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Feature: Lee Deigaard - Near and Far

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

By Lee Deigaard

The photographic series ​Near and Far​ is ​part of a long term artist research and studio project investigating horse personality, sensory processing and proprioception, and empathetic awareness of and imagination between horse and human. It explores intimacy and longing, companionate mirroring, and pair bonding.

To know another, whether horse or person, is a mix of empathy and nearness, vertigo and vast horizons. Psyches and souls contain multitudes. One is held to another with gravitational pull. In deep space, we revolve, we adore.

To perceive another involves limits closer to hand. Gates and fences keep out, they keep in. We peer through narrow openings and perceive in fragments. Intimacy is skin and hair, touch and proximity, breathing and heartbeat. Species delineations are barriers but also protections to central identities and senses of self. To be close takes respect of difference as much as the draw of affinity, affection.

The dance between horses, between humans, between humans and horses, involves presumption (a form of cognitive empathy) and empathy (a form of trespass, an act of hope, a move for connection). The flight response of horses as prey animals mirrors fear of intimacy, being alive to touch, prone to startle or flee. Grazing, reclining to rest in tandem reveals the deeply tactful reinforcement of companionate mirroring.

A horse reads a person. A person dreams of being a horse. Signifying freedom the horse shows us how to wordlessly love. A horse is an apparition in the night, a watcher of moonrise and sunrise.

Once I sat with a horse, intending to write a poem. About him or buttressed by him, breathing into my hair. He snuffled the paper in my lap, took it into his mouth gazing steadily at me and masticated it. I laughed and tugged. The paper tore. Nothing lost, everything gained. Parts become wholes. Poems and horses become themselves.

Exploring the nature of intimacy via mechanisms of invitation, initiation, trespass, and shared thresholds of experience is not exclusive to human relationships. To know a horse deeply is to understand better the push-pull within any close relationship. Possibilities expand. The body of the horse becomes actual landscape, imagined landscape, embodied landscape.

To build a relationship, implied predator (human) to implied prey (horse) (often paralleled in human relationships) is to gain insight into the innermost impulses of the heart, emotions, and yearnings. To truly be with another without goal or expectation yields to knowing and being known. Horses are teachers of this. Animal kindness and being kind to them in turn encourages values of introspection and empathy.

Boundaries—between earth and sky, between species, between bodies also exist between incursion and permission, coercion and compliance, between inside and out. Horizons and boundaries both approach and recede, can appear ambiguous. What is quite near can seem very far. And what is distant can reside in the mind and heart as memory, as love. Our perceptions deal in parallax and ​fata morgana.

The body is a landscape.[i] One body in connection with another body is a relationship. The feeling of close connection in an intimate relationship also carries a sense of deep strangeness and far places.[ii] The horizon—that place of possibility—when pursued as a destination always eludes us. Where bodies are and who they are within the landscape can define the parameters of a relationship from formal to intimate. To touch another carries a charge—whether of transgression or connection.

Touch, proximity, familiarity, request, response mediate how we interact in close quarters. Acts of grooming are by definition intimate; they involve close contact and mutual cooperation. The human hand is corollary to the horse’s mouth as a communicative fulcrum. Both investigate and attach to primary senses, particularly of touch. Communication is often primarily nonverbal. This kind of physical awareness defines intimacy. A horse naturally attunes himself—to heartbeat, rates of breathing, the movements of pupils—he is sensitive to pheromones. A horse can teach you how to be in the moment and all its fullness—which is where art and photography reside.

The horse scans the horizon and takes the long, binocular view, for the horizon can bring predators; his monocular vision within each eye, across brain hemispheres, translates what is closer. As he is to the landscape, he is alert to the lens and any shift in focus of a companion.[iii]

The photographs in ​Near and Far are never posed or arranged but pursued incidentally, as byproducts of following the horse’s lead; they are therefore shaped by his proprioception and awareness of my body as I am of his. They depict land and sky scapes where horses live, actual places as well as places that seem real enough but not actual. They feature a singular horse I was lucky to know for 23 years. The series began under the Perseid meteor showers; within the series are all four seasons. Underpinning the project is an artistic argument for cognitive empathy, particularly multi-species empathy.

Some philosophers deem empathy a failure because it reverts to tribalism and loyalty between humans who already resemble each other. Cognitive empathy is the effort to think about POV and points of origin, cultures and mores and built-in biases. Practicing cognitive empathy in the presence of animals requires patient, close observation, renouncing preconceived notions and perceptual filters, and suppressing presumption and entitlement. Close-quarter communication between individuals as determined and led by horses can be extrapolated onto human ethical systems: acceptance and appreciation of horse-ness enacting itself as common humanity.

My work is grounded in consensual collaborations and responds to spontaneous and voluntary interactions without posing or expectant coercion. Initiative and preferences of companion animal collaborators inform and drive the work. Respect for threshold responses, not interfering in their pursuit of life and sustenance, and not exposing them to risk and vulnerability through dissemination of my work are core principles.[iv]

Considering, practicing cognitive empathy to the extent possible across species lines (with respect to Thomas Nagel’s bat), if it must be placed in a world of human utility, directly mirrors our engagement with anyone different from ourselves. The practice of allowing for other consciousnesses and talents is foundational, for example, to engaging meaningfully with disability, cognitive difference, spectrums of identity, gender, race.

Within the current era of species extinctions and roll-backs of protections and constant human impingement on animal habitat, this project aims to heighten contemplation of (diminishing) natural spaces and the horizons too often obscured within cities; it looks closely at mechanisms of intimacy and compassion in a climate of racist and misogynistic crimes and pervasive invective.

Landscapes are also interior places of imagination and contemplation. What we think we see is not always what is. Fata Morgana “​discoveries” of illusional land masses by sailors in the Antarctic were named and drawn onto maps. What we see, our perspective, is often determined by where we stand. This is analogous to common political and social processes; what feels real must exist.

Structurally and formally, I’m looking at how people (and animals) perceive, how we “read” one another, our mutual legibility across species, and how we experience space and proximity. These processes link closely to how we consume books and view exhibitions. Our histories and memories, yearnings, inform the through-lines of synchronous connection we discover, the linking of past experience with the new. These landscapes interrogate perception and scale.

Filters of identity and exclusion, so problematic in human culture, are expressed fiercely in the dualism between animal and human. Recent assessments of animal-based scientific research point towards a long history of our science experiments being inherently (whether consciously or not) designed to uphold human primacy.

To be animal connects us. We may clothe and insulate and climate control ourselves, but we can be stripped equally naked by a tsunami or a death of a loved one. Animals walk through the world without carrying anything, their bodies as vehicles of motion and expression; in the Anthropocene each of them, predator or prey, feels and is utterly vulnerable. While animals have aural language and they even learn our spoken languages, they are extremely gifted at reading motives and hidden intentions within humans, more than we are of ourselves.

Horses are avatars of climate change (heat stroke and anhidrosis—formerly an affliction of the tropics moving ever northward) and harbingers of the economy (rates of euthanasia and abandonment of horses increase ahead of market changes). Horses are seen as markers of privilege but horses’ lived experience, in too many cases, closely parallels domestic violence and processes of gaslighting and being silenced while performing complete compliance at all times. The language of conquest has long been applied to relationships between the sexes; it also applies to how many of us treat horses.

Horses are powerful animals who nonetheless hold this power in reserve, employing their keen emotional intelligence (and demonstrated memory of, for example, whether a human smiled or frowned the last time they saw them). They are aware of dilation of pupils, rates of breathing, facial expression. Their proprioception and delicate vivid sensory world, the privilege of proximity to them, all these heighten and intensify feelings of connection and mutual understanding. Unto horses are projected fantasies of freedom yet their lives are largely circumscribed. Horses are expected to become passive purveyors and channels to human freedom and entitlement, without protest or reciprocal communication. We know from studies of trauma and domestic violence that the brain is changed with verbal and physical abuse or neglect, excessive control, and unpredictability.

Being in the presence of a horse outside of performance objectives holds one in the moment, heightens the very physical sensations art seeks to engage—of sight, touch, breath, dilations, subtle vibrations, sound, and shifts in light. Horses see color differently from humans, but there are colors, particularly in the yellow, blue spectrum that we see the same. A horse’s body is large; a living, breathing horse draws forces of physics and geometry and economics to him, even as he is resolutely himself, a small horse in an infinite world.

To deeply know another, horse or human, to love and be loved is a revelation, both granular and cosmic. To love is to fear loss; to endure this loss is to wander the landscape. Death is a foreign land. The horizon draws us and eludes us in equal measure. To know and be known is a wide open frontier.

In loving memory of Blue horse (d. July 28, 2019).

[i] ​From the Renaissance through Freud and others, the female body has long been equated with the earth, cycles of fertility and reproduction being like seasons. What was seen as man’s dominion of the earth through agriculture carried inevitable sexual connotations. From Shakespeare’s ​Venus and Adonis​: “I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer; feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale: Graze on my lips...” Thoreau likened Massachusetts to the body of a woman: “Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm...” [ii] The character K in Kafka’s​ The Castle l​oves Freida: K was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering into a strange country, farther than ever man had wandered before, a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air, where one might die of strangeness, and yet whose enchantment was such that one could only go and lose oneself further. [iii] My essay ​Horses and Lens ​explores the sorting hierarchies of horse to person to camera gaze within an unfamiliar environment. (​Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, Exposing Animals - I​ssue 41, Autumn 2017) [iv] ​In my project ​Gus and Deuce Go Elsewhere ​I invited two horses to visit a museum, see if they chose to enter, and what they would elect to do once inside. ​Movies for Horses, v​ideo content developed expressly for horse audience included screen projections in the barn at night where the horse’s body became part of and interactive with the video. With ​Barn Recitals​ I take on the spectre of childhood piano recitals and my attendant dread and anxiety before human audiences. To bring the piano to the barn to play for a horse and donkey who are free to wander off at will but in the event, remained curious and quite supportive. With repertoire selected and refined in service to their preferences. Which was often Beethoven played at their natural resting respiration rates.


Lee Deigaard is an artist from New Orleans and rural Georgia. Responding to spontaneous voluntary interactions with generous, curious animal collaborators, ​her work explores multi-species empathy and animal cognition and personality. ​She has shown and presented her work nationally and internationally and was a 2017-18 Artist-in-Residence at the Joan Mitchell Center. Her nocturnal photographs of animals won the Clarence John Laughlin Award and were featured in solo shows at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and at Arthur Roger Gallery and in the group show ​Beauty and the Beast: the Animal in Photography ​at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. As a Southern Constellations Fellow and artist-in-residence at Elsewhere in Greensboro, NC, she invited horses to explore a museum housed in a former thrift store. Her work has appeared in ​Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, ​National Geographic's blog ​PROOF​, Lenscratch, Oxford American, and as part of Format International in the UK and was featured in ​Pride of Place​ at the New Orleans Museum of Art. ​She is a curator and writer and occasional professor. ​She graduated with honors from Yale University and holds graduate degrees in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin and in fine arts from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. She was born and raised in Atlanta. In Our Own Words is an ongoing feature where artists and writers are asked to speak about their new work, ideas or projects, or works that they have been thinking about in their own words. It is also part of invert/extant Transmissions for the Artist Writings series. If you would like to be kept up to date on this or other projects, please sign up for our newsletter.


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