CREATIVE PROJECT BY RACHEL FONG (’25)
Pigeons (of Singapore)
Visual Art / Literary Art
Creative Bestiary Entry
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
THE MEDIEVAL KINGFISHER BESTIARY FOLIO IV We, the Pigeons of Singapore, pledge to be fully-fledged, unabashed citizens of this country. We are rightful occupants of all spaces under the sun, and there is no corner of this land that any pitiful human can crawl into to avoid us or seek refuge. We move in masses–a marvellous and colourful flurry of vibrant feathers–and by the hundreds, we gradually flock to, and overtake the very spaces people seek to exclude us from. Before their kind constructed obscenely tall towers of concrete, brick and ivory, the skies were vast and clear, and the pigeons were able to take flight without obstruction. It was their poor temperament and envy of our wings that drove humankind to build their own access to the skies, so they could lift their heavy, wingless bodies off the earth. Now, when they trespass into our spaces and position themselves eye-to-eye with us, they become angry with our natural presence. Instead of harbouring hearts of patience and understanding, humans became enraged and sought to drive us away from our homes. Goaded by rage, they placed sheets of metal spears, cast nets, and hung reflective glasses to frighten us away. But these humans, full of ignorance and foolishness, ultimately fail in their aggression. The steadfast pigeons continue to persist and remain, reclaiming the skies.
My work is intended to be a satirical, contemporary adaptation of the medieval bestiary– with an intention to explore the nuances of human-animal cohabitation in Singapore’s modern urban context. The piece draws from a long history of European literary and visual tradition, and combines taxonomic historical significance with banal, mundane urban experience, thereby producing a work that challenges the ways in which we imagine and interpret inter-species interaction. The concept behind this piece draws from Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters, which explores the notion of cohabitation amidst the long-entrenched binaries of “human” and “animal”. With these two binaries often being pitted against each other, and rooted in an assertion of difference or distinction, there is an obvious source of tension when it comes to co-existence and the inevitable crossing of boundaries. Furthermore, the medium of the medieval bestiary is inherently rooted in humanist traditions, where it is humanity that is responsible for, and yields narrative power over, the taxonomic classification of the animal kingdom. My work thus aims to probe the human-centricity of everyday existence in the contemporary context, and to disrupt anthropocentric hierarchies through the use of parody and role-reversal.
At first glance, the piece resembles a traditional bestiary entry and adheres to the typical visual composition – with an intricate, coloured border that frames a dual panel. I chose to use an opulent gold foil background, reminiscent of the illuminations in the Aberdeen bestiary, which notably contrasts with the banality of the subject overlaid on it. The entry depicts the all-too-familiar “pigeon problem” in urban Singapore, where the birds have been widely considered to be disease-carrying pests that are invading human homes and spaces. Symbolically, this points to a juxtaposition of a formal, historical tradition of illumination with a more informal, everyday experience. I chose to depict two scenes in the dual-panel bestiary entry–the first reveals the invasiveness of the pigeons in urban residential areas, and the second shows the various human interventions and measures that have been taken to keep pigeons out of urban spaces.
The composition of the first panel points to the division of space–between the urban interior, and the natural exterior, demonstrating the building tensions between human and animals as they encroach on each other’s spaces. A solid clear line through the middle of the panel separates the built environment from the natural environment. Human space is represented by the common local flats on the right side of the panel–with mechanisms of modern urban life such as the electric lamp and the laundry poles on the exterior of the building–while animal space is marked by the presence of trees and suggestions of clear skies through the use of negative space on the left. This is evocative of the power dynamic often reflected by bestiary entries that places the human and the animal on opposing sides. Notably, this panel also points to the transgression of these physical boundaries between humans and animals, firstly suggested by the subtle visual crossing of the middle line by the tip of the pigeon wing and the human hand. Moreover, the pigeon droppings on the flats and hung laundry represent the invasiveness of the pigeons as they encroach on human spaces. Medieval bestiaries also often suggest a hierarchy that positions humanity in a place of power, superior to the animals, through the common two-finger hand gesture of appointment, such as that embodied by Adam as he names the animals, a gesture that signifies control over the natural world. My piece also sought to appropriate this gesture by transforming it to one of irritation and inconvenience–a stern, scolding gesture rather than that suggesting control.
The hostility between human and animal is furthered in the second panel, which positions the human and animal in conflict through visual disorder. Typical human-invented contraptions intended to drive pigeons away from urban spaces are depicted, such as metal spikes that often line railings and buildings to prevent the birds from landing, mesh nettings to prevent them from flying into certain areas, and reflective discs to scare them away. In contrast to the panel above, the lower panel dispenses with a formal visual order and organisation in its composition, which serves to ascribe a degree of chaos and hostility between human interventions and the natural world. However, as opposed to the valorisation of human abilities and technology that is usually reflected in the bestiary entries, the enduring presence of multiple pigeons, as well as their droppings, suggests that humans have ultimately failed to assert dominance over the natural world.
The visual component of the bestiary entry is paired with an accompanying text, which aims to further subvert the typical power dynamic in human-animal relations. Texts that accompany bestiary illuminations are oftentimes extractive, where the animal is portrayed as a symbol of anti-humanness and is therefore used in the anthropocentric endeavour to celebrate and elevate “human exceptionalism” (Crane, 4). Instead of an anthropomorphic perspective and human control of the narrative, which often subjects animals to an inferior status through the use of parables intended to admonish poor behaviour, I chose to actively reverse this by lending a voice to the humble pigeon. By allowing the animal to gain narrative control, I seek to challenge the way knowledge is formed and transmitted, and to communicate a different perspective that is situated in opposition to humanist tendencies. In my text, the pigeon asserts its species as “marvellous”, while humans are rendered in negative terms such as “ignorant” and “foolish” for attempting to assert dominance over a natural world that can perhaps never be fully domesticated. Additionally, the first line of the text parodies the Singapore Pledge, which subtly weaves the language of citizenship and belonging in the discourse of space and who, or what, has the right to it. Human efforts to exclude nature from urban areas are portrayed as an outright refusal to peacefully coexist with animals, and their interventions ultimately prove to be futile. Thus, my work gives a degree of intellectual agency to the figure of the pigeon, which challenges humanist perspectives and evokes a sense of respect, and perhaps even begrudging admiration, for the persistence of the animal in spite of human efforts to exclude them.
Crane, S. (2013). In Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (pp. 1–9). Introduction, PENN University of Pennsylvania Press.