Bring on the bullfight – fiesta brava – the wild festival

Spanish flag with bull image

“It only takes one person to bear witness. One to share what they have seen.” Animals Australia Facebook page

Once upon a time I worked for a tv show. One day my boss called me in to her office to see some footage. She had obtained it from Spain to be included in an episode of the show. It was a bullfight. Her name was Lyn Bayonas. She learned about the bullfight from her old boss, Orson Welles. Mr Welles was an aficionado, up there with Hemmingway with his passion for things Spanish. I had absolutely no interest; rather I felt revulsion for the ghoulish spectacle on the screen. Lyn insisted, as only she could, that I sit down and learn something. She explained the bullfight is a ritual. It’s about our relationship with nature. Our relationship to death. Our relationship to meat.

cover of Death and the sunHer lecture came back to me recently when I found a copy of Death and the Sun; A matador’s season in the heart of Spain by Edward Lewine. It’s a great read. A page-turner. Will the matador die in the bullring, like his father before him?

wild bull free

There’s no doubt about the bulls, of course.

“Bulls suffer and die in the bullring. Either you believe this is justified, or balanced somehow by the supposed beauty, history, and cultural significance of the corrida, or you don’t. Cattle and other animals suffer and die in the food industry. Either you believe this is justified, or balanced somehow by the human desire for nourishment from meat and by the tradition of meat-eating, or you don’t.” pg 188

steers in feedlot

The Spanish don’t have a word for bullfighting, instead they use words such as, “the fiesta de los toros (festival of the bulls) or fiesta brava (wild festival) … What the matador (killer) ” … does with the bull is usually translated in English as “to fight” but the Spanish word for this is torear, which takes the word for bull and makes a verb out of it, “to bull”. The art or craft of bullfighting is called toreo — “bulling”.’ pg 25


bull turns around man

He explains that, ‘A single bullfight involving full-grown bulls is called a corrida de torros” … ‘The act of holding a corrida is indicated by the word celebrar, as in, “Yesterday they celebrated a corrida.’ pg 26. It’s like saying we celebrated mass or morning matins. It’s a ritual. It’s not a fight. The bull has no chance to live. The bull will die. The bull becomes meat. He represents all cattle, all meat. However, he does have a chance to take the matador out with him or at least give him a few weeks off and a decent scar to remember him by. Lewine again:

‘Bullfighting is easy to dismiss as an artefact of humanity’s savage and uncivilized history. But in its bloody way the bullfight is the essence of civilization, if by civilization we mean humanity’s subjugation of the natural world and the development of custom and ritual to replace violence as the governing principle of human interaction. A society that can mount a corrida is an advanced society, one that has tamed nature, met the basic needs of its people (to the extent that entertainment is a priority), and channeled the bloody impulses of its populace into ordered ritual. There is nothing more civilized than a bullfight. It is the sum of humankind’s fears and wordless needs contained in a spectacle of rigid control and elaborate ceremony.’ pg 227

Activist human packed into meat container for PETAThink about it. It’s too easy now to pick up that shrink-wrapped flesh from the meat aisle and sizzle it into some processed sauce and slap it between two calcium enriched buns without giving a second thought to the life given. It’s too easy to ignore empathy as the cows are stripped of their skin and twitch in their chorus-line of death on the way to their disembowelling. No. We must turn the spotlight on our food. We must face up to our responsibility. You must look. You must see.

‘Aficionados say there is a special feeling that comes when a great matador passes a bull low and slow around his body and the bull responds, charging hard at the cape and lending solemnity and danger to the matador’s movements. Hemmingway described it as a lump in the throat. Garcia Lorca called it “man’s finest anger, his finest melancholy and his finest grief.” It is an electric mixture of fear, pleasure in beauty, sadness, anger, horror, joy, tension, the feeling of victory over death, and the viewer’s relief that he or she is safe and not facing the bull.’ pg 32

man subjugates beast

This is far more than a cat playing with a mouse. Lewine describes the matador’s use of a bull as the painter’s use of a brush or a trumpet player’s use of the trumpet. The man makes art with the vanquished beast. The man is an artist, seeking beauty in the subjugation of the other life. The art lies in the domination. The wildcard is the bull. It may toss, gore or kill. But it will die in its turn. Certainly.

the bull dies

Of course it’s cruel. Of course the bull suffers. Right in front of your eyes.




