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Bestilalia (I never imagined life without you)

Samantha Sweeting

'As the word ‘museum’ hides in "mausoleum", so the museum conceals the mausoleum and its occupants, the dead.'
- Calum Storrie, The Delirious Museum (2006: 109)

Bestilalia (I never imagined life without you) is a tender exploration into cross-species metamorphosis and breastfeeding, which works with the erotic as a meeting place for love, mortality and sexual desire. It takes the form of a multimedia installation, combining task-based activity with sound, image, text and objects to produce intimate encounters that provoke a sensory experience in the viewer’s body as they move around the space.

Pre-recorded sounds are dispersed across the room, providing physical locators that the viewers can approach and uncover, whilst also allowing the sonic choreography to change from different vantage points. There is an inability to detect the live from the mediated as sounds resonate together in a low-level noise score, adding a soundtrack to the silent video images. Field recordings made on a sheep farm intermingle with spoken and sung texts, including Mary Had a Little Lamb - the first stanza of which was captured in the earliest successful audio recording made by Thomas Edison on his phonograph invention in 1877.

This fact made me consider the implications of writing with sound, alongside other forms of mark-making and documenting, thinking about writing as a process of doing and undoing, etching and fading; a way to catalogue and contain. I use my installation to draw a relationship between photography, phonography and corpography, as text is composed in light, shadow, sound and body. My graphomanic actions are carried out using charcoal and milk, with an interest in exploring the grey residues left behind. This includes writing museological inventories on panes of glass using breastmilk and a pheasant’s quill to produce a shadow text on the floor below.

A subtle interplay between light and dark is set up, making video and shadow projections appear and disappear as daylight changes and projected images and tungsten light bulbs take over as the main sources of illumination. The installation is caught in a constant state of mutability, exploring indefinable areas between human and animal, male and female, life and death. It is a series of composed tableaux working in the tradition of the nature morte. I carry out small performances that activate the materials and space, allowing for a shift in focal points and a fluidity of meaning and perception. The work metamorphoses of its own accord as marks fade, animals rot and milk becomes rancid. It is rooted in the alchemical processes of glass-making and lactating; heat transforms sand into glass, while physiological changes make the (female) body produce precious white liquid, uniquely functioning as both bodily fluid and food. I make glass casts of my breasts, drawing on the myth that Mary-Antoinette moulded porcelain bowls on her breasts in homage to the lactating mother. The carnal fluid is reincorporated into the body, and fed from in an act of erotic cannibalism. 

The signification of the breast is multifaceted, shifting readings between maternal, medical, religious, erotic, politic, and psychoanalytic contexts. Melanie Klein wrote of the baby’s anxiety between the ‘good’ breast and ‘bad’ breast as an instinctive struggle between life and death drives. (cited in Yalom, 1997:154) I use eroticism in my work to articulate this deeply uneasy conflict between Eros and Thantos, interrogating the intricacies of human sexuality and existence. Violence is an ever-present inter-connector between the two, a force of creation and destruction on which eroticism depends. In her discussion on ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ Susan Sontag writes that ‘this spectacularly cramped form of the human imagination has […] its peculiar access to some truth. This truth – about sensibility, about sex, about individual personality, about despair, about limits – can be shared when it projects itself into art.’ (cited in Bataille, 2001: 116)

The/my female body is experienced as a site for performance and a generator of broken narratives that seek to interrogate representations of femininity and sexual difference. Female and male come together in a lover’s tangle, dark hair and light intertwined. I smell and caress the plait of hair cut from my lover’s head, unveiling longing and desire. These bodies are conjoined with animal bodies bringing about a tender interchangeability between human and animal, informed by myth, fairytale, religious iconography and natural history museum. Like the Charles Perrault fairytale, I hide behind my Peau d’Ane disguise, separating my body from my autobiography. Beauty and Beast coincide, and the transformation into animal form is seen as a movement towards ‘nature’ and a process of becoming-feral. Whereas King Midas sought to hide his asses’ ears, I wear mine with pleasure. I am a storyteller, weaving together fact and fiction in a delicately macabre form of child’s ‘play’ that resonates throughout the room.  

The animal is used as a vehicle through which to speak of intimate melancholy and erotic tenderness. ‘Botched taxidermy’ (Baker, 2000) is carried out in a hopeless attempt to preserve my roadkill animals and this seductive mix of beastly remnants is bottled and displayed via a naïve system of classification, spawning a haphazard cabinet of curiosities. Fragmented bodies are scattered around the space, emphasising Hans Bellmer’s concept of the ‘body as anagram’ - an anatomical doll to be broken apart and reassembled. (Kelley, 1993: 16) A woman’s voice is trapped within the architecture of the building, living and dead are visually embalmed through the lens, and amateur taxidermy is laid out across a kitchen table in a ritualistic corporal feast reminiscent of the Japanese practice of Nyotaimori, literally ‘female body presentation’.

Embodied actions are used to provoke a corporeal dialogue between the domestic and the rural. I embark on a process of induced lactation, dislocating breastfeeding from maternity, and exploring the usage of milk as an expression of grief and sexual desire. Like Cleopatra who bathed in asses’ milk to retain her beauty, I sit in a bath of sorrow, wearing my Donkeyskin disguise to pluck a dead pheasant. The animal protects me and I nurture it in return. I am a Mater Dolorosa weeping tears of milk, inviting the viewer to eat and drink from my bestial body.  

Select bibliography

Baker, S. (2000) The Postmodern Animal, London: Reaktion Books Ltd.  

Bataille, G. (2001) Story of the Eye, 3rd ed., trans. Neugroschal, J. London: Penguin

Carter, A. (ed) (1990) The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, London: Virago Press

Davies, M. (1986) The Breastfeeding Book, 2nd ed., London: Century Hutchinson Ltd.

Dekkers, M. (1994) Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, trans. Vincent, P.,  London: Verso

Giles, F. (2003) Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts, New York: Simon & Schuster

Giles, F. (2005) The Well-Tempered Breast: Fostering Fluidity in Breastly Meaning and Function, Women’s Studies,34 (3 & 4), 301 - 326

Kelley, M. (1993) The Uncanny, Arnhem: Sonsbeek 93

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An essay on abjection, New York: Columbia University Press

Lee, R. (1996) Rona Lee, Colchester: Firstsite

Reed, A. (ed.) (2000) Performance Research: On Animals, Summer, 5 (2) Routledge

Storrie, C. (2006) The Delirious Museum: A Journey from the Louvre to Las Vegas, London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd

Warner, M. (1995) From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers

Yalom, M. (1997) A History of the Breast, New York: Harper Collins


Select filmography

Alice (1988): Directed by Jan Svankmejer

Peau d’Ane (1970): Directed by Jacques Demy

The Tit and the Moon (1994): Directed by Bigas Luna