The giant poured lemonade, slowly, solemnly into a row of mismatched glasses.
Thirsty from the humid, musty heat of the henhouse, I grabbed the biggest.
“Who chased the poor hens?”
She settled into her chair. Black eyes, twinkling.
“They’ll never lay now. We’ll have no eggs for dinner.”
Outside, the cock crowed.
#50 of 52: Lisa Herrod
Object: Ceramic chickens
Themes explored in the work included;
- Nostalgia; partly inspired by the nostalgic representation of a pastoral scene. Odd as it might sound, thinking about the meaning of chickens gave rise to many childhood memories. It was quite difficult to objectively explore this subject without overlaying it with my own sentimental recollections.
- The symbolic meaning of chickens; as a source of food, eggs were associated with immortality in ancient Rome and Egypt. In Biblical terms, chickens are associated with loyalty and enlightenment: Peter denied his association with Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, then cried bitterly, repenting his disloyalty.
- Changes in attitudes toward chickens in the food supply chain; the ceramic chickens represent an idealization of “pastoral” life. Chickens have been viewed as maternal, breeders, egg laying machines and more recently as component parts for foodstuff or food products (eg compressed nuggets). These meanings, are representative of varying degrees of our attitudes toward and the value (or lack thereof) that we place on knowing where our food comes from, what it contains and how it is produced.
- The dynamics of our relationships with animals, specifically with relation to our tendency to either objectify or anthropomorphism them; we anthropomorphise some animals, naming them and interpreting them in terms of human motivations, behaviours and emotional responses. We grant them rights of agency, to some degree. Chickens are typically objectified – unnamed and largely conceived of as having little or no agency.
The final work brings all of this together and draws on some autobiographical elements. I had many neighbours and older relatives – especially aunts, who kept hens. They were a food source, integral to their way of life. My childhood view of the hens was simple: playthings and a source of adventure. We chased them because it was fun. They made funny noises, flapped their wings and there was always an element of danger – they pecked if you got too close or if you managed to actually catch one. Add to that the thrill of an egg hunt, which entailed searching the nooks and crannies of backyard kitchen gardens and ultimately, into the dark recesses of the henhouse – dimly-lit, tiny humid sheds filled with mounting straw, the beady eyes of watchful hens and the smell of chicken manure. Not somewhere to linger and yet, if you wanted to bag an egg, without getting pecked, you had to move cautiously. We were country kids but from an era where things were changing rapidly – we knew where food came from; animals and plants and we saw at first hand the hard work that was involved in producing and preparing it. At the same time, we didn’t really care too much for that pastoral life because we were part of a generation that was moving away from it.
The story and the artwork are a very simple revisiting of my childhood days spent chasing chickens in my aunt’s backyard but seen through the eyes of someone with a bit more life experience. It’s about a moment when you realise that there is more to someone or a situation than you previously thought. The giant represents the persona of an adult – larger than life and powerful, yet dispensing treats – which is exactly what my older aunts did. In my extended family, they were empowered and as quick, to issue a disciplinary tongue-lashing, as a compliment. She talks simultaneously of the “poor hens” as if they have feelings and of there being “no dinner tonight” in one breath because that was how she saw them. They were not pets but that didn’t mean you treated them with disrespect. My aunt was not wealthy. She lived a very traditional lifestyle, in a very small cottage (hence the mismatched glasses – although there was probably an element of kids not being trusted with the good glassware) and yet, whenever we visited, we were treated to lemonade and snacks. Her hens may not have been the primary food source but she didn’t keep them for fun. Our antics would certainly have disturbed their egg-laying cycle, interrupting the food supply but apart from the odd piercing stare and a confronting question, we were never actively punished or discouraged from our misadventures in the back yard.
The cock crowing represents the breaking of dawn – the moment of enlightenment, when the protagonist has their moment of insight. In this story, the protagonist has three primary insights;
- The hens could be more than playthings and that they could have even more than one meaning.
- The adults were more aware of what we were up to than we ever suspected.
- That it’s important to be part of a brood or a flock – something that matters in it’s own right and that just being part of it is a good thing in itself.
The process of enquiry and exploration that lead to this work, especially with regard to the way in which we have objectified our food sources and food itself, also brought me to the following realisation.
It’s terribly important to know about your world: where things come from, how we come to hold certain beliefs and attitudes, what questions to ask and what answers to accept.
And finally, a question: how to be part of a flock, without following the herd?
Project52 is a participatory art project that explores intrigue and our relationships with objects and people. Provide a photo of an object. Receive an artwork and 52-word story. Reflect. Playback and share.
The project will culminate in an exhibition, when 52 works are completed.