Who Doubts the Power of the Antlers?

This project deals with the creature my research has identified as the “symbolic stag”, which is both related to, and entirely separate from, the animal (slo. Jelen, lat. Cervus elaphus) it shadows and amplifies. First si(gh)ted/depicted on the walls of prehistoric caves, the symbolic stag is integral to the history of human symbolic and visual representation. We are tracing the evolution and trajectory of the symbolic Stag in numerous different contexts. We present contrasting examples of the symbolic stag and its habitats and explore ways of “capturing” and researching it.

In tracking the symbolic Stag we are simultaneously confronted by/engaging with hyper-visibility and invisibility, the tangible and the intangible, even the irrational. It is a creature with numerous habitats but with a fairly stable set of archetypal behaviours. The project addresses the question of what it means to track and analyse an “archetypal”/compelling symbol in the present day using contemporary technology and theory. It attempts to explore ways of using technology not merely to document sightings from other sources but as a primary means of detecting and capturing symbolic stags.

Rather than present a linear/art-historical trajectory we deliberately juxtapose contradictory and apparently unrelated sightings of symbolic and live Stags in the film which is the centrepiece of the exhibition. While semi-wild Stags roam the outskirts of London, their symbolic cousins are as likely to appear in the heart of the city as in a “traditional” rural/hunting area. Constantly emerging in new and unexpected contexts, the symbolic Stag is an archetypal/mythic creature (ab)used to serve radically different agendas. If we simply note the number of contemporary appearances we can even argue that in the present context symbolic Stags are more likely to appear in urban than traditional contexts. The research attempts to identify the significance and causes of this.

The film presents a historical iconography or bestiary of the symbolic Stag violently and discontinuously meshed with non-artistic examples including London pub signs, graffiti, record covers, advertising agency logos, military/political insignia and more. The various artefacts and representations seen here are effectively virtual trophies - a counterpart to the long-standing human compulsion both to hunt and to revere Stags. The “hunting” of symbolic Stags is a consequence of a similar compulsion to represent and to capture the vitality of the symbol. Compulsion seems to be a relevant term here – the sheer scale and frequency of Stag imagery even in hyper contemporary globalised contexts suggests that we may be dealing with a type of “symbolic possession”… Is it always clear to those who use it exactly why they use it, how it works and why it continues to work? Can we even say that symbolic Stags are in a sense possessing or using those who represent them?

A project with this type of subject is seen by some as ironic, or rather, they are currently incapable of seeing it as anything other than ironic. This is especially true because it steps outside curatorial/presentational norms and also simply because the subject is the Stag. Some of the contemporary material Stag symbolism seen here challenges the view that it is inherently kitsch and can never be used seriously. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that traditional/archetypal symbols are not “automatically” reactionary or provincial and can never be used in challenging, contemporary or cosmopolitan ways. Certainly the symbolic Stag is often used in overtly ironic, kitsch and commercialised symbolic exploitation but it seems not to suffer from this and may even accumulate its power through repetition.

Even if we totally dismissed these examples (and doing so would preclude a proper symbolic analysis), we can point to a growing number of examples of artists, designers and musicians are using it as a serious element of their work rather than (just) as an easy populist/kitsch signifier. Andrej Ajdič, Žiga Aljaž, Irwin, Edward Janssen, Laibach, Slaven Tolj, Marcus Coates, Tamar Hirschl among others have all manifested and explored the symbolic Stag in their work. So one implication of our findings is that (perhaps) it’s now ironic to suggest or believe that the use of this symbol can only ever be ironic. Besides considering what it might mean for an artist to take the Stag seriously we should certainly also ask what it means not to take such an enduring and widespread symbol seriously?

So in an attempt to bypass some of these conceptual difficulties we have developed the format of a research exhibition in an attempt not just to document a research process and its findings visually but to bypass the standard modes of “artistic”, “scientific” and “curatorial” presentation and to step outside our predictable roles within the collaborative context.

The project presents evidence (sightings) uncovered during the research and speculates about potential ways of researching and representing the symbolic Stag. [We argue that] the evidence supports an emerging thesis concerning the operation and significance of the symbolic Stag. The film is deliberately non-linear and the sightings are not grouped or sequenced. This is intended to prompt a series of questions. Besides the stag motif, what connections can you trace between these different sightings? How do the hyper-contemporary examples relate to the traditional ones? What is their significance? Do they remind you of your own sightings and experiences? Have you had more or less sightings recently? Is the symbolic stag constantly present in culture or does it emerge and recede? Is it currently more prevalent and what might this indicate about cultural trends? There may well be other questions opened up. Certainly, you should be aware that it is highly likely that after this concentrated exposure you are likely to have more sightings. The symbolic stag will appear in new, (even) more improbable habitats and terrains, bringing with it a host of new questions and associations.

Alexei Monroe

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