A look at the work of artists crossing the species barrier

The woman stands next to the horse in a bare white room. She is dressed in close-fitting black from chin to toes; the horse wears its own close-fitting black skin. Neither look comfortable: the horse’s ears are back and wary, his forelegs straddling the floor, head high; the woman is perched on long, rigid prostheses constructed from metal rods to imitate his limbs. What you cannot see in this instant is that the woman’s veins are filled with immunoglobulins taken from the blood of three horses, injected into her just minutes ago by her colleague. On the spindly fake hooves she is perched between species. She has started a fever, and nobody knows what will happen next.

Crossing the species barrier: the same term is used for zoonotic diseases that begin in animals and end in humans, like coronavirus, and the idea that a human can become an animal. In French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s preternatural 2019 memoir, In the Eye of the Wild, the author’s recovery from a bear attack in Siberia becomes a journey across this boundary. Her informants among the local Even people tell her she is now partly the bear that stalked her dreams for months before she fought him on a volcano’s slopes. The bear broke her face and lacerated her scalp and leg, carrying off bone and teeth. She has been transformed physically by the creature, and in local belief they were destined for one another – she sought out the bear and he her. The process was violent and dangerous, and that, it strikes me, is as it should be. It is no small matter to become a hybrid.

The woman standing by the horse in a Ljubljana gallery in 2011 was the French artist Marion Laval-Jeantet, one half of Art Orienté Objet, with her partner Benoît Mangin. The pair’s “slow art” often toys with species boundaries. They have made a coat from roadkill and communicated with giraffes with a swaying puppet giraffe head. They tattooed endangered species on skin that combined their cells and those of a pig. For the 2011 artwork, May the Horse Live Inside Me, Laval-Jeantet found a Swiss laboratory willing to inject her with 40 different families of equine immunoglobulins so that she could literally carry the three horses inside her. She had hoped to become a vessel for a vanishing species, like the panda, but settled for the horse, despite fearing it, because she wanted to evoke the mythological heritage of human-horse hybrids. It was an astonishing risk to take, although the antibodies had been rendered safe, and she had prepared for months with smaller injections. Still, a researcher who attempted this with porcine immunoglobulins was pitched into a coma. When untreated human and horse blood are tipped into a petri dish, the cells destroy one another.

Since I started writing books about humans and horses I have come across many fantasies about becoming a horse

Since I started writing books about humans and horses I have come across many fantasies, from literature to modern child’s play, about becoming a horse. They encompass two contradictory notions: one of the absolute freedom of the wild horse, and one of being dominated, harnessed and even beaten and thus obtaining release. In the 2022 film Piaffe by Ann Oren, a mousy woman grows a mare’s tail and finds liberation through BDSM. “Freedom” was the unspoken theme behind the childhood memories of the women I interviewed about tossing imaginary manes and cantering like mustangs in the playground.

Artist Marion Laval-Jeantet during the presentation of “May the Horse Live in Me!”

This attempted metamorphosis can feel profound. “When a child pretends to be a horse or other animals he often becomes, as in no other pretending game, almost unconscious that he is pretending,” wrote researchers Iona and Peter Opie. I also spoke to a “pony girl” fetishist for whom the transformation into horse – with bridle and tail – was the chance to cease to be herself. “A sigh, a breath, and then I’m gone,” she told me. “I’ve left the room, so to speak.” At the time, I wrote: “A horse embodied the liberation inherent in all fantasy.” Now I see things differently. I am less interested in human notions of what horses are like, and more in the way horses navigate a human world.

Martin’s Siberian bear just is. She does not assign him convenient cultural or symbolic meanings. Animals exist beyond what we project onto them, and horses, though knitted – to their cost – into our anthropomorphic assumptions, are no exception. I am not sure that we have what it takes to imagine what it would truly be like to be a horse.

