Ivory, Black Panther

Robert Wilson’s mesmerising portrait of a black panther was filmed with the animal unrestrained sitting on a table in its owner’s apartment. Captured by the video camera in one long, unbroken shot of twenty-three minutes, the video portrait distils Wilson’s vision. In an interview Wilson summarized his twin passions: ‘I like looking at things, silence.’ He alluded to his ambition by quoting the writer Ezra Pound who, when in prison wrote that ‘the fourth dimension is stillness, and the power over wild beasts.’ It is this held communion of interspecies communication, a sacred covenant between animal and human, that is at the centre of this work. The viewer is captured by the direct gaze of the panther, while the soundtrack comprises Wilson’s voice reading a text by German dramatist Heiner Müller to piano score by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.

The Belgium artist Koen Wastijn explores the role of the animal as both part of the natural world and commodity under capitalism in his elegant sculptural installation Puma. The taxidermized glaze-eyed creature is shown in a leaping pose, its strong shadow immediately recognizable as the logo of the international multinational sportswear brand.


Of all Wilson’s video portraits it is only his portrait of the snowy owl that he has presented in a number of variations. This version shows the owl with a brightly coloured polka dot background, while KOOL, Blue depicted the owl bathed in a blue light.

This work is paired with Naomi Hobson’s photograph of a teenage boy with a basketball from her series Adolescent Wonderland

Kool, Blue 1 Snowy Owl

Wilson’s choice of a snowy owl as a subject for a video portrait may relate to the rich symbolic associations of owls in many religions and cultures. Since ancient times it has been linked with wisdom and knowledge, as well as with Athena, the Greek goddess of war and skilled crafts (pursued during peacetime). As a bird of the night, owls also had funerary significance and were thought to ward off illness.

Wilson’s portrait brings us into close proximity to the animal as another sentient being. However, by presenting the creature bathed in blue light, he also distances it from nature and brings it into the sphere of its symbolic associations. The creature’s vocalisations are accompanied by the music of German Romantic opera composer Carl Maria von Weber.

Exhibited alongside is an eighteenth-century plate depicting a bird in flight – a hybrid Chinese and Islamic aesthetic. A mysterious bird that partially resembles a pheasant or a rooster is spreading its wings in the centre of a lotus motif, which is embedded in a round emblem. Both pheasant and rooster are auspicious animals in Chinese belief and are associated with high achievement, with the former also representing goodness and benevolence.

Norman Paul Fleming, Auto Mechanic

This arresting portrait of the mechanic Norman Paul Fleming is one of the few video portraits by Wilson that does not depict a performer or someone working in a creative field. Wilson’s producer met the Californian when he was assisting them on another video portrait. Wilson was struck by Fleming’s strong presence and filmed him in his workwear, sitting at a table. The direct gaze and frontal composition are evocative of the iconic paintings of rural workers from the 1930s by the American artist Grant Wood, while the blue makeup on Fleming’s hands reference Pablo Picasso’s ‘blue’ painting, The frugal meal. The accompanying soundtrack by Hans Peter Kuhn - a piano softly played – conveys Fleming’s sense of calm.

Stella Bowen’s portrait of the British writer and editor Ford Madox Ford shares more than a similar composition: the gaze of both men addresses their portrait-makers directly, as though sharing an observation. Jeffrey Smart’s preparatory drawing for his painting Garage Attendants concentrates on capturing the workwear of the mechanic, his protective outerwear carefully described in attentive detail.


Wilson’s decision to include animals in his video portraits that began in the 1970s may be traced to a childhood experience. Wilson explains, ‘I used to have to go hunting with my father in Texas where I grew up and we had to go deer hunting with his friends and I didn’t want to have a gun and I didn’t want to shoot deer … as long as I was still, they were still’. This powerful encounter with a Rocky Mountain elk – the holding of two gazes between the young Wilson and the animal – unlocked a dimension of experience that the artist has pursued throughout his theatre work and video portraits.

The imposing presence of the elk in Wilson’s portrait contrasts here with the miniature carved ivory form of the spotted stag, a Japanese seal from the nineteenth century. In Japan, deer are considered as sacred messengers of gods in Shinto belief, which is not too different from the native American tribes’ belief that elks bring good omens to people as a protector.

Ivory seals such as this one were often used as a netsuke (根付) – small objects that hang from a belt or sash around the waist to carry and secure objects in the absence of pockets in traditional Japanese attire. Originally, netsuke were ‘found objects’ like bones, shells, and plant roots, but since the seventeenth century, they also become objects d’art, carved from a breadth of rare materials.