English artist Sophie Ryder may be best known for her imposing sculptures of rabbits, hares, and hare-woman composites (lady-hares). One critic sees in them a deep connection between humans and animals, “our sameness at a level that transcends our ideas about hierarchy.”
In the summer of 1999 in Bath, England, I saw three of Ms. Ryder’s rabbit-hare sculptures exhibited outdoors around the city. Standing up on hind legs, one was over nine feet tall. In each eye the artist had sculpted a prehistoric-looking human face. These eyes referred back, I believe, to ancient ties between humans and animals but also to a special kind of power that animals have: their ways of remaining mysterious to human beings.
A second sculpture was of a woman, with the head of a hare, crawling on hands and knees. The exhibition organizers chose this figure to represent the exhibit’s theme: “life force,” defined as “pure consciousness which is both human and animal.” Near the door of the abbey was another lady hare. This one held in a comforting embrace a dog that looked like a greyhound (called in England a “lurcher”). Critics have called the statue an expression of forgiveness and reconciliation. It expresses, I believe, our deepest desires for a world of peaceful relations between all beings. It may suggest as well the special powers of prey animals to console others by their very presence, in spite of their own vulnerabilities.
Inside the art gallery at Bath was the extraordinary Temple to 200 Rabbits. This work brought together two separate experiences which Ms. Ryder herself has described:
“About ten years ago I was with my family in the South of France. . . . One very hot afternoon, the farmer proudly took me to see the animals he was breeding for eating. He led me into a dark room with a low ceiling and only one little window with a shaft of sunlight shining through. There in front of me were hundreds of rabbits–some dead, some living, some hopping.”
Sophie Ryder was deeply distressed by this sight:
“The atmosphere was eerie and rather surreal. It was hot and muggy and I felt sick. Later that day I tried to open the door and free all the rabbits, without success. The outcome of this experience was that I felt driven to record it in some way.”
Years later, a very different experience provided Ms. Ryder with an idea for her artistic response to the dreadful sight in France:
“In 1995, my family and I went to Mexico for two months where we stayed in a village called Tepoztlan. Rising above the village was a mountain and, right at the top of it, the Temple to the 200 Rabbits. I was amazed–the surprise sent shock waves through me. There was nothing to suggest rabbits at all, only a small stone pyramid with three tiers, no floors even. There were a very few worn hieroglyphics, that was all. I was so excited, though, and started work as soon as we climbed back down the mountain.”
Art critic Jonathan Benington explains how Ryder’s Temple to 200 Rabbits combines her nightmare vision of the rabbit farm with her insight at the temple in Mexico:
“…the installation of Temple to the 200 Rabbits [had] a wall with a portal…decorated by the artist with hieroglyphics. Subdued lighting was combined with a soundtrack–Why Patterns by Morton Feldman–achieving an otherworldly atmosphere. Visitors were able to follow paths around and through the sea of densely packed, larger-than-life-size hares. Ten years had elapsed since the artist’s visit of the rabbit farm in France, and in that time the horror of the experience had been sublimated: cruel and inhumane practices gave way to a situation that allowed man no control over the creatures harboured within this sanctuary, relegating him to the role of onlooker.”
The Temple to the 200 Rabbits offers an image of a world where rabbits are not just victims to be protected but beings whose extraordinary powers are seen and valued. Although not rabbits in the sense of realistic pictorial representations, Ryder’s rabbit-hare sculptures give imposing public expression to qualities that House Rabbit Society members see in their own cherished rabbits.
Sophie Ryder. Interview with Peter Osbourne.
Margaret Hawkins, Sophie Ryder: Life Force: Sculptures, Installations, Drawings (Bath, UK: Victoria Art Gallery Catalogue, 1999), 10.
Jonathan Benington, Sophie Ryder (Hampshire, UK & Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries in Association with Berkeley Square Gallery, 2001), 68.
Scott, Harry. E-mail to the author. 21 Jan. 2004.
For more information about Sophie Ryder’s works and more wonderful images of them may be found on her website, sophieryder.org
House Rabbit Journal Summer 2004: Volume IV, Number 10