In Greek mythology and Indian epic, the transformations of Demeter, Ocyrhoe, or Saranyu into mares tell us nothing about what goes on behind a horse’s huge eyes. In folktales from the Arabian Nights to Finland, Russia, and Italy, adulteresses are changed into mares, but lust is not a punishable offence among horses. We assign horses “nobility” and “harems” but ethologists now believe they live more in a state of mutually supportive anarchy. Even this seems like a human projection. The reality of becoming a horse does not hold up a comfortable mirror reflecting back human preoccupations. The reality is frightening and Other, as Laval-Jeantet found out.

To consider really changing into a horse, imagine the sheer bodily horror of the process: your nose would stretch and broaden until your mouth and chin were tucked underneath it, your lips growing heavy, muscular and prehensile – lips for selecting plants, not talking. Your ripped open nostrils would explode with scents, your olfactory receptors multiplying fifty times. Your head would extend, your enormous, castellated molars reaching up almost to your eyes, and those eyes would be dragged to the side of your head and expanded eight times to give you the world in a disorientating 350 degrees. You would feel shock as your field of vision changed in a snap: details that had been clear would blur but you would see behind you, sudden movements flickering everywhere. Your ears would lengthen, curl, and rotate to catch sounds. Your head would depart from your body on a long, strong neck.

The worst violence is to your limbs. Your shoulder, upper arm and thigh bones would strengthen and retreat deep into your torso. Your thumbs, six other fingers and six toes would shrivel into vestigial nubs. You would stand on the fingernails of your remaining digits, balanced on your knuckles and wrists, your foot bones elongating and losing flesh, leaving you torso-heavy and hand-less on vulnerable stilts of bone, muscle, and skin.

Marion Laval-Jeantet did not, of course, mutate into a horse as her fever developed that night in a Ljubljana gallery, but if the scientists who counselled her are right, she came closer to being a horse than anyone outside of mythology. The response produced by the immunoglobulins was a physical equine response. For a week, she slept for a few hours at a time, like a horse. She was furiously hungry. She paced her office at night telling a dictaphone what it felt like, and gave incomprehensible lectures. Her children drew away from her. Then there was the obliterating agitation.

“I feel powerful yet a simple tap on my shoulder gives me a fright. I am startled by small noises, afraid of everything”

She later wrote, “I feel powerful yet a simple tap on my shoulder gives me a fright. I am startled by small noises, afraid of everything, but it’s a fear without awareness, somewhat instinctive and non-existential. It’s a simple fear without anxiety. A fear that is ridiculous, nervous. Of the kind you feel when you jump startled before you even realize what has startled you.” She felt permanently “on the run” and in a state of “hysteria” before collapsing and sleeping for eighteen hours and gradually returning to an almost fully human body.

Her words reminded me of Przewalski horses I saw in Mongolia – the closest we have to fully wild horses today – and the frail ribs of a yearling I found on a hillside after the wolves had finished. A herd grazed nearby, the stallion standing apart, scanning the valley. The mares moved and ate steadily all day, occasionally stopping to let the foals rest, at which point no adult horse grazed. Would it feel like a conventional liberation to live with this jittery, wordless fear and constant hunger in a landscape that was not a pastoral blank but a scent map of predation and rivals? To feel at once powerful but hunted? Wild horses are not “free”, and forcing a horse into submission does not liberate it either. There is another kind of liberation at play.

“Powerfulness and fear together like that is not a primate characteristic,” Laval-Jeantet recalled. This unhuman fear, she thought, was not something that needed to be “cured” by therapy, but a process that gave her a new animal perception of the world. Martin went to Siberia because that world was falling apart; the bear reshaped her understanding. By becoming hybrids, they did not make some kind of existential jailbreak from the mundane demands of life, but found themselves by a hole blasted in a border fence, looking into another world.

Susanna Forrest is the author of “The Age of the Horse” and “If Wishes Were Horses”. She’s writing a book about stars of the nineteenth-century European circus, Amazons of Paris, with a newsletter on susannaforrest.substack.com

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