Animals pose this underlying familiarity for us, be it manifested in doing animal poses during yoga, seeing dogs as our ultimate companions, or having birds associated with freedom, amongst myriads of other examples… Resembling the physiology or behavioral traits of some, it then comes as no surprise that we all are undeniably linked to animals. Yet, are they conscious in the way we are? That is a question explored by the Antwerp-based visual artist Aleksei Kazantsev (b.1975, Belarus). In his latest book Relaxing Chamber, he juxtaposes abstract portraits of people in trance with close-ups of animals in human-like mannerisms. Immersed in deep blacks, Kazantsev presents a complex visual meditation around the human psyche, particularly, the archetypal symbolism of animals in collective unconscious memory.
The title refers to the entomological term standing for a highly humid container that is used for the preparation of insects before being pinned. When they are dead for a long time, their bodies can become distorted and then the chamber comes to use to make them more flexible. Similarly, as entomologists stretch insects, Kazantsev seems to be doing it with our consciousness – expanding it to the deepest corners of our minds.
Humans and animals submerged in dark and abstract spaces contribute to an uncanny atmosphere – this strange familiar unfamiliarity. Mystical in essence, Kazantsev’s body of work can be seen to be influenced by Carl Jung’s school of thinking, particularly, in connection to his theorization of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jungian archetypes can be understood as universal patterns of thoughts or images present in the collective unconscious (inherited memories and impulses of which we are not aware) of all human beings. As much as animals are present in ours, by flipping the pages, we begin to question whether animals have similar archetypes about us. Let’s say, for instance, we have this collective fear of snakes or spiders, do animals have something analogous? It made me think of an example when I read about studies testing the aggression of dogs which showed to be stronger against men than women. Perhaps, dogs have this innate archetype of being fearful of men. But how can we know?
Accompanying Kazantsev’s images is an essay by Dr. Christian Tudorache who offers an insight into the current state of the art regarding the consciousness in animals and traces the evolution of philosophical ideas, dating back to Aristotle, and scientific findings related to the topic. He states that as humans, we share neural substrates with many animals, including mammals and birds but also octopuses.
Enclosing the book is Kazantsev’s series he shot when he was only 7 years old on his very first camera. He only discovered these materials a few years ago and decided to incorporate them into his book. As he recalls: “It felt like a gun – you don’t point it at anything you do not intend to shoot. I was living in a small town and a travelling zoo arrived when I was there. Cages of about 5-6 square metres were installed near the local market, where most people are on Sunday. And there I was too, with my black and white ‘point and shoot’ gun and all my heroes from fairy tales before me. Baloo, Bagira, Sher Khan, Grey Wolf, Hyena. All framed for me in cages. I shot them all.”
The very location of a zoo is a strange connecting factor. It can be understood as a liminal space with liminal beings – transitory spaces filled with animals that are neither domesticated nor truly wild. Unlikely to survive in their “natural” habitats, they are still the same species as their free-living counterparts. At the same time, they occupy a liminal space as they are meant to be observed and the purpose of their existence is educational and entertaining.
This eerie atmosphere of the Relaxing Chamber puts its spectators at unease due to this uncertainty. We seem to adopt this liminal state too, as we are undergoing emotional and metaphorical changes when considering animal consciousness in parallel with Kazantsev’s anxiety-inducing work. The state of being in transition is accompanied by feelings of ambiguity and disorientation. We begin to occupy the mode between what is and what will happen. As humans, we don’t like to exist in a space of unpredictability. However, this is exactly the space/state in which we are provoked to thought.
What I find especially intriguing about this addition of the “zoo series” is the tension and continuity that suddenly arises. It becomes a stretch of the original body of work which begins to operate on a way deeper level. Seemingly abstract at first, the series then becomes strongly personalized, as if we suddenly enter Kazantsev’s subconscious. Playing with the ideas of liminal spaces and states, he leaves his viewers pondering upon this blend of isolation, dissociation, and euphoria, making Expanding Chamber intricately psychological.
is a visual artist based in Antwerp, Belgium. He studied photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. His work intuitively and narratively stems from the visual heritage of archetypal images, as well as our collective unconscious memory, symbolism, hypnotic spaces, trance, and liminal states of mind. Using altered perspectives and distorted vision, he makes his viewers disoriented by feeling uncanny.
was founded by photographer and curator Calin Kruse and editor and curator Yana Kruse. Dienacht consists of a magazine, independent publishing house and a workshop lab focusing on strong and timeless photography. Through their educational platform, they additionally provide coaching sessions focused on photobook production and curation.