Who Is Sitting on the Throne: Rabbit or Man?

19 01 2022

Still Life. Photo: Jaka Varmuž

Author: Gabrielė Pelakauskaitė

Translated by Laima Bezginaitė

17th century philosopher René Descartes turned back to the anthropocentric approach to nature, believing that scientific knowledge allows man to control nature, while the increase in the latter’s possibilities makes him happy. Descartes claimed that man is the lord and owner of nature. This exaltation of man’s powers and the self-appointment to lordship continues to this day but it is becoming obvious that we have reached the limit. Endangered animal species, deforestation, ocean pollution and melting glaciers make it clear that the ruler’s throne is starting to wobble.

In the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre’s performance Still Life (premiered in September 2020), the throne is replaced with a table onto which one stuffed rabbit after another is brought. The actors talk about where they got the stuffed animals for the performance, and to a person who is not familiar with taxidermy they tell about different ways of making stuffed animals, thus right from the beginning allowing the viewers to decide on their own point of view and the side they support.

Some do not see anything wrong with this process, while others find taxidermy an unjustifiable practice that violates animal rights. Still others maybe find only certain methods of taxidermy acceptable, such as when animals are not killed for this purpose. The actors reveal that some stuffed animals are made from animals that died by accident or roadkill, while others are made from animals that were killed specifically for this purpose, though none of them are endangered species. We are used to seeing stuffed animals in museums or hunting lodges, but it is quite an unusual thing to see on the stage. From the very beginning, the question arises: why are rabbits the main symbol of this performance? What would happen if they were replaced by another animal species or if the stuffed animals were more diverse? We all know what a rabbit looks like, what its body shape is; many of us have even met this animal face to face. This experience allows to better recognize the characteristics of the rabbit on the stage and to appreciate the work of the actors controlling the animal.

The scene in which the action takes place is reminiscent of a work environment. Stuffed animals and objects from which reliefs for the rabbits are created are openly visible, while lights and cables are moved by the actors themselves. In front of the stage, in the center, there is a table that becomes a stage for the rabbits, a throne for several minutes.

Each rabbit acts on a relief specially designed for it. The actors create them using moss, pebbles, drops of water, soil and other naturally occurring structures. It is hard to imagine how that would look like when watching a live performance, but close-up filming takes the viewers even closer to realistic episodes of rabbit life. Each rabbit is at the same time moved by three actors, so every little flinch, movement, or breath is precisely fulfilled. When watching the rabbit, viewers can presume the direction from which the sound is coming, as the rabbit’s ears move towards it, while the nose begins to move and sniff.

Different emotions of the rabbit can be observed: satisfaction when feeding its offspring, timidity, fear over the slightest thing, e.g., when something tickles its fur or whiskers. Different episodes do not have any plot, the rabbits are living their normal life in nature and performing actions at their usual speed. Their lives are not adapted to the stories of struggles, survival, and love that viewers like.

We can see a rabbit sniffing the ground, feeding its offspring, eating. By observing a rabbit living an episode from its life, its characteristics as an animal also become apparent. These three components – realistic relief, very accurate and precise movements, and episodes from the life of rabbits – allow the viewers to dive into fiction, to believe in their vitality, to forget for a moment that the movements are controlled by the actors.

At the end of each scene, the stuffed animal is laid down on the table, while around it the actors silently wait, their eyes on the dead rabbit. The first rabbits take their breath away – it seems that their vitality has just become very believable, but then they turn back into stuffed animals that fall down like a soft toy. However, after several very similar episodes everything becomes predictable, the repetitive form does not provide any additional information, thus diminishing the initial impression and effect of the first episodes. Later the rabbit and the whole relief are put into the rack, together with the whole relief, where it becomes just another ordinary dead thing.

The same happens in museums: animals are turned into expositions which allows to view them without any fear and to come closer than it would be possible in nature. But isn’t it just elevating your own powers above those of nature and animals? If we saw a wolf in nature, we would probably run away as fast as we could; but what about a stuffed wolf? Isn’t it an unfair fight? The pause accompanying each rabbit is amplified by using sounds. While the rabbit is being controlled and is living its life, recorded sounds of nature can be heard: wind, branches rustling, birds chirping, the sound of grass being munched.

When the rabbit loses its life, instrumental man-created music is played. It amplifies and signifies the intervention of man, wordlessly introduces a consideration of what would happen if a man hadn’t interfered in this creature’s life. Rabbits dwell in diverse environments, they adapt to sun-scorched fields, to sandy locations where it is difficult to find edible plants, but against humans and their guns rabbits are helpless.

In the end, all the rabbit actors are stacked on top of each other. They are not moved – there is no life. It is only a pile of dead stiff animals that do not play any role – their performance is over. During the performance, the rabbits played the role of animals that wanted to live, however, this they did not do on their own, but because they were controlled by the actors using special mechanisms installed in the rabbits’ bodies.

This answers the question I had at the very beginning of the performance: will the rabbit's life be preserved on stage? But no one, not even the hands of three people can revive a dead animal. Life is temporary and fragile, no matter whether that of a bear’s, a pig’s or a man’s. At the end of the performance the phrase is uttered: Nine attempts to preserve life – however, when life ends or is ended, preserving it is no longer possible.

We are the first generation to grasp the fragility of nature and the intervention of our powers into its cycles. We think we have the right to decide which living being should end up on a display in a museum, or maybe hanged on a wall in somebody’s home. But then the question arises: what is an animal’s life worth? Is the desire to demonstrate the beauty of an animal a sufficient reason to take away its life? Maybe the beauty of an animal is not in its fur or the shape of its ears, but rather in its life, movements, decisions, freedom... So, after all, who is sitting on the throne, and should it be occupied at all?

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"

This publication is funded by the Lithuanian Council for Culture