Why looking at dead horses might be good for you

‘Tis the time of sales, shopping and the sacred. Because of that, I’ve been thinking about an unexpected run-in with the sacred I had this past Autumn. It got me thinking – could the concept of sacred be useful for someone like me, at times like these?

I was visiting Toni R.Toivonen‘s exhibition at Galerie Forsblom. Toivonen labels his work as paintings, but they are made by placing animal carcasses on brass plates. The carcasses left to rot on the plates erode and stain the metal, leaving behind eerily beautiful shapes. The works are large, and the brass has a soft warm glow that’s very reassuring. It also brings to mind sacred art.

What is sacred and why?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists five meanings to the word sacred. One of them is “devoted exclusively to one service or use”. The animals Toivonen uses for his works could all be thought of this way. They are a source of company, food, raw materials.

Another meaning the dictionary lists is “entitled to reverence and respect”. Between production animals and pets there’s a vast difference of how much they are respected – at least in our Western society. My sister jokes her dogs eat better than she and her husband do. On the other hand, production animals are as often seen as little more than stuff food is made out of.

The last definition in the list is this: unassailable, inviolable. Sacred things are highly valued by those that hold them as such. The experience of sacred I had while looking at Toivonen’s work moved me deeply. Here these (not sacred) animals seem to be portrayed as such. Toivonen’s work made me think. Maybe they should be valued more.

The holy cow in the light of heaven

Compared to traditional christian sacred art, like icons, Toivonen’s work is very subdued. The only thing that drew me to make the connection was the warm glow of the brass reminding me of the haloes of saints long gone.

Cristo Morto, Pedro Américo, 1901, oil on canvas, 56×43 cm, Museu Casa de Pedro Américo

Icons are religious images which are meant to encourage the viewer in prayer and thought. They have strict rules about who and how should be depicted in them. Color has a strong meaning, and gold is the light of heaven. So, Toivonen’s animals might be seen basking in the eternal light of the heavenly kingdom.

A new sacred, maybe?

In a way, Toivonen’s works had a similar effect on me as icons are meant to have on their audience. They left me with a series of uncomfortable questions, and made me focus on my thoughts about my choices as a consumer. Looking at the vague imprints of these animals was a stark reminder that there are consequences to my choices; which clothes am I buying, what food am I eating? To be reminded of them by works of modern art was surprisingly welcome.

So what I’m proposing here is this: could pieces of art like Toivonen’s work as a kind of modern sacred image, encouraging us to reflect on our choices as consumers? After all, in the time of climate change and extinction, what could be more sacred than the lives and natural resources we’re so quickly running out of?

Article image: The only horse I ever rode, brass, original substances of a dead animal, 200 x 300cm, 2015, (original photo Jussi Tiainen)

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