Twenty First Century Unicorn Hunting

Filed Under: Blog, Essay, Unicorn Studies
French Unicorn 1564

Twenty First Century Unicorn Hunting

This blog post outlines some of the background research that informed my “Hunt for the Unicorn” embroideries. It highlights the ways in which I’ve used symbolic references and metaphors, both in terms of content and materials, to reinforce some of the themes that I have been exploring through this work. Whilst being far from exhaustive I hope it might give a little insight into the intellectual underpinning of my practice and give a little insight into the way I approach the making of my work.

The popular tale of the hunt for the unicorn tells us of how the creature can only be lured into captivity by a young virgin girl. This story was once a popular subject for artists, and perhaps the most well-known images of this story are those referred to as ‘The Unicorn Tapestries’ which are held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The tapestries are described as being ‘among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive’. Each of the seven panels describes a scene from a hunt for the unicorn. This starts with the hunters entering the woods and results with the unicorn in captivity.

Thought to have been designed in Paris and woven in Brussels the tapestries are laden with symbolism that was typical of much medieval art and reflects the significance of the unicorn. For example, in the image of the unicorn in captivity (below) the creature is chained but not secured and is surrounded by a low fence that he could easily hope over. This suggests that his confinement is agreeable and it is suggested that this image represents a tamed beloved.

The Unicorn in Captivity | Met Museum New York

As with the other six panels in this series the image is loaded with images of plants that are symbolic of marriage and fertility including wild orchids, violets and thistles. This reinforces the central motif of unicorn sitting beneath a tree which is in fruition with ripe, pomegranates, bursting, revealing their fertile seeds. There is also a frog pictured in the bottom right hand corner which was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating.

Having read around the unicorn and its history and significance I started to think about the way in which I might reappropriate some of these tales to provide a commentary on attitudