Sheepigoats

Artist Heather Phillipson on interspecies empathy

By Heather Phillipson

Heather Phillipson for ‘Sheepigoats’, Summer 2017. Courtesy the artist

It’s a big release to assert your deficiencies and press on, so why not own up that I’m not too hot at narrative descriptions of anything that feels beyond narrative descriptions, which, for me, is most of the world. And it’s especially so for art-performance-producer-collaborators Fevered Sleep’s Sheep Pig Goat (I keep wanting to call it sheepigoat, because FS surely anticipated that – no full stops, lumping then separating between neurons), which featured precisely what its title suggests, brought together, quietly, with string players and dancers, for unfixed interactions, in a Peckham warehouse, and which was less an event than an attendance.

As a human-animal, and a pink-skinned one to boot, I find myself in a privileged party, but I’ve always felt on the side of the other-than-human – also a slab of ageing meatloaf, close to microbes, often damp. So I acted kind of like a seven-year-old in advance of the sheepigoat, toting it around to my friends with a twinkle. No matter what, I rarely decline mammals – I don’t mean eating them, I don’t do that, I mean the chance to get close to ‘other worlds’, in a sci-fi sense. Really, I’d like to renounce my selves to the snouts and whiskers and smasheroo hooves. Hooves are the real-deal footwear.

Watching creatures take snacks and craps has that piquing quality of snubbing you while sucking you in, and something welled inside the warehouse and me

The sheep’s pigs’ goats’ first major strike was their ecology of smell – a farmyard vacuumed up my nose. They made an ungulate flavouring – something like earwax stock-cubes – and it soaked everything. Afternoon sky was breaching Peckham skylights and the air was a communal stew. Incubatory. Captivity really bothers me, as does leering, but this was a lighter, conscious foregrounding, as if all the characters were familiar but everyone had new roles from a million freshly improvised plays. A sheep got close to a viola player, another sheep leaned against the wall, the third ate hay, claiming it and making it vital. (They were intensified, like our brain cells.) Watching creatures take snacks and craps has that piquing quality of snubbing you while sucking you in, and something welled inside the warehouse and me. SEE, it commanded – it’s that or go under.

Did I suppress a laugh? If I did, it was from an intense simplification of feeling and an intense complication of thought. It was from zipping my mouth, as if caught in a sty, in flagrante. I felt like it was very bright in there, but realised I was focusing hard, which made me glad and thankful. I felt how I felt when I read Lydia Davis’s The Cows, in which little happens, except cows. Observed, day on day, re/arranging themselves in a field, the cows are pure presence. I felt worried, through and through, about my anthropogenic ancestry, still discharging. I felt how I felt when I first saw Eraserhead, aged eight-ish, with that chicken scene. You know, when the meat-corpse poked by a carving knife creaks back up to creatureliness, leaking into the family tableau – alive, alive on the dining table – aide-memoire of horrors. (‘Have you heard the appalling moan of the dead in slaughter? It’s the terrible disillusionment of the newly born dead, who’d hoped for and deserved eternal sleep but found themselves tricked, caught up in an endless machinery of pain and sorrow’ – Leonora Carrington.) I felt how I felt yesterday at the swimming pool, discovered in semi-undress in the school changing rooms by a gaggle of under-tens, who froze and stared and stared. It takes some mettle to be unselfconscious. I felt like a reminder of our fuller, hairier selves. The goats skipped and nipped, while the pig took a shit, blasé. I felt that sense of the inarticulate that’s released when exceptional musicians hit their concrete/transcendent highs.

I felt, beside more and less furry bodies, unstaged, uncomposed, totally unreal-real, and that felt like the point

My mood? A pumped-up tyre! Inflated with tenderness and tension, feeling taut. A swelling of time, sweating. There was agriculture here, yes, and confinement and weather and habitat and versions of human dominion, but there was more of what escapes. I felt our biological buffooneries, our bestiary of relations, getting skewed. I felt, beside more and less furry bodies, unstaged, uncomposed, totally unreal-real, and that felt like the point. A mosquito landed on the rope in front of me, bloodsucking compère to the ecosystem. Appearances differ only, really, in audibleness. I felt like my walls had been licked and chewed until silky/sticky. Like I might smell of proximity. Like when I get a surge of love and want to feel another body’s weight because there’s a precise kind of tactility needed to feel where we are right now. I felt bloody relieved. I felt nervy with grip-the-handrest moments, though there weren’t any handrests, as if other parts of me had sprouted into existence before the tingling circuitry of legs and glances. A sheep lay down. I felt like I’d arrived late for the overture and would leave before the applause. (I love to dwell in a clichéd metaphor until it feels almost ickily literal.) As if generally I only inhabit pathetic worn tidbits of myself, and if I stayed around longer, maybe even the rest of my life, I’d still miss the most important nubs.

It was Marj, my dog, who introduced me to Fevered Sleep’s co-artistic director, David, by mutually befriending his dog on our morning runs – scattered, extemporised meetings also something like the act of rediscovery – the unearthing of a different opening scene, or newly inserted 4th, 15th or 98th scene. We started to have conversations, about creatures and lovers and birdsong and boxsets and smut and the politics of pets and dog food and fruit massage oils and about feminisms and 80s pop-culture and poems, while the mutts tumbled each other, and you don’t get that strolling around a supermarket. If several mammals are brought together, in biological space, I think, we must establish, and reestablish, our curious, relative poses. And when what happens is contingent and unformulated and reformulated, one can’t ascribe meaning to it, thank heavens, only inhabit the common nanoseconds.

I didn’t start out with something sensible to say and, I suspect, neither did the sheep and pigs and goats, but, between us, something sensible was surging. It was a very quiet way to have the enlivened shit whomped into you for an hour. 


First published in the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview