January 2022, Vancouver
By Lauren Lavery
In the classic animated film, Alice in Wonderland (1951), Alice is caught up at a maze-like intersection in the road when an echoey voice begins to sing from her surroundings. “Did you lose something?,” the voice asks. Startled, Alice looks up to find a large, crescent-shaped smile emerging from the blackness of the tree branch above, teeth gleaming like a bright moon. As Alice stumbles for words, the disembodied mouth apologetically dismisses her, and a pair of eyeballs materialize from above, first the left and then the right, plopping themselves into place above the grin, their pupils rolling around the whites like marbles. Finally, a complete figure begins to surface: vertical purple and magenta stripes form around a body and a tail, revealing a large, lounging cat.
Perhaps the best way to explain the Cheshire Cat’s fantastical entrance is by examining the aesthetic techniques real flora and fauna have evolved over time to help protect themselves from predators and to trick their prey—otherwise known as camouflage. From an evolutionary standpoint, camouflage is a tactic used to ensure the longevity of organisms. It takes various forms, including cryptic and disruptive colouration, motion dazzle, alterations in materiality, and behaviour including transparency and self-decoration. One of the most unsettling camouflage accoutrements are eyespots, which develop on many species of winged insects and birds, as well as on fish and reptiles. This form of mimicry, according to one theory, is meant to intimidate and distract predators from more vulnerable body parts, thus ensuring survival. If we understand camouflage as a part of evolutionary survival, what happens when the eyes refuse to merely camouflage, but also develop agency of their own?
In Swamp Sight, Sarah Davidson’s recent work illustrates the possibility of this uncanny, psychedelic scenario. Each drawing features at least one amphibian or human eye with pitch-black pupils gazing out of the frame and back at the viewer, giving a new meaning to the notion of feeling watched coupled with the uncertainty of where from. Eyes, or eyespots, emerge from within the tangle of vegetation in each work, sometimes tucked in a dark crevice behind a large bug-eaten leaf, other times disguised within the sketchy confines of a moth’s wing. Davidson’s works are technically complex—their superficially flat surfaces seamlessly weave classic drawing elements, such as hatching and cross-hatching, with mixed materials including pencil crayon, ink and watercolour, to create an illusion of ethereal, murky depth. The swampy aspect of this work forms within organically-shaped fields of colour, wherein blobs of complementary colours (greens and reds, blues and oranges) envelope the foregrounded eyes, leaves, lily pads, and veil-thin wings, heightening the hallucinatory effects of the patterning and generating an environment of disruptive concealment for the bodiless beings to lurk within.
Although bodiless, the eyes are not without essence. Disembodied eyespots pop out of bodies and wings and reinstate themselves as floating orbs amidst the weightless landscape. Similarly, petals and leaves meld into moths wings, all of which are meticulously patterned and contrastingly colour coated, thus enforcing a kind of material amalgamation that portends an agentive power. If we are to consider the eyes through Jane Bennet’s “thing power”: “the object becomes Other, when [it] looks back”. In other words, the eyes’ agency becomes apparent in this moment of looking back. The eyes are acting in the world, and are thus embodied beings, no longer inert and passive in relation to the material world around them.
There’s a moment in Detection, 2020, where a large red teardrop narrowly hangs from the tip of a branch, its bulbous weight seeming to sway, ready to leap at the slightest jostle. Droplets appear multiple times across the exhibition, sometimes as teardrops from an eye or dew from the humid swamp. In other works, delicate, veiny interior details could equally depict the petal of a flower or the transparent wing of an insect. It seems simplistic to describe these environments as chaotic, but in many ways they are. Davidson’s swampy landscapes are lawless, defying so-called ‘natural’ laws of materiality, gravity and even corporeality—so much so that the figures within become transcorporeal—assuming a “fluidity between material and theoretical bodies, challenging dualities and dichotomies. Transcorporeality assumes inter- and intra-connections, intra-actions, entanglements and transits between human and other-than-human bodies.”
Davidson’s reference points clearly include botanical drawings, but their disruption of the ‘natural’ order we normally associate with viewing this type of work further projects the eyes and eyespots into what scholar Mel Y. Chen refers to as “queer animation.” The notion of the Other, as first described by Bennet, reappears in Chen’s analysis, where Chen furthers the idea by likening it to a queer sensibility, noting that queering “sets its users up for a suitably messy governance, even an antigovernance.”
If we as viewers are to understand Davidson’s defiance of the ‘natural’ order of corporeality, physics and camouflage as a kind of collective galvanization, then it must in fact be a reclamation of the eye’s Otherness, of their transcorporeality. Like the Cheshire Cat’s disappearing and reappearing form, the eyespots in Davidson’s work employ their agency to invent an unruly new world—an undefinable, psychedelic Otherworld of a swamp—in which to camouflage, and from which to look back.
2 Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 42.
3 Definition from IGI Global, 2021: https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/transcorporeality/87370
4 Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke Univeristy Press, 2012), 57.
5 Ibid., 85.