Yalda Afsah, Centaur, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Yalda Afsah, Centaur, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Yalda Afsah

Slow, succinct, and hypnotic, Yalda Afsah’s fragments of cinematic language gradually settle into place. Vidourle, 2019, for example, started off with shots of young men wading around in a murky river. Nervously, their eyes shift as they look now at each other, now at something out of the frame. At first, their movements seem isolated and erratic; then, synchronized en masse, the youths become a human swarm. Only in the film Tourneur, 2018, installed nearby, did we finally see what the bewildered boys are waiting for. Five minutes in, we find our fugacious antagonist rushing across the screen, almost too quickly to be seen: Both films record bullfighting events in the South of France, but the bull is mostly missing. By the time he finally takes the stage, in Tourneur, he’s less threatening than tired. In the absence of any evident danger, the films highlight the boys’ choreography of hesitation and reaction—an awkward mix of insecurity and self-assertion so essential to the performance of adolescent masculinity.

The ostensibly ethnographic films in “Every Word Was Once an Animal,” Afsah’s first institutional solo exhibition, played a persistent game with expectation and attention. Centaur, 2020, follows the mundane routines of a dandyish horse trainer in southern Denmark. As the animals’ movements speed up, the video all but imperceptibly slips into slow motion. Meanwhile, the rhythmic footfalls that accompany most of the film begin slipping in and out of sync. Afsah rarely uses actual field audio, and in this work it is integrated with bassy soundscapes created after the fact with the help of a Foley artist, shifting between disciplined verisimilitude and outright artifice. Like her visuals, Afsah’s gentle alienation effects insist that the way we perceive the world is only ever partial.

When looking at Afsah’s animals, we’re inevitably made to look at ourselves—not just at how humans shape the world around them, but also at how they are shaped in turn. This train of thought came across most clearly in SSRC, 2022, a portrait of roller-pigeon enthusiasts in South Los Angeles. Compared to the animals in the earlier films, these creatures are relatively free. Their breeders, however, are highly constrained: One of them casually mentions having hardly any time to himself after spending five hours a day with his birds. For the breeders, raising pigeons isn’t just a way to pass time, but a source of community and identity. In a social fabric often torn by violence and police repression, the birds teach their trainers a patience and a tenderness that might otherwise be hard to come by.

The exhibition’s title points to the historic hold animals have had on the human imagination, from cave paintings to cartoons. “If the first metaphor was animal,” John Berger writes, “it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric.” Whether this need for metaphor arises from the “narrow abyss of non-comprehension” Berger described or from a more “significant otherness,” as Donna Haraway would have it, Afsah’s films show how humans’ fraught relationship with animals serves at least as a lens through which we may look at ourselves. Speechless but hardly silent, these films eschew the documentary desire to explain, dissecting instead the sensory minutiae of endlessly rehearsed rituals. Even though her films are finely attuned to the way our relations to nonhumans are intersected by the all-too-human axes of race, class, and gender, the experiences they construct are never reducible to simple taglines. Afsah takes us back to a much stranger, more primal scene of art, one in which our senses bring us closer to the intelligence of a world always just beyond the grasp of human understanding.