Allora & Calzadilla’s recent video Apotomē (2013) takes a fair amount of work to understand. One must know, for instance, that in May 1798 a concert was performed in Paris for two elephants, Hans and Parkie, who had arrived two months earlier as spoils of war. The concert was part spectacle, part science experiment seeking to elicit a response from the animals. This history is the backdrop for Apotomē, where 216 years later, Allora & Calzadilla again play music for Hans and Parkie, now skeletons in a large storage facility called the Zoothéque, at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
The video slowly pans past rows of taxidermy animals as the most bizarre sounds begin. It does not sound like music. Instead, it recalls a slowing or only partially choked lawnmower. It’s extremely loud, and the notes dip as low as eight octaves below the lowest G on a piano. A uniquely gifted singer, Tim Storms, goes through renditions of arias from Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), by Christoph Willibald Gluck; Ô Tendre Musette (c. 1777), by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny; and the Revolutionary anthem Ça Ira (c. 1790), though to the listener these songs will be unrecognisable. The notes go so low that they can be heard by elephants but not by humans.
The crescendo of both the video and of this strange music comes with the view of the bones of Hans and Parkie sitting on a metal shelf. Allora & Calzadilla are singing to elephants that stood witness in their own way to Napoleon’s extended attempt to conquer the world and to how the French Revolution became the Napoleonic Empire. The elephants, once wild and then captured, travelled widely and became mere exhibits. Allora & Calzadilla want to elicit a story that they know they are never going to hear, from subjects they know will never speak. In a strange way, the elephants in the video come to stand in for all the voiceless dead, all the victims of empire and colonial oppression who are lost to history.
The video is jarring, and at long stretches quite boring, but it delivers interesting opportunities for observation if one rides along with the camera and Tim Storms a while. One notices, for instance, the curious fact that most taxidermy animals are frozen in time with their mouths open, as if humans harbour some unconscious desire that animals speak. Furthermore, Storms’s voice, as strange as it is, perhaps is a good indication of how other animals hear our voices or music, something foreign and otherworldly.
Poet W.S. Merwin once wrote of his sleeping dog, remarking that there is ‘so little that is tamed’ yet so much his dog would find deeply familiar. There is a romance in projecting knowledge onto animals, yet we probably have more in common with them than we are different from them. Allora & Calzadilla, despite a presentation that can be unbearably precious, want this primal truth. So much sophistication in animals remains unknown, yet humans continue to shock in their capacity for wildness.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue