The Broken Unicorn
By Carine Zaayman

Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie centres on the lives of members of a small family – a mother, her son and daughter. Each of these characters has a somewhat strained relationship with the outside world. Perhaps the most poignant manifestation of the sense of isolation that permeates Williams’s narrative can be found with the character Laura, the daughter of the family. Burdened with a weak physique and a slight limp, she stays inside the apartment for most of her time. Laura’s greatest object of fascination, care and love, is her collection of small glass animals, her menagerie. Towards the end of the play, Laura’s unicorn (her favourite glass animal) is smashed by a “gentleman caller”. This heartbreaking scene, which culminates in the shattering of some bonds and boundaries within the family, calls forth in my mind the insight that no matter how hard one tries to protect oneself, there is ultimately no escape from hurt.

Theresa-Anne Mackintosh’s Menagerie does not make overt reference to Williams’s play, and yet, something of the fragility of his story permeates her body of work. This may be the result of the referencing the menagerie as such, the practice of keeping a collection of wild animals in cages. In such a collection, animals are removed from their natural environment, but become objects of spectacle and wonder, because they become unwitting ambassadors of the spaces they used to inhabit. On the surface, they provide an index to the “wild”. But of course, once caged, they are anything but that.

While there are some examples of wild animals in Mackintosh’s exhibition (circus elephants and polar bears in particular), the “animals” are in fact quite a departure from the notion of a conventional menagerie. Instead, we are presented with images of the more domestic type of animal (guinea pigs and birds) as well as fantastical creatures, half human, half animal. Similarly to the wild animals of the traditional menagerie, these characters appear to have been taken from some other location, and now find themselves somewhere between that world and ours, belonging to neither. Moreover, like the menageries of old, they function as indexes. As artworks, they are also objects of spectacle and wonder, but as such, draw us into a very different kind of space than their zoological counterparts.

In Mackintosh’s narrative, we are introduced to five characters: Tiger, Sugar, Budgie, Lamb and Tim. Their most prominent appearances are as sculptures. Large-scale, beautifully finished and brightly coloured objects, these fibreglass sculptures initially remind us of playful, almost child-like drawings. Their simplicity, however, is highly deceptive. While all the trappings of joy are present, especially the almost ubiquitous smiley face, their cheerfulness ceases at the surface. The eyes, for example, are constructed from circles and squares, reminiscent of nursery school felt constructions. But these are unseeing eyes: they seem to take little in, and they betray nothing about the inner state of the figures. The smiles are fixed, exaggerated and unchanging, lending to them a sense of manic desperation. It is as though they are caged within themselves.

Coupled with the sculptures are a number of prints. These prints feature a variety of images, some complementing the sculptures, others reworking images of the main characters into what appear to be old family photographs. We are not told whether these photographs come from the artist’s own family archive or not. And yet the motif of family life is especially apparent in these works. Newborn babies, siblings with their arms around each other’s shoulders, a mother and daughter – these constitute a menagerie of a different kind. However, Mackintosh makes a crucial intervention here. The faces of the people in the photographs are obscured by images of the characters from her own menagerie. This immediately suggests that there is some special significance to the characters (hidden perhaps, but hinted at), yet at the same time continuing a tendency of obfuscation. The unyielding and surface-bound expressions of Tiger, Sugar, Budgie, Lamb and Tim are strongly amplified in this way.

With these images, we may begin to access what world the menagerie represents for the artist, and for us. Functioning as go betweens, these creatures perhaps suggest the presence of a vulnerable self – a kind of inner world where the fantasy of wholeness still echoes. There is no way one can access this world in other people, it is the extremely personal sphere that makes an individual a subjectivity. It can only ever be approached by proxy, or by metaphorical representation. No more apt vehicle exists for the communication of our inner worlds, our experiences, than creative production. In some profound manner, art objects are able to communicate something that cannot be expressed in a direct manner.

Mackintosh’s Menagerie inhabits this liminal space very well. The works are no single thing, but in-between things. As such, they do not show us in clear outlines, but uses playful suggestion to invite us to engage with them. Once we do so, by tracing the story, picking up motifs, watching out for developments, bits of narrative, we realise however that they remain unequivocally secretive, as we are never granted the full story, or obvious meanings. The hermeticism of the sculptures is no accident. In fact, it is emblematic of the entire exhibition. While there are no physical bars or cages, one is made profoundly aware of the distance between us as viewers, and the menagerie we are looking at.

In this way, Mackintosh highlights one of the profound dynamics of any menagerie, namely that we look at animals in such a display in an essentially voyeuristic mode. The cages, whether figured overtly or implied, bring to the fore the asymmetrical relationship between object and viewer. Here, we are not so much looking at something, but also through it – into another space. In this case, the artwork, like the keyhole, does not give our eyes free access. Instead, we are granted a frustrated, partial view, at once revealing and concealing, yielding and denying.

If what we see are feint glimmers of a pre-linguistic (if you will), internal space, at the same time familiar and profoundly alien, then it is striking that an aura of loss pervades this sight. In this respect, I am particularly drawn to the sculpture of Sugar. While she has been made in the same mode as her companions, this creature sports a bandage, almost comically half-covering her right eye. Sugar reminds me of Laura’s broken unicorn. Her injury evidences the collapse of unity, of wholeness. Laura’s unicorn is broken at the exact time that she is forced into human contact, something she deeply wishes for, but of which she is even more deeply petrified. Laura’s condition is familiar to many of us, as there seems to be at work within us these oppositional desires: to remain whole, and to make contact with others. In this dynamic, the one desire necessarily obliterates the other, because to make contact is to be exposed, and inevitably, to be hurt.

Perhaps Sugar’s bandage conceals a wound also sustained through contact with an external force. But even though we do not know how she received it, we recognise her vital contribution to the menagerie. If we take Sugar’s injury as emblematic of loss, a haunting memory of wholeness, and a poignant indication of inevitable pain, the place in the collection becomes an important locus by which to read the rest of the work.