Kiskadee: Ambivalent Ornaments

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

You’re flat hunting in vibrant Glasgow. On the south bank of the Clyde, in the infamous Gorbals, you’re shown a building the color of honey-nut cereal with modestly cartoonish contours. Of the 127 dwellings within, some are called “virtual houses” and protrude from lower stories, their bulbous bay windows rippling along the walls like beads on a bracelet. You visit a flat with plenty of sunlight, fresh kitchen appliances, “Oh, and there’s this,” the letting agent says, opening a cupboard. She brings out a parrot on a stick.

The parrot is three-dimensional, its bright little body the work of intricate embroidery. It has the look of a lollypop about it, what with the stick.

“It goes with the flat,” says the agent. She hands you the parrot and the User’s Manual.

A sign in the stairwell at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art says, “This way to Gallery 4 and Domestic Bliss.”

Armored in skepticism, I stop at the first thing I see. On a shelf too small to fit anything else is a photo of a chimpanzee in a white frame. Her posture is that of Mary in mass-produced nativity scenes gazing down with beatific love at her divine issue. The handmade gesso frame, bordered in bas-reliefs of bone-white flowers, recalls sarcophagi.

Five little shelves hang together in a loose cluster offering sculpted things. There’s the pseudo-religious chimp. An all-gray porcelain guinea pig with blank gray eyes. A trio of knitted cacti in knitted pots, three-dimensional like eccentric ski hats, gray as a Glasgow sidewalk in the rain. A model of a Soviet-looking block of flats ripped in two by explosives, smoke billowing from the implosion point, bits of rubble on the ground, the whole mini-scene in tooth-white polyurethane resin, an ivory substitute used in manufacturing souvenirs. A green parrot 3D-embroidered on a stick.

Altogether they’re Home Ornaments, an artwork by Daphne Wright in the GOMA’s Domestic Bliss exhibition.

Something in me stays with parrot’s tail, unflowing, and lack of wings. With the simian memento mori, the guinea pig’s empty eyes. Cacti like wrong-shaped socks.

An artnet reviewer notes that Wright’s work is almost devoid of color. “What color remains appears etiolated, sapped as if in death.” The Ornaments also bring to mind flea-market produce.

But the commission was to commemorate the birth of 127 flats at Queen Elizabeth Square in Glasgow’s Gorbals. Residents told Wright they wanted outdoor statues of mill workers, soldiers, or at least some version of the human male whose outsized archetype has plonked in public squares since time began. Instead, Wright designed a little parrot, guinea pig, imploding building, cactus trio, and chimp effigy. She commissioned artisans to make around 25 of each. She put one Home Ornament in each flat along with a “Manual/User Guide.” The Manual permitted residents to swap their Ornaments or hide them in cupboards but specified that an Ornament, like an architectural detail, is “part of the apartment” and should “be placed back in its original position when and if the apartment changes hands.”

Ornament, not monument.

Not a triumphant, one-of-a-kind, postmodern David but bits of kitsch handmade en masse. They can’t impress the public because they’re meant to stay home. Knitting, embroidery, porcelain, and the very idea of ornamentation suggest femininity, sometimes even grandmotherliness. Among the figures not a single one is human. Not one is Scottish, either, except the model of the old flats in the moment of their implosion, an event in which flying rubble killed a bystander and paved the way for a redevelopment worthy of commemoration.
Three times were the Gorbals demolished and rebuilt in the last two centuries. Three times was its impoverished community, decimated by squalor and violence, evicted to other districts. According to art curator Simon Morrissey, some Glaswegians took offense at the Gorbals’ latest renaissance being commemorated with animals. A primitive primate. A suspiciously rat-like guinea pig. Some people threw their Ornaments away. Others hoarded them when they realized they were “art,” hoping to make money off them in future.

Why do I still think of Home Ornaments, months after leaving Glasgow for my native Devil’s Isles and my potted Devil’s Ivy? What did that small and pallid, fragmented artwork stick me with inside?

It could be the feeling of “Am I doing what I think I’m doing?” or even “Can I do what I’m doing, whatever it might be?” For an artist, sensations of doubt are chronically exigent. With each new effort they both persist and recur.

Yet I cannot seem to surrender to my own doubts about Home Ornaments. I cannot bring myself to see the unspectacular failure I fear it might be. Somehow I doubt its subversions are only callow nose-thumbing.

I just don’t think Daphne Wright would use or invoke another living being simply to flout traditions and expectations—as if bringing someone home for no other reason than that her family would despise them. Curator Francis McKee’s essay on Ornaments’ plethoric influences suggests the artist was moved by, for example, the bloody history of the guinea pig. To this day the species’ name is synonymous with the test subjects the animals become when humans force them to swallow mascara and shampoo. Chimps, too, have long been victims of science, subjected to everything from space travel to induced cancer and HIV injections.
It’s not only in laboratories that humans use other beings to death. Nonhumans bring beauty and cheer to our homes. Sometimes we expect this of them even when our homes can’t sufficiently provide for them. A human might be the ideal companion for an urban cat or Yorkshire terrier, but the lifespans of many parrots are far longer than those of humans. When a parrot who’s been captive all its life outlives its owner, what is it supposed to do?

It’s not only animals either. Cacti are desert dwellers that struggle to thrive in northern climates, like Scotland’s, where they’re popular as houseplants. Around the world (and this something I know from experience), billions of houseplants deployed as decorations have died and been thrown out. Even a home itself, a building, even a neighborhood survives only as long as it thrives according to the dominant social order.

Wright’s Home Ornaments represent, 127 times, nonhumans that humans use as resources in one context or another (medical, ornamental, emotional . . .) and discard when they’re used up. This is the rhythm of everyday, anthropo-capitalist home life: purchase, consume, dispose, repeat.

After Home Ornaments, Wright cast life-sized sculptures in marble dust and resin from nonhuman corpses. A macaque lying as if thrown aside on a table. A stallion in the process of being flayed for leather. This, says the Irish Times, is “the other side of the story, the part never told in the victory monuments.” Perhaps the Ornaments were born of some first stirrings of a sense of another, subaltern side to the daily anthropo-domestic victory of survival. Perhaps this intimation stirred in the artist again and again, 127 stirrings or more. Like shivering.

So why can’t I wholeheartedly embrace Home Ornaments as a wholehearted effort of nonhuman advocacy which—by striking so close to home it is at home—stirs in me a sense of my complicity in exploitative consumerism? Why do I doubt it? Is it because the cacti are woolen?

You’re alone in your flat with a parrot on a stick.

Is it an appliance? A housewarming gift? Perhaps a refugee; a stranger come to stay uninvited, imposing on your hospitality, with almost nowhere else to go if it’s not to be thrown out. Or the finger of guilt pointing at the anthropocentric conceits ingrained in you. But unless you stumble on the GOMA or finagle invitations to pertinent flats, you may never see the chimp and other objects. It’s difficult, without those others, to connect a cute embroidered parrot to anticapitalist advocacy.

Maybe you’ve no choice but to take it at face value, a decoration like the bay windows ringing your block of flats like a frilly hem. It’s better to enhance your home with fake birds than to trap real ones under your ceilings. Or do fake parrots actually teach us to exploit nonhumans by encouraging us to enjoy prettifying our lives with their bodies?

Wright says her work “maneuvers things” into “delicate doubt.” She told Sculpture magazine: “Nothing is what it seems. I also think that’s how I prefer things to be. It would be very disappointing if things were singular—how awful.”

This maneuver of hers is not an answer. But that’s as it should be. Didactic art is propaganda; propaganda is weaponry; unquestionable assertions are dogma. I’d rather Wright’s insistence on a chronic sting of doubt.

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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