“Let’s think of nature as a big room. Nature is a room you know you’ll have to leave some day, most likely not by choice”. Heather Phillipson’s hallucinatory video put the goat in the goat boat explores endless declinations of nature—natural, naturing, finding a better nature, the nature construction, nature on loan, nature’s lack of nudity...—while revealing humanity’s ambiguous relationship to it.
2014, HD video, stereo sound, 16:59 minutes
Where does the goat belong?
Cows, along with goats, are often depicted as particularly stupid animals, all big unblinking eyes, blank expressions and open-mouthed chewing, like gawping, slack-jawed yokels. But the cattle in Heather Phillipson’s put the goat in the goat boat (2014) have the withering gazes of unimpressed literary critics, staring down the artist and poet as she discourses on nature and naturism. Like many of Phillipson’s works, put the goat appears to insist upon the transparent relationship between concepts and things—the word “nature” appears in a pink scrawl over images of undulating vegetation—only to tease at meanings, just as she spanks a man’s bare arse in the video, making concepts quiver and spread. The whole video is about stripping in one sense or another. Her voiceover veers from stripped-back plain speech, to bodily nudity and the emotional nakedness historically attributed to animals and artists, who feel rather than think. Oh and on the matter of spreading, we take a tour from mad cows, to SARS, H1N1 and other animal-human infections, years before COVID-19 exposed our governments’ own naïve, herd mentality. Mutations in meaning and biology, Phillipson implies, trouble the conservative idea that there is a natural order to the world.
That Phillipson works to stretch words through their associations is most apparent in the wild accumulations of loosely related objects which accompany her videos. In 2015, she filled the vast rotunda of Frankfurt’s Schirn with items connected to personal and environmental heartbreak: drawings of sperm and deflated sperm whales, lumpy heart-shaped rubbish sacs and cheap crimson umbrellas. At the centre was a monumental polystyrene foot, stamping out sentimentalism. The accompanying video, COMMISERATIONS! (2015), is even more brutal, insisting that the romantic concept of the love is inhumane, privatising and abstracting emotions. Cute heart imagery is eschewed for gruesome pumping aortas, which like the physical sculptures, insist on embodiment and the embeddedness of all living things: “nothing is self-contained”, she repeats. If Phillipson’s deadpan delivery and cartoonish sculptures are funny, her message is often apocalyptic, particularly when it comes to our ongoing state of ecological crisis.
While put the goat is lighter – all bums and munching cows – it still tackles the serious matter of distinguishing humans from other animals. Phillipson scrutinises the idea that there is “no nudity in nature”, that humans are uniquely civilised and self-aware creatures because they cover up. Shame is nothing to be proud of, only serving to enforce norms and iron out kinks – cue the spanking – usually justified on the basis of what’s “natural”. Even as she focusses on embodiment, her wordplay, in the manner of deconstruction, opposes essentialisms. “Fuck the accepted standards”, she sings, off-key. But while nature may be “a room”, a compartmentalising idea, we shouldn’t assume that tearing down definitions will offer new insights into the lives of other beings. “I’ve always been in the world”, she says, “but I don’t know that I know it”. How about respecting others without claiming to understand them? This is perhaps the ethical thrust of Phillipson’s dry humour and metaphor squeezing method: to undo any sense of mastery through language, that other supposedly uniquely human facility. By treating meanings as mobile, humble yet harmful, like rubbish bags floating in the ocean, we might question the authority of our words and attend to their lived consequences. Maybe that will knock humans off their high horse.
Heather Phillipson, put the goat in the goat boat, 2014Courtesy of the artist.