“Although we can only experience things through their qualities, the work shows that there is always something that exceeds these qualities,” says Monkhorst. “A mysterious depth or soul-like feature that suspends our ordinary attitude toward objects and that clear descriptions can never fully approach.” The Deep Sleep series can at once be seen as still life photography, an investigation around sentience as sensory representation, and even as a questioning of animal sentience or the language of pain and suffering – in either case, they retain the emotional illustration of how depth is given by both the sleep of death and the sleep of life itself. That photography is a marker of absence and perhaps the one artistic medium that best aestheticises death, has become a truism, yet this does not strip away its power to provoke unique understandings of what it means to die. Death fetters the human soul and lays its anxious grip from the very first moments of our lives, without any possible claim we’d ever be able to overcome its wrapping fate. One cannot argue the germane significance of animals as subjects of the earliest human artworks, informing the practice and belief of artists and societies alike. Societies throughout the entire history of mankind have drawn complex relations between humans and other sentient beings, picturing the animal as an earthly incarnation of religious deities guiding us in this life and the next. They are psychopomps guiding us through the underworld in our quest to reclaim the dignity and character of our persona. In art, the lifeless form of animals incites to more challenging and empathic thoughts than depictions of flora, food, or objects, partly because they are a more intense reminder of our own impending death. In Monkhorst’s series, mortality and imminent death are balanced by symbols of transmutation that speak not only of death, but of life and rebirth; like in much of Western painting, the white lambs in The Deep Sleep can be associated with unspoiled innocence, reverence, and acceptance, even though bound or suspended, silent and asleep.
Diana Monkhorst’s series shares part of the compositional and conceptual ideas in the still life works of Shirana Shahbazi. Like Shahbazi, Monkhorst places the subjects of her compositions against striking black backgrounds that gives them both the impression of traditional still life of the seventeenth century and the startling impact of contemporary photography. Monkhorst too is interested in the constructed aspect of photography, allowing one to trace the manifest influence of conceptual photography; yet her images do not focus so much on a philosophical meditation on death or transience, nor the symbolic essence of the subject photographed – instead, the artist proposes a lack of context that incites to speculations on what the context of these photographs might be. The image is an instrument in a process of identification and, as such, presents the viewer with an anatomy of seeing. The Deep Sleep is characterised by the integrity of the compositions, the explicit depictions and abstract formations that haunt the spatial nature of the pictures and the impenetrable, honoured corporeality of the animals. By manipulating the colour fields and the construction of her photographs, with their vertical characters and values, Monkhorst captures the attention of the viewer beyond the apparent reality and ravels what is clearly visible, inviting us to capture the unseen, non-manifest qualities of the subjects. Forms are given depth and sharpness, emphasising the abstraction process that takes place before our eyes: what the photographs show is less a still life composition as such, but a process made visible. We are confronted with movement in stasis, in suspension, in an interruption. While the animals are deprived of any movement, what evades the description is a question of time and association, the process of abstraction – or, how abstraction takes form. The flat black surfaces and dim light makes the animal bodies stand out suspended, but their arrangement points to a game of perspective and correspondence. Yet the sharp contours do not picture the abstract as anti-subjective or impersonal: a fine degree of personality, dignity, sympathy, and grace defines the relation between materiality and life. By separating the subjects so clearly from any context, allowing their pictorial qualities to assume greater prominence, what Monkhorst makes visible and interrogates is the relation and possible synthesis of intelligence and instinct – life and matter, life and geometry, life and abstraction.
English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer Jeremy Bentham has drawn a distinct line in the issue of animal sentience when he wrote: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” It is well known that ideas of sentience in mammals and birds were first accepted by lay people in the Renaissance, well before being acknowledged by philosophers. During the eighteenth century, philosophers started to accept the idea that animals have feelings, developing more sophisticated concepts of sentience throughout the nineteenth century. It is not the question of animal senses, emotions, or consciousness that is at stake here: animal sagacity, memory, ability to associate ideas and reason, to demonstrate imagination and ‘moral’ qualities share close relation to affective subjective states and their role in regulating and directing behaviour. (It is worth mentioning here that the discipline of ethology was influenced by behaviourism, with ethologists usually restricting their considerations to observable behaviour.) Suffering is, however, closely related to the conceptual structure of language; and though The Deep Sleep presents its subjects in a serene, graceful gravity, both the aestheticization of death and the photographic construction of Monkhorst’s images share a constructivist, narrative perspective that also underlines the experience of suffering. The idea that pain experience is mediated by the conceptual structure of language can be traced to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s arguments around the relation between pain and language. Pain is conceptual and subjective, yet it can only be mediated as a social phenomenon. By accepting that human pain experience occurs within language, we must also acknowledge the primacy of narrative construction, that is, our relation with pain is mediated by the conceptual structure of the language. Distinctions between the sensory, affective, and evaluative aspects of pain are thus relative to the language within which they occur. The Deep Sleep may not address such issues directly, but the relation between image and language continues to take place within a constructivist field where account of a real situation are metaphorical and linked to constructed or constructive narratives. Like language itself, photography generates – it does not describe. It generates, for us, further possibilities through visual acts and distinctions in the way it shapes our sensory life into intelligible experiences. Inherently narrative in form, photography shapes and informs in surprisingly intimate ways the visual stories and depictions we see about ourselves and other sentient beings. The emotions generated by Monkhorst’s photographs allow the vague to be inserted into narratives, that is, the forms of life within with events, sensations, and interpretations occur. Photography mediates the relationship between the biological and the psychological, shaping the inner life and sensations of people.
In his 2000 book A Theory of Sentience, Austen Clark claimed that sensory appearance can be broken down into qualitative and spatial components. Unlike the dominant empiricist tradition of the twentieth century, which did not conceive separable impressions of colours and shapes, Clark believes that a quality in one sentient state can be reinstantiated as a component another. Furthermore, the author argues that the colour of a given object is not a representation of the properties of that object, but a representation of its relationship to other objects in a scene; objects of different reflectance or luminance can stand in the same relationship to one another and thus be of the same colour. In The Deep Sleep, Diana Monkhorst plays with the absolute significance of colours and shapes, emphasising strong contrasts and challenging ideas that the phenomenon of contrast colours would contradict the notion that perceived colour is simply a transformation of physical colour. But the artist does not depict a clear response to the situation, knowing that our identification of objects and formation of expectations about them are based on learned associations. What the artist aims is to direct attention beyond the learning and perceiving patterns of process, habituation, association, or induction. One must learn to see beyond habituation, that is, beyond the memory processes used to control attention; and beyond association, that is, beyond the manners by which we come to expect or to infer the occurrence of a hidden quality. The Deep Sleep challenges not only the relational type-identity thesis for sensory qualities, but also plays with the idea of sensory representations to challenge proto-singular terms and propose new difference codings. Since the idea of sentience is also a means to provide philosophical explanations for the various discrepancies occurring between the perceptions of an object, Monkhorst’s photographs invite the viewer to question whether perception can only be construed as a direct apprehension of objects or an interpretation of sense data. Is it possible that our perception may be construed as the modification or alteration by our expectations of fundamental sentiences caused in us? Is it possible that our more ‘complex’ perceptual experiences, such as those described in the case of synaesthesia, present us with varying intensities of conceptual supplementation to what we’re literally seeing? If sentience lies at the sensory core of our perceptual experiences, how can we distinguish it from its conceptual overlay? And where does one actually draw the line between fundamental sensing and what is seen by the painter’s eye or through the camera? How does one come to describe an aesthetics of sentience if sentience is a perceptual content of which we are unconsciously aware? By addressing such questions and the possibility of an aesthetics of sentience, Diana Monkhorst takes the ‘traditional’ medium of photography and the ‘traditional’ genre of still life to investigate the literal observation of ordinary physical objects, the phenomenological observation of one’s perceptual field reached through what is called ‘perceptual reduction’ or ‘the painter’s vision,’ and our ability to reach a transformed perception. An aesthetics of sentience, that is, an aesthetics of the transitions between perception and its alterations, its unnoticeable, indiscernible, insensible modulations.
Text by Sabin Bors, June 9, 2015