Thoughts on ‘Zoomorphs’

Icarus Rising det Cat Vitebsky

Icarus Rising (Detail) by UK artist Cat Vitebsky, 2016, Bronze


Thoughts on Zoomorphs

by Amy DeLap, Co-owner of Art Space Vincennes, LLC


Cat Vitebsky’s cast bronze sculptures are relatively small. She says, “These figures can be lifted and held in the hand,” then adds, “but the nature of their transformation can never be fully grasped.” What does this mean? Vitebsky has not simply made work that is deliberately inscrutable. Rather, she is exploring fundamental ideas about transformation as an integral aspect of the human condition.


Vitebsky’s subjects are imaginatively altered human figures. Most have wings. One seems caught in the midst of metamorphosis into a bear-like creature. The title she chose for her show, Zoomorphs: Experiments in Bronze, offers a starting point for investigating meaning. ‘Zoomorph’, a compound noun of Greek origin, literally means “of or relating to a deity or other being conceived of as having the form of an animal.”


Vitebsky notes in her statement that recent work developed for this exhibition over the past two years grew out of earlier series titled Icarus and Feathermen. Works from these series also appear in the exhibition.


The fascinating myth of Daedalus and Icarus tells a story of transformation. Daedalus, having incurred the wrath of King Minos, is unable to escape from Crete by sea since Minos controls all ships. He fashions wings for himself and his son Icarus from wax and feathers, materials Vitebsky uses in her burn-out casting process. Daedalus and Icarus fly away. Daedalus reaches Sicily, but his son famously flies too close to the sun, his wings melt and he falls into the sea. We are all familiar with this story that seems to focus on Icarus’ demise, and its cautionary wisdom – see what happens when you ignore your wise father’s warnings; see what happens when you fly too close to what you know is dangerous.


In the overview section of a senior thesis paper [University of California, Davis, June 2011] titled The Daedalus of History and Myth: The Meaning of Creation in Literature from Homer to Joyce, Kristopher James Ide emphasizes the role of Daedalus.     He notes that Daedalus “encompasses many talents: architect, engineer, inventor, metal-smith, sculptor, and father. [His] larger myth cycle with all of its attendant characters, can also be understood as a vehicle carrying the secrets behind the creative act itself, revealing the benefits of inspiration rooted in observation of the natural world, demonstrating the need for destruction, sacrifice, and major shifts in perspective, and depicting the dangers of invention falling into corrupted hands.”


One of the most commanding pieces in this show is Daedalus (Feather Burnout II). Daedalus stands still and erect. His winged arms are outstretched, with the left arm lifted and the right pointing down. Unlike the wings seen on other figures in the exhibition, these form solid planes, with feathers suggested by the active surface detail. Actual feathers were used in the wax model and burned out in the casting mold-making process.


Other winged figures represent the Icarus and Feathermen series, with titles such as Before the Flight and Touching the Sun. These figures are thick-bodied; the heads, hands and feet seem enlarged. The feet often splay, as if melting into the supporting surface. Though clearly human, they lean toward an animal presence. Their wings are ragged and scruffy. The feather shafts are long and bony, the vanes on either side irregular and weathered. The wings do not lift these figures. They wrap, or weigh down, or are clutched.


There are figures that even more dramatically incorporate animal forms. These bring to mind another influence that Vitebsky introduces in her statement. “… these figures … are neither human nor animal, but lie somewhere in between, caught in the very process of becoming.  Is the Bear-Man a shaman about to enter trance? Is he wearing a bear-skin, or is he already a bear? Is his body still human, while his soul journeys elsewhere in animal form?”


Cat Vitebsky’s father, Piers Vitebsky, is an acclaimed British anthropologist. Head of the Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute, he has done fieldwork among shamanic cultures since 1975. Growing up, Cat accompanied him on some of his journeys. She witnessed first-hand shamanic ritual practiced by indigenous peoples in Siberia and other locations.


Such experiences have allowed Vitebsky a glimpse into the true nature of shamanism, a universal practice across cultures and millennia that has been diluted and over-simplified by western interpretation. She knows that this practice is not chosen, but visited upon the practitioner. This perhaps explains the sense of both suffering and stoicism that infuses these figures. Although the stances are for the most part solidly stationary, the surfaces of the bodies are vibrantly active. Their origins in a painterly use of wax modeling are clearly seen. A sense of interior agitation is expressed in surface mobility.


How does it happen that Daedalus and the Siberian shaman meet in Cat Vitebsky’s work? This may also have to do with the confluence of Cat’s studies with those of her father. Piers Vitebsky’s book The Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia (HarperCollins 2005) describes a shamanic ritual practiced as recently as 1980 by the Eveni people of northern Siberia. The ritual embodies the belief that “reindeer were created by the sky god Hovki not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun.” There they received “blessing, salvation and renewal”. The association between reindeer and flying can be seen in bronze age ‘reindeer stones’. These are found set above graves or sites of sacrifice and are carved with images of reindeer with “necks outstretched, legs flung out as if leaping through the air, antlers that have grown fantastically, like wings, back to the tail of the creature, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head”.


Piers Vitebsky notes in this book that belief in the reindeer as sacred to the life of the spirit appears to have persisted even after the climate of Mongolia dried out toward the end of the first millennium B.C., coming closer to today’s desert conditions in which reindeer can no longer live. He notes “By the second century A.D., one of the horses sacrificed at a Mongolian grave site wears a face-mask made of leather, felt, and fur and adorned with life-size antlers, clearly dressed up to imitate a reindeer. It seems a reindeer was still better than a horse for riding in the afterlife”.

Antler horns appear as part of one of Cat Vitebsky’s hybrid creatures, and the wings of others do appear structurally bony and antler-like. However, it would be a mistake to make too literal an interpretation. Key to Vitebsky’s thinking is the notion of flux and ambiguity. Her statement about the Feathermen series includes: “The Feathermen, unlike the Icarus series, do not clearly have feathered wings, but are rather clad, enveloped or laden in feathers, inspired in part by ideas of zoomorphism and the ‘Shaman’s Coat’.”


Such layering and cross-referencing of meanings creates a rich yet fragile mix of possibility in this artist’s work.


Vitebsky’s medium of choice is significant in terms of how it contributes to content. She speaks of bronze as being one of the earliest metals explored by humans, and one which has extraordinary transformative properties. “The hardened, burnished form is just a moment, a red-hot flowing liquid frozen in time and space.” With the Feathermen series she became interested in “the direct ‘burning out’ of feathers collected from surrounding fields and lanes. The bronze directly replaces the organic material of the feathers, and is capable of picking up the finest detail. The process of burning out something as delicate as a feather is unpredictable – something which I have learnt to relish, as each resulting sculpture is totally unique.”


Vitebsky is interested in the fact that the bronze must destroy the material being burned out in order for the artwork to be created. She relates this to the 1960’s Auto-Destructive Art movement, pioneered by Gustav Metzger and Jean Tinguely. An example would be Tingeuly’s work Homage to New York. In collaboration with other artists/engineers, among them Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg, Tingeuly produced a self-destroying mechanism that performed for 27 minutes during a public performance for invited guests. In the end, the public browsed the remnants of the machine for souvenirs to take home.


The souvenirs were artifacts of the performance, visual reminders of an experience that eluded permanent tangible form. While Vitebsky’s sculptures are tangible – we can literally grasp them – they also convey an experience that transcends physicality. The molten flow of the bronze has been frozen, but without its heat and liquidity, it offers up an artifact of experience rather than the experience itself. What holding or simply contemplating Vitebsky’s figures can offer is again a physical prompt for the imagination. Vitebsky has stated that her current work is based around ideas of zoomorphism, mystery, the wilderness of nature and the human form. Her experimental burn-out methods incorporate organic material and the design of nature, coupled with “single solid figurative stances”.   Each piece offers a dichotomy of possibility regarding how humans intersect with nature. The organic elements can elevate the figure – allow for potential flight – or they can “burden, restrain or encase” the figures with which they are associated.


This work is an especially keen example of the relationship between form and content. To some extent the process of creating the wax model, its destruction by the molten bronze, and the consequent emergence of a new manifestation in metal of the previous fragile original embodies the mental concepts with which Vitebsky is engaged. These include the mystery of the universal rhythm and interconnection of creation and destruction. And the ephemeral nature of our existence, which, always in a state of transition or transformation “can never be fully grasped”.

Vitebsky’s exhibition Zoomorphs: Experiments in Bronze at Art Space Vincennes, LLC will open September 2 – October 15. Receptions will be held during the First Friday Art Walks September 2  and October 7 (5 pm – 8 pm).  Regular Hours are: Tuesday – Friday 12 – 5 pm; Saturday 11 am – 2 pm


All the work is for sale at reasonable prices. The artist cannot attend these receptions as she has a special due date coming up. Wish her and baby well in the comments section below!






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