The Animals Around Us Written by Jane Wallace

Paraire 5 Āperira

Friday 5 April


In Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s novel The Wall, a woman on a weekend sojourn to an alpine lodge becomes, it seems, the last person on Earth. Overnight, an invisible but firmly physical wall separates her and the rest of the world. On the other side of this division, no being survives. In the mountainous landscape, it is as though the wall has shunted her to the edge of everything; it encloses her, alone in the alm.

Strange how quickly I leap to the word alone—or, how easily I assume it to refer to the absent company of mankind. Accompanied by Lynx, the faithful dog of the departed huntsman, a cat, and one gentle cow found grazing in a nearby pasture, the needs of these animals become the axis on which the whole world turns. The routine of milking the cow, leading her out into the meadow to feed, hunting meat for herself and Lynx are not chores, but vital for both animal and woman’s wellbeing. The cow, Bella, presently has a son; the cat produces litters of kittens like clockwork, and truly, those cycles of birth are what generate time within the story.

Such animal activities are mirrored in Ava Trevella’s paintings, where flurries of hybrid animals with beady eyes and tiny snouts, coats of fur or spines run between a scaffold of halfway buildings. Families—I can think of no better word for them—of hedgehogs and elegant bird-like beasts take over these structures, clambering around framing and making a home there, less by the introduction of belongings than a general presence and cooperation. These are paintings that are animated by a kind of industrious and resourceful activity that is shared by other science fictions. Even though the animals that populate these works occupy a human-made environment, Ava is not working through an interspecies continuum but an argument for the agency of animal behaviour as something parallel. The habits of a pet so often remain a mystery: nightcrawler, street fighter, yowling at the door at an ungodly hour. Where have you been? Same for the vermin concealed in the walls, chewing a labyrinth pathway through a domestic interior that we think we know well, designing an alternative system of transit away from our own hallways and rooms.

I bring with me: hairbrush, apple, pocket knife, loose change, house key, scarf, cellphone, ginger candies. What use would any of these things be to a cat, a swan, or a deer? So many of our modes of preparation and organisation are based around objects with fixed edges and purposes. I am always writing these inventories of the world, as if it is the only category that could articulate anything about our nature. I am packing for a holiday. I am folding the laundry. I am telling my mother all my favourite foods. My life is one big noun and I live inside this architecture. What could happen if we shifted from the plane of things to one of actions? 

Despite the kindred companionship experienced by the woman in The Wall, she feels a constant anxiety that she is unable to tend to the needs of the animals sufficiently. How can we know what animals need or want? We are so close, animal too, yet there is an insurmountable psychic separation. I am reminded of a similar monologue from the philosophising protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Ms. Costello asks how we expect to conceive of death, a state totally antithetical to the limits of existence, if we are unable to enter the mind of a bat, a species with whom we inhabit a common environment and whose sentience we have a real proximity to. For her, the inaccessibility of the thoughts and feelings of another creature is an unbearable shortcoming that might define the human condition. Both Ava’s paintings and these attempts toward animal consciousness ask for attention as a minimum standard. If perfect understanding is not possible, we can at least acknowledge the gestures of communication, including those that are not harmonious. This negotiation is what might constitute coexistence in the purest sense. The way I see it, the potential for friction means getting very close in order to rub against each other, even if it is the wrong way.

Suggestions of shelter also appear in Stacy Cooper’s sculptures, like those amongst which animals roam in Ava’s works, or the simple cabin of Haushofer’s book. Three semi-transparent textiles map out the shapes of furniture. The fabric is marked by contact, where the imagined leg or back of a chair would have transferred oils, drawing its own outline in a faint pigment. Appearing as approximations of memory, these spectral chairs and tables invoke a similar logic as communication via friction; through this mark-making process, the memory of past spaces that Stacy has inhabited are able to commune directly, albeit imperfectly — the real brushing up against its shadow.

A bad night: the cat runs into the lodge, wounded, and in a spasm of blood, dies right there, the ferrous substance seeping into the wooden floorboards. Long after the body of the cat has been removed and buried, the stain remains as a witness to the reality of violence. I don’t mean to do the expected thing and say that there is something fatal or mortal in the photographic image. Let me backtrack. The indexical relationship between the pool of blood and its resulting image is photographic, developed by the mingling of fluid and surface and light, a lasting patina which affirms both the existence of the cat and its demise. Now, we are after the time of the cat, and this afterwards-ness is additionally the currency of Stacy’s sculptures. Traces always summon loss; they exist as a vague souvenir to wish the past into the present.

I was being misleading when I wrote that the woman in The Wall is the last person on Earth. In fact, towards the end of the book, that patient and indispensable cow is slaughtered by an unknown stranger, and in retaliation a bullet is fired at him, but too late. The hound and heifer are both killed. Alive one second and then, not. It is a choice to share the places we live, to choose to act cruelly or carefully. The cat may be allowed to curl into the crook of one’s elbow, close to the fire, yet the mouse, driven in by the falling temperatures, believes in the smear of peanut butter left for him, and I choose to kill him instead. 


Jane Wallace

Jane Wallace is a curator and arts writer living in Ōhinehou Lyttelton. She founded and runs Blue Flower Texts and studied Art History at Victoria University of Wellington. From 2023-24 she was a Curatorial Assistant at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū where she co-curated the exhibition Spring Time is Heart-break with Melanie Oliver. She was recently appointed as Curator at The Physics Room in Ōtautahi Christchurch.