CREATIVE PROJECT BY SUN WOO YOON (’23)
Visual Art / Literary Art
Creative Bestiary Entry
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
THE MEDIEVAL KINGFISHER BESTIARY FOLIO VI The Sea Amphisbaena lives in the depths of the ocean. It has a sad and gloomy temperament. It eats little and enjoys wallowing in its pathetic nature. Sometimes it produces a strange, unknown noise. It is born with one head, however it can grow a second one after consuming about three gallons of marine wine. They are often seen kissing one another. They should not be caught and eaten, for they are sacred creatures and their consumption will invite the wrath of God, who will turn you into a refugee. The Sea Amphisbaena represents the anxious layman. He knows nothing but to ease his pain with drink, self-pity, and masturbation. Who can blame him?
For my bestiary entry, I wanted to utilize the imaginary quality of bestiary illustrations to depict a mutant creature—something unknown, new, and mysterious. I think the curiosity that inflects the bestiary genre is made profoundly sad when what is being depicted is a curiosity only as a result of violence—I draw inspiration from a two-headed baby shark that was fished up in 2020. Scientists speculate that the radiation runoff from the 3-1-1 disaster, alongside the rising amount of chemical drift infecting our oceans is producing mutant creatures, this sad shark-like thing being one of them.
Shark-like, but not exactly shark. Fish, but not exactly fish.
I tried to combine the bestiary style with my own painting style in the illustration since I still wanted to evoke the traditional bestiary style and its connotations of wonder and narrative. I centered the creature and gave both its faces empty expressions to resist the reader’s impulse to read this creature as either good or bad. I also wanted to evoke the ouroboros, so I arranged the creature in a circular fashion. When two faces are staring at each other instead of one face chasing one tail, the traditional chain is broken—the circular shape is now about a break in a cycle. We could say that climate change and the conditions of the Anthropocene are all about cycles being broken. Cycles being mutated, with uncanny effect.
The pink sludge in the middle is inspired by Daniel Beltrá’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of oil spills. I wanted to place together connotations of something hazardous and dangerous with something fantastical, as if the oil spill is something like a magical potion found in the bottom of the ocean. Whether magic is good or bad—whether transformation can be positive or negative—is a theme we’ve encountered often throughout the course of the module. The imagined sludge transforms my chosen creature, as the caption reads, “It is born with one head, however it can grow a second one after consuming about three gallons of marine wine.”
My creature’s name appropriates one particular medieval beast: the Amphisbaena. Like my creature, it is two-headed, although it is closer to a lizard than it is to a fish. In addition to its intriguing anatomy, I was struck my some of its descriptions: Pliny the Elder describes: “The amphisbaena has a twin head, that is one at the tail-end as well, as though it were not enough for poison to be poured out of one mouth,” while a couple of other entries mention the creature having a head “in the proper place” and another where its tail would be. Themes of poison, toxicity, (ab)normality, and what is considered “proper” recur.
I particularly explore this idea in the line: “They should not be caught and eaten, for they are sacred creatures and their consumption will invite the wrath of God, who will turn you into a refugee.” The ambiguous genetic mutation that characterizes this fish also makes it special in God’s eyes, and readers do not know whether to pity or admire this creature. I also wanted to frame the creature more explicitly in terms of sacrality, for the uncanny nature it produces but also because I wanted to introduce a religious profanity (eating the fish) to this toxic creature, perhaps obfuscating the “real” reason why one should not consume a two-headed mutant fish.
Around the creature I have chosen to include other hints of transformation and ambiguity that echo that of the creature—I added unnatural, neon coloring to rocks (my take on the plastiglomerate) and placed some jellyfish and plastic bags above the fish. Indeed, I feel my creature is all about a transformation that is happening in a rapidly transforming planet.
The last line of my caption speaks to this: “The Sea Amphisbaena represents the anxious layman. He knows nothing but to ease his pain with drink, self-pity, and masturbation. Who can blame him?” While the fish should still be thought of on its own terms, the fish lends itself as a useful metaphor for painful adaptation—a condition that is afflicting, and will continue to afflict, us all during the Anthropocene, in both physical and mental health. The “anxious layman” is all of us with climate anxiety—all of us who find ourselves feeling nihilistic, unmotivated, afraid, in grief, in shock. My creature is in service of those moments, but also prompts us to wonder: how do we want to lead our lives despite (or perhaps, because of) this crisis?