Fantastic Beasts
by Eva McGovern-Basa
 
The animal world as a site of observation and imagination has fascinated artists for centuries. Their physical beauty and the insights they provide into life have cast them as beast, companion, hero, villain or godly avatar throughout art history. Contemporary art is no less inspired by the natural world and Filipino artist Bree Jonson’s interests are taken from her subconscious dreams, personal affections and intellectual curiosities. Often choosing dogs, cats, rabbits, wolves and snakes, she has painted them in various states of disturbing consumption as hybrid creatures of hunter and hunted. However, moving away from this form of surrealism, she now aims to faithfully reproduce more unusual creatures, using realism to quietly reflect upon aspects of the human psyche.

In her latest solo show Writhing, she has selected sea anemones and sea urchins that are often misunderstood by the human world because of their striking appearances. Named after a flower because of its bloom-like qualities, the sea anemone’s beauty hides a darker, more predatory existence. Its venomous tentacles emit toxins that paralyse its prey, normally fish and crustaceans, which are then guided into its mouth for digestion. However, the sea urchin is feared for its stinging spines and alien-like appearance. But these are nature’s defences against the many things that prey upon it, like crabs, snails, marine mammals and people. Its fierce appearance is a warning to mask its vulnerabilities. These dualities of beauty and deadliness, seduction and fear occur throughout Jonson’s exhibition, becoming not only a portrait of what lies beneath the sea but a mirror in which to view particular ideas around the body.

Some sea anemones start life with double X chromosomes, meaning they are female at birth, and remain so until their sixth week of life, after which their sexual characteristics develop. They spend most of their time attached to rocks on the seabed or on coral where they lie in wait for their prey to get close enough to disarm and consume. On occasion, they can also slide slowly along the ocean floor or swim by moving their tentacles. Often overlooked, these strange and mysterious creatures have become the focus of Jonson’s new body of work as symbols of the female body. Exaggerating their forms to resemble breasts and genitalia, they are transformed into brightly coloured ‘nudes’ seductively posing or swimming as if in a dream, tempting viewers to come closer. In some of her paintings, small fish have succumbed to writhing tentacles where tails and heads can be seen protruding suggestively out of the anemone’s fleshy mouth. This is expanded in her watercolour drawings, similar to scientific field notes, that depict various types of prey being eaten, as well as different states of digestion and interaction with other creatures like starfish. With humorous titles and equally suggestive text and imagery, these comic elements, laced with sexual innuendo, lighten the intensities of death.

However, while the sea anemone is seductively dangerous, the sea urchin is explicitly monstrous. Those who have seen them while scuba diving or snorkelling immediately feel threatened by their menacing appearance. But as is often in nature, this is for protection rather than for attacking, since the sea urchin only feeds on algae. As another slow moving creature, it defends itself through poisonous spines, but is harmless if left alone. In the exhibition, they are scattered throughout Jonson’s paintings, as they are in the ocean, appearing both as wards against unwanted visitors and victims to advancing starfish, one of their natural predators. Small-scale sculptures are also physically scattered across the gallery space, re-emphasising the need to keep ‘a respectful distance’ which can be compared to the human concept of personal space and protection against unwanted advances. A nasty sting awaits those who do not recognise their autonomy because this is their territory, not ours.

The very fact that the subjects of Writhing live under the sea in a habitat unsuitable for human life reinforces the underlying subtext of voyeurism present throughout the exhibition. We aren’t supposed to see these animals because we can’t breathe underwater. But the mysteries of the ocean have long attracted human explorers drawn to the creatures, colours and otherworldly qualities of the deep blue. When combining this seductive appeal with ideas around the female body and femininity, as a private space that needs to be respected (and sometimes is not), that has its own desire and is equally desired by others, that is both strong and fragile, viewers see how the natural world can reflect human society. These passive/active power dynamics underline the entire exhibition as Jonson attempts to not only bring awareness to the natural world but also share the reminder that we all have the potential for beastly behaviour, as predator and prey.

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Eva McGovern-Basa is an independent curator and writer based in Metro Manila. She writes widely on Southeast Asian art, with a recent focus on contemporary practice in the Philippines.
 
 
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