Bree Jonson’s unsettling assemblage of animals engenders a new level of intensity: familiar animals are lumped into a fiesta of mutilation and are being devoured, metamorphosing into a strange unity – a therion otherwise.

Jonson’s art practice is, in Adorno’s words, ‘loyal to humanity only through inhumanity toward it.’1 In her childhood, she dreamt of becoming an animal and of walking on four feet, and took it to such great faith as to experience a degree of species dysphoria upon awakening from sleep. Those lucid imprints continue to inform her paintings today. While her paintings might serve as a temporary refuge for her therion-thropic shape-shifting fantasy, they also attest to a real exchange of intensities between humans and animals. One needs only to examine how Deleuze and Guattari radicalise Darwinist evolutionism in order to understand her commitment to processes of becomings:

To become is not to progress or regress along a series… Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real… What is real is the becoming itself… The becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not; and the becoming-other of the animal is real, even if that something other it becomes is not.2

Forget evolution. It is the interpenetration of the humans and animals, or the becoming of one into another that truly satisfies Jonson. The process is one without ‘progress and regress’, an egalitarian mess without hierarchic distributions; all is one, one is many. It unfolds through schizophrenic involution, through unnatural participation.3 In Democritus and Leucippus especially, animals are lumped into a short-circuited nonsensical ecology. Does the snake still exist as a snake and is the deer in fact anymore a deer? Nevertheless, the cryptic titles are indicative of a premonition of materialist singularity derived from the pre-Socratic atomists Democritus and Leucippus. Here, the atom, or atomos, which means the ‘indivisible’ in Greek, reveals a key concern in Jonson’s faunal entanglement.

The indivisibility connotes a dual significance: (1) the indivisibility between Jonson’s entangled animals; (2) the indivisibility between humans and animals. Both operate at different planes of imagination but are no less detached from one another.

In the first, violence is the only means through which the animals interact. Yet, the violence each animal participates in disrupts the collective and poses an existential threat, paradoxically, to each constituting animal. There is a unity in hostility. Whether the animal/s is are by itself atomic, or by themselves, collectively atomic, the whole is a shape-shifting organism, involving, by way of unnatural participation as ‘contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophe’,4 and by way of morbid interference through piercing, strangling, suffocating, or mutilating.

This violence necessarily invokes the second and more nuanced significance. The animals that transpire on her canvases, made visible through her painterly intensities, fluctuate within the human-animal spectrum and contest the boundary that separates the two, if there is any at all.5 Her therion depicts an underlying humanity that is suffused within the gesture and physiognomy of the animals: a humanly emotion and composure, though borne in the physical countenance of an animal, reflects an essence too unlikely belonging to that of an animal than that of a human.

This resemblance is not coincidental, for Jonson is curious of how ‘certain looks of certain animals produce specific reactions in people.’6 Does not this curiosity evoke the peculiarities of James Redfield’s Comparative Physiognomy: Or, Resemblances Between Men and Animals (1852)? In considering the physiognomic association between humans and animals, one is readily prescribing the behaviours expected for different types of people through a kind of ocular-centricism.7 But unlike Redfield’s pseudo-scientific exercise, her paintings move beyond the prescriptive. To her, the comparison between humans and animals is obsolete, divisive even. She paints animals to paint humans; she paints humans through and across animals. Like a portraitist in disguise and in the manner of a postmodern Arcimboldo dispensing Mannerist conceits, her series of paintings are a cornucopia of dream sequences, breeding new therions not unlike ourselves. Her phantasmagorias of becomings-animal reflect the quotidian vicissitudes of human life. Less we forget, an animal only becomes an animal to the extent that that which we call ‘animal’ is known only to us as an animal. Derrida is apt: ‘Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give.’ [Emphasis original]8

If what separates the human from the animal is civility, what conjoins them is monstrosity. Johnson’s therion is thus the decimal remnants of imperfect equations, the petty surpluses sifted out from the hypostatised categories of ‘human’ and ‘animal’. Her humanly animal is the uncanny9 – the self-destructive violence of entanglement is inhumanly human. Too intimate is the entanglement that it becomes transparent, brutal, and fatal. The Soothsayer, Asphyxia, Hanging Monument and many other paintings are telling of such excessive intimacy. Her animals / humans — without being carnivores themselves / ourselves — are carnivorous in that they / we engage in the carnival of life and death, of pleasure and / in pain. This jouissance that shape-shifts the animals / humans into a chimeric whole, brings to mind a close resemblance between the animal ecology and the ‘civilised’ man-eat-man world.

We are therions essentially – innately, sincerely; obscured by the grace of civilisation, dislodged but not entirely discarded, we traumatise humanity like a protracted cancer in the form of mythos. Jonson depicts her therions as faunal orgies and foregrounds them against a cheerless paracosm of decrepit edifices and inaccessible fields – a whimsical mythologisation of the fatal propensity of humanity, civilisation, and progress – at once too familiar and too strange.

— by Tan Zi Hao (2014)

Tan Zi Hao is a multi-disciplinary artist who works predominantly in installation and performance art. Graduated as a Dean’s List Scholar from The One Academy, he is initially trained to be a graphic designer and has since participated in exhibitions across Malaysia, London and Taiwan. He completed his BA in International Communications Studies under scholarship at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and is currently pursuing his MA in International Relations. He is also a graphic designer and a writer specialising in postcolonial theory and the sociology of body.

1   Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 197.

2   Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 238.

3   A rhizomatic Deleuzean-Guattarian notion to describe a form of population growth by disease and disaster rather than by sexual reproduction.

4   Ibid., p. 241.

5   Through personal conversation with the artist: ‘I do equate the act of painting it over again and again, as an act of exploration of things inside, over, and beyond me.’ [Emphases mine]

6   Personal conversation with the artist.

7   The epistemological privileging of vision.

8   Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002), p. 400.

9   The uncanny is a combination of the strange and familiar, it is ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. See Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny,’ The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII, trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, 1955 [1919].