The first sensation visitors to Anima at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn experience is disorientation, as they walk through a dark tunnel made from scraps of wood that seem pulled together by a vortex. On emerging, they’re suddenly facing a scene out of a dream, with a huge earthen head seemingly halfway submerged in water, its cracked eye reflected in the placid pool. A will-o’-the-wisp flies in the darkness. Forest sounds fill the space, where trees from the same material as the tunnel angle their dead wood roots into the water. You might not know how this Olmec-like face came to be in this strange setting, but you can sense there’s a deep story here.
The installation is a collaboration between dramatist and anthropologist Valentine Losseau, artists Prune Nourry and Takao Shiraishi, and magicians Raphaël Navarro and Étienne Saglio. Anima is coy about which elements came from which creator, although the colossal head was sculpted by Nourry from clay, sand, and straw. It feels like a continuation of her work using the language of archaeology to address contemporary issues, like her “Terracotta Daughters,” buried last year in China, which reimagined the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an to comment on gender imbalance.
As part of the Tilt Kids Festival, co-presented by the French Institute Alliance Française and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Anima is intended to engage children and adults in contemplating what it means to be human or animal, if such a difference exists, and what it means to have a soul.
Those are some heady ideas for kids, but an accompanying activity book grounds Anima in the story of a Lacandon figure named K’in Obregón. Losseau spent several years talking to Obregón’s family, and Nourry joined her exploratory trips to Central America to prepare for the installation. As one of the Lacandon Maya people, Obregón was part of a group that long remained isolated from outsider contact, although that is changing and their traditional way of life is threatened. Obregón, per the story, was said to have been exhibited in a “human zoo” at the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Human zoos, as they’re often called today, were not uncommon displays of indigenous people at world and colonial expos (the website Human Zoos lists numerous incidents between 1876 and 1958). Now they are often forgotten, even when their relics remain in plain view. I visited the moldering remains of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, where in 1907 people were exhibited from French colonies including Sudan, Congo, Morocco, Madagascar, and Tunisia in replicas of their home villages. The space is now a rather eerie public park, where these ruins of a still-overlooked recent chapter of history sit in plain view.
The legacy of human zoos is a subtext to the greater message of Anima. As Obregón states in a fictionalized narrative, for the Lacandon, “humans are no better than plants or animals. We are all equal because we all live together in the forest.” And in their dreams, they transform into animals, to “see the world through different eyes.” This idea of animism, whereby people and animals and plants all exist on an equal plane, contrasts to belief systems that place humans above all other life.
Anima is a little one-note, with the initial impression of the head in the water being the main visual — although a small discovery awaits in its cranium, where you can peer through a peep-hole and see a video of dancers, as if glimpsing the head’s dreams. And, turning your gaze to the water, you can see your own murky reflection, a solitary discovery through which to consider this divide between the person and the animal, or just appreciate the feeling of suspended time in the immersive installation.