Consider the conspiracy in modern farming. What is locked away behind hedges and walls? How many cows suffer every minute of every day in feedlots? How many pigs are shut up in sheds unable to move for their entire life? How many chickens were kicked to death in the last hour? All far, far away from the public gaze?

pigs in sow stalls

Today in most affluent countries, farming animals for meat is done out of sight. Billions of invisible creatures are bred and fed in close confinement and slaughtered on a conveyor belt. Their lives are lived in darkness, pain and terror. Humans peruse their hermetically sealed plastic packages of flesh without the faintest glimmer of awareness of how that beast lived and died to become a product. Now the agriculture industry seeks laws to protect their secrecy even further, laws known as ‘Ag Gags’ where it will be illegal for activists to visit and photograph factory or experimental farms or indeed any animal abuse. Sign a petition against them here.

Activists protest Ag Gag laws

This is the horror. That humans can have so little regard for life that they slaughter millions, nay, trillions of creatures (created by ?) to slice into pieces because they like the taste when it is no longer even necessary to eat meat. That the meat industry can seek protection to continue to devolve their systems is hideous. Dishonest. Deceitful.

man taunts bull

If you see the bullfight as a ritual then this modern denial of death seems weak. We become insipid and deceptive, hiding, cowering from the facts of life. We watch hideous news every day, rubber-neck at bloody car crashes and see extreme violence surrounded by fumes from chemical-laden popcorn and rumbles of high-performance Dolby. Pretending. Playing.

watching film

That six bulls should die in an afternoon in the full glare of the sun, witnessed by people who are at least emotionally sensitive to their existence, seems just and fair.

Bear witness to your meat.


Or, you know, you do have a choice …

Menangerie at ACCA – animals held captive by art

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is a rusty, angular chunk in Melbourne’s growing Arts Precinct. It protruds from hard granitic sand between The Malthouse Theatre and The Victorian College of the Arts. The building is apparently built defiantly not to relate to nature – no tree or garden is envisaged by the architects – apart from the very human height-sized graffiti scrawled all around the base of the velvety surface.

Portrait of ACCA from

Portrait of ACCA from

Yet the latest exhibition devised by ACCA’s Artistic Director, Juliana Engberg, is wonderfully about nature; humans as they relate to animals. It is called Menangerie and it is an ambitious exhibition of animals held captive by art. At first impression, the exhibition feels a little like visiting an eccentric, art-loving Great Aunt. 

Menangerie is a sprawling collection of many artists from many places. Much of the work is familiar, which I found disarming. I had seen Robert Gligorov’s  (and his Tumblr) mouth releasing birds and Ricky Swallow’s comforting bird in a shoe in previous Melbourne shows. There is also history (see Great Aunt) in the darkened Highland stags and dogs oils of Edwin Landseer and the various aged horse and hound hunting paintings from the likes of Howitt, Orme, Hall and Vernet.

There’s humour in the pithy quotes written on the walls and in the images like Elliot Erwitt’s dog leaping into the grey Parisisan sky and the sculptures such as a cat staring at a fallen chandelier in The day the sky fell down by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. There’s a covered bear and other melted ceramics by Paul Wood and endearing drawings of abandoned or lost animals by Anastasia Klose. The pieces are fun and engaging and reinforced my understanding of human superiority. There are some evocative fertility drawings by Patricia Piccinnini and some amusing horse impressions by Lucy Gunning.

I wandered around feeling safe for most of the time until I found myself looking at a video called Deeparture by Mircea Cantor. The name, Deeparture, is a pun, a play on words. The video is not play, at least I did not think so. A wolf, initally quite calm, and a deer, again, quite relaxed, are inside a white gallery cube. The creatures are not alone, of course, they are observed by the camera crew, presumably the artist. As the short piece continues, the audience sees that the creatures are in the same space at the same time and they are not happy about it. Both animals pant, perhaps from heat or lack of water, and perhaps because they are naturally not the best of companions.

The commentary in the catalogue suggests ‘we make attempts to relate to the animals both by drawing on our cultural knowledge of each and ascribing them with human characteristics.’ pg 42 Menangerie catalogue  2014 by Annika Kristensen.

As regular readers of this blog will understand, I am not a great believer in wide spread use of ‘anthropomorphism’, prefering instead the evidence of my own senses. I think most people have had enough contact with animals, their pets or creatures kept at school, to recognise basic animal mood signals. Why should a dog not have fear or a cat enjoy comfort? Why is it humans only who are allowed emotions? Clearly a dog wagging its tail is in a better frame of mind than one with its teeth bared, hackles risen and furious bark. If we dressed the dog in a suit and put a hat on the deer, that might be considered expecting the creatures to be acting as human. Yet, placing the two of them into an art gallery may be considered as anthropomorphism as we expect them to perform a piece of art for us much as any human performance artist must in the same surrounds.

Kristensen continues,

‘Unable to speak of their own accord, we instead seek to understand animals in anthropomorphic terms. Cantor’s use of close-up camera angles and his choice to present the film without sound heightens this inclination. The animals become a blank canvas upon which to project human emotions and our own psychological desires.’

But, Annika, these are living creatures. They are not empty blanks. They are not puppets. Both animals have observable reactions to being alive in this this space and this time and neither have any choice in the matter. They were transported to the gallery and filmed without their permission. There appears to be no reward of any kind – no steak for the wolf, no succulent fruit or grasses for the deer. They are prisoners for the sake of an artistic expression. I would guess they were filmed separately and that is what we see most of the time. Then they are introduced to each other and, as I said before, neither of the beasts look happy about it. Whether or no the viewer expects an attack, as AK surmises, this is not a suitable pairing for a caged show, a zoo exhibit or even a short video.

In an Initiartmagazine story about Cantor, the author writes and quotes Cantor himself,

‘ … inside a pristine white gallery space, what interests the artist is not scenes of bloodshed but a perpetual climax of “something-might-happen”, but then it would never happen.  “It’s the power of the humanity, the ability to control.  That’s why we are above other creatures, because we can control and sublimate the tension, turn it into something higher, let’s say love. But then the question is how.”  The encounter of the wild and the civilized reflects back on us as a conscious contained subject.’

Assuming the human control, the creatures are both fed and watered before transportation to the white cube. Their needs are sated and they wait for their release, not enjoying their situation but not desperate to escape. It is a fascinating video, unpleasant and shocking but completely compelling and provoking. Has the artist turned the tension into something else? Love? Perhaps not. Empathy? The need to write a piece for a blog and think about it? What have we learned? That humans are superior to animals because we can control them. Is that superiority or just bastardry?

Can we apply our human instincts and ascribe ideas into the head of the creator of this piece? I leave it to you!

Menagerie is a fantastic show missing only the bullfight, but then, one cannot have everything. Get along and see it if you can.

Is cruelty part of our relationship with animals? Any animals?

I’m a big fan of Tim Flannery.

Tim Flannery wearing a hat

image from Guardian


He’s incredibly clever, learned and wise. He speaks, and writes, a lot of sense.


not this:

‘The fact is that animal rights issues, such as opposition to the culling of feral species, can sometimes get in the way of environmental stewardship, and concerns about animal suffering need to be treated separately.’ page 48 Tim Flannery, After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis, Quarterly Essay Issue 48 2012

Suffering by any species of animal is part of the equation. If human attitudes towards nature allows any part of nature to suffer, then that attitude is questionable. Until we fix human attitudes to each individual creature, then, I got to tell you, Tim, environmental stewardship will go hang.