in a full-length beige raincoat, is standing in a park. She appears anxious. She holds her arms close to her chest, her hands falling forward limply, like paws. Suddenly, she arches her back and starts hopping and stepping to a strange, clipped choreography. She emits a thin, strained noise - a whinny - closely followed by an obscene raspberry, her lips vibrating as she rears and shakes her head. She is seemingly oblivious to everything around her; in a state of ecstasy, her eyes are closed. The scene cuts, and another, younger, woman stands before the camera. She too seems intensely agitated, as she paces erratically in and out of view. Then, the characteristic noise of a horse, that crescendo nasal screech, erupts and dies as suddenly. Her nostrils flare slightly, but otherwise her face does not move. It is as if the noise has come from somewhere else entirely.

Watching Gunning's horse impressionists - five in total - you are struck by mixed feelings of genuine amusement, mild embarrassment, and something inexpressible. The sensation touches memories of summers spent in forgotten gardens, as you cantered exuberantly around, slapping your thigh in some primal communion with the object of your childish desire. (Boys had probably already been seduced away by invisible guitars and ball games; the relationship between women and horses is a special one.) Gunning's adult equuophiles may be laughed away as curious fetishists, arrested at an unfortunate moment of psychological development, yet their utter seriousness, their absolute commitment to becoming the object of their desire, points to an enviably self-sufficient passion, and probes another instance of unspeakable jouissance.

From classical mythology to Kafka, literature is peppered with disturbing images of metamorphosis. Our fears of regression to bestiality signal, probably, deep-seated anxieties about our own success at 'being' human. Freudian interpretation inevitably writes the subtext as a sexual one: wild beasts represent the destructive passions of a fearsome, ego-threatening libido. The horse impressionists, though, seem to have a more constructive relation to the animal. Horses (being herbivores and thus not obviously minatory) allow their female impersonators a more subtle range of fantasies of control and submission. Their passion, enacted so uninhibitedly for Gunning's camera, highlights one of the most primal characteristics of desire: that if desire is to be what the other desires, it produces, early in life, the wish to be like the other one (as played out in the child's games of mimicry: when the infant mirrors the facial expression of its mother, or the actions of its playmates and playthings). Gunning's Horse Impressionists hauntingly evokes this impossible longing for a point of absolute identity, or confusion, between self and other.

In this work - and in common with the snapshot-derived aesthetic of much recent British video - there is always a sense of continuum between art and life. Gunning orchestrates real people and actual events which unfold in natural time. Though her subjects are rooted in physical reality - in other works they sing, play football, eat - it is the tension between body and psyche, reality and fantasy, played out in their actions, which gives her work its compelling effect.