Moya Lawson on the development of At Thresholds at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi. Originally published on ArtNow.NZ.
Making art about other species seems less restrained than writing about them. The artists in At Thresholds are experimental with their practices, harnessing colour, shape, and material—the organic and the machine. They weave imaginative visual languages—unique in themselves—that are collectively curious, fantastic, and vivid. Their work offers the generative possibilities of trying to convey the unknowable worlds of their subjects. And, in doing so, they bring us closer to understanding our relationships with the world we share.
A key part of conceptualising At Thresholds involved describing this potential: how art might act as a medium between us (humans) and other species in a way that other media cannot. Instead of exploring a set of written texts here, I wanted to focus on a series of more-than-human encounters which have contributed to my understanding of the exhibition—stories of inexplicable phenomena that have interrupted my research, causing me to question, reformulate, and/or accept the limits of my own meagre human view.
The spider on the coffin
A couple of weeks after At Thresholds opened to the public, Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral was crashed by a spider. During a close-up of the Queen’s coffin, eleven million people (or at least the ones paying attention) watched the spider scuttle for five seconds across a piece of card wedged between the flowers and diamonds. Far from a royalist myself, I loved how this spider might have momentarily humbled this convoluted human institution. To me, the creature represented a parallel universe—briefly suspending time, it punctuated an excess of our own. Spiders are actually known for bombing television, often in the most unexpected places, like the alien world of a NASA lift off, or a sterile Breakfast show, or a Covid briefing, when bigger issues than you (a huntsman spider) are at stake.
The Queen’s spider offers a flimsy thread to Donna Haraway’s concept of the ‘Chthulucene’, named after the pimoa cthulhu spider of California, and its ‘tentacular’ legs. Haraway thinks with and through this spider as a model for how we might face ecological ruin together—’Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something. This spider is in place, has a place, and yet is named for intriguing travels elsewhere. This spider will help me with returns, and with roots and routes.’ Haraway is a big critic of the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’. It’s too timeless, too placeless, too final, and too ‘Anthro’. The Chthulucene might be a renaming and reliving of the present as embodied and situated, where life and life’s consequences ‘on a damaged planet’ are likened to a festering, life-giving compost heap.
Cleve Backster was one of the C.I.A.’s top lie-detector examiners in the 1960s. One day, an impulse led him to hook up an office plant—a Dracaena Massangeana
native to tropical Africa—to his polygraph. Astonishingly, the needle fluctuated in the same way that it might respond to human emotions. Backster thought to light one of the plant’s leaves on fire to see if the machine would read a reaction from the plant, and, supposedly, simply the thought of this action made the plant respond, as if it were reading Backster’s thoughts. This discovery, that plants not only think but are capable of knowing the thoughts of the beings around them, is known as ‘The Backster Effect’—but its validity is contested.
Backster’s story opens The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tomkins, published in 1973. The book explores the ‘inner world’ of plants through science, quasi-science, anecdote, and myth—although the lines are often blurred. It was a New York Times bestseller, and no doubt tapped into the West’s New Age spiritualism of the time. I’m not sure if I believe in Backster’s discovery, but I admire his instincts to ‘make kin’, as Haraway would say, with spheres of foreign but essential life. Despite its sincerity, I can’t help but think that the book also proves how estranged humans are (or namely, globalised Western culture is) from the world we share—to the point that we can only find respect for other beings via anthropocentric terms, like ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the American anthropologist Barbara Smuts observed groups of baboons living across Kenya and Tanzania. Her close observations—some of her research periods were years long—made her a spectator of many mysterious events. Once, while making their way down an inlet of streams and pools under twilight, a baboon troop stopped and circled a single pool. They fell completely quiet and sat, staring into the pool, as if in a meditative state. Jane Goodall also speaks of similar events when chimpanzees ‘perform[ed] a magnificent display’ in apparent devotion of natural phenomena, which Goodall suggests are ‘precursors of religious ritual’.
The closest word that we have to describe these phenomena is ‘spirituality’—something that is more often used to set us apart from our non-human neighbours. These accounts blow this distinction apart. Yet perhaps ‘spirituality’ still isn’t the right word, and only presents us with our limited ability to articulate such alternate dimensions. I read about these stories in James Bridle’s kaleidoscopic new book Ways of Being. As an artist and academic specialising in understandings of artificial intelligence, Bridle uses the same parameters to examine humanity’s relationships to multispecies intelligence. In doing so, he upends human definitions of ‘intelligence’ itself. Bridle insists that while we dream of ‘a “new” or “next” nature, some utopia of computation … Nature is imagination itself. Let us not re-imagine it, then, but begin to imagine it anew…’
The tuatara’s third eye
The tuatara is one of the most ancient and unique creatures in the world, endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand, and it has fascinated Western science since its discovery. Unsurprisingly, Māori were aware of the tuatara’s significance long before the colonists. They also first identified the creature’s pineal organ, which rendered it ‘a seer, able to see into the spiritual realm through a “third eye” granted to it by Tangaroa’. The species is believed to hold a deeply embedded, metaphysical knowledge specific to Aotearoa.
With this in mind, my heart sunk a bit when I read about the first tuatara to be born outside of its homeland, at Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom. Isn’t it strange that its first breath was the cold dry air of Western Europe? A list of ‘tuatara facts’ on the zoo’s website says that it’s been ‘caring for tuatara since 1962’, the tail-end of over a century of colonial exportation. The story of the tuatara exemplifies the colonial roots of zoos, which have rebranded as ‘conservationists’ now that the very environments they looted are under threat.
The tuatara is the subject of Anna Boswell’s incisive essay ‘Climates of Change: A Tuatara’s-Eye View’. It considers the endangered tuatara at the centre of entangled colonial and indigenous histories, and how, despite its ancient resilience to change, it now faces its biggest existential threat yet. As a creature that is intrinsic to the life and landscape of this land, Te Ao Māori asks us to respect and protect the tuatara’s hidden knowledge, accepting that we will never fully understand it. It is a vital context if we are to face the sixth mass extinction together.
Beached whales in the Arabian Gulf
When I was little, I was obsessed with whales, which was kind of funny given I was the furthest from where whales could ever be (at least in my mind). I grew up in Kuwait, which is the hottest place in the world where humans live. This doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of life. The desert there is flat with a hard, bleached ground, but after it rains (which is about 30 times a year) it will blush green with plant life. It’s also the habitat of insects, lizards, and mammals, with a vibrant sea. Whales though? Unlikely. Still, I was a one-man fundraising band and would force my younger siblings to hold up painted backdrops while I knocked on people’s doors in our apartment building, asking for money to save the whales.
While researching for this exhibition, I happened upon Kuwait’s strange history of blue whale beachings. Despite being miles from their migratory routes, it has happened in 1963, and then again in 2014. The whales are filmed floating, colossal in the salty turquoise sea—the bones of one are now suspended in a museum. I was quite moved—they were closer than I’d thought. These anomalies represent just how little we know of the creatures we share our planet with, to the point that such encounters become numinous experiences. There’s an existential element to our relationships with other species. When we’re brought to the edges of their worlds, we’re reminded of mysteries that we will never fully understand of this life, and the urgency to protect them, regardless.
Moya Lawson is a writer and curator based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She is a curator at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi and a facilitator at play_station gallery in Pōneke.