Sunday, September 13, 2009

Monsters Have Light Inside

They were lying piled up inside one of those coinslot dispenser machines on the way out of my local supermarket. 'Monsters have light inside!' announced the enthusiastic notice on the machine. Apparently it was the best English that the unknown translator who worked for the Chinese toy company could muster to convey the glow-in-the-dark feature of these children's plastic monsters. Horned, tentacled and goggle-eyed, the garishly-coloured mini monsters lay curled up inside their individual round plastic bubbles, looking like they were incubating and waiting to hatch.

So.. do monsters have light inside? Take a look at the rabbit below. It is not a digital trick. It is a real, living rabbit (whose name happens to be Alba) which has been treated with the DNA of a fluorescent jellyfish. Result: a glow-in-the-dark bunny which apparently otherwise suffers no ill-effects from its treatment. Unless someone can come up with an example, I can think of no instance in nature of a mammal which has this characteristic. So Alba is a very unnatural hybrid created by human intervention. Poor wabbit. One wonders just how long it will take for such manipulative tricks to hit the clubbing curcuit. And if we think of monsters as being unnatural creations, then Alba is indeed a monster of a sort - and with a 'light inside'.

The monster which features in that great classic of gothic horror, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (my image below), is portrayed in a disturbingly nuanced way in Shelley's text. Far from being a mere shambling horror, it struggles with its own awareness of the differences which set it apart from the rest of all humanity. Its self-loathing and sense of isolation are what drive it to commit acts of terrible and despairing violence. That it comes to despise Victor Frankenstein, its creator, seems within the story's context to be both logical and inevitable. Shelley's genius created an enduring myth whose tragedy lies in its pathos. Her monster is tragic exactly because it is self-aware enough to struggle with what it perceives to be its own lack of 'light inside': its lack of human spirit.

Monsters in our own day and age have come to mean movie monsters. The monsters in the alien/predator film franchise (below) perhaps have had their horrific edge dulled through mere familiarity among their fans, to the extent that it is now difficult to know how else they can shock. As someone who remembers being in the audience of the very first public screening in London of Ridley Scott's original 1979 film Alien, the sense of shock and dread among those seated around me was palpable. Since then, much has changed. Monsters, apparently, should not become too familiar. And these particular monsters certainly have no 'light inside'. Scott's original alien was shocking exactly because it was so dispassionately unreasoning. Humans were nothing more than a warm and nutricious source of incubation for a necessary stage of its life cycle. There are examples enough of this parasite/host relationship right here on our own planet.

But all the monsters so far mentioned here have in some way been created by humans. Ridley Scott's alien and Victor Frankenstein's monster, which is ultimately Mary Shelley's own creation, and even the plastic mini monsters in my supermarket, have all been products of the human imagination. Are there real monsters? Considering the odds, there must be so many unknown forms of life out there among the stars. But are they monsters? By our human standards, and if we knew about them, I'm sure that quite a few of them must be. Do they have 'light inside'? Well, some, like the green-glowing Alba, literally might have. How about in the figurative sense? Perhaps we had better hope so.

Artist: Eduardo Kac, based upon the work of French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine
Work: GFP ('green fluorescent protein') Bunny, 2000
Medium: Live albino rabbit with genetic material from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria
Location: Presently unknown. Alba has been reported dead, but this is unconfirmed

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: Frankenstein, 2008

(based upon artwork originally commissioned from and published by Puffin Classics, 1994)
Medium: Digital, incorporating original artwork in oils and material from the works of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, 16th century, and from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century.
Location: Cyberspace (oil painting in the collection of the artist)

Alba photo by Chrystelle Fontaine

Original design of Ridley Scott's alien by H.R. Giger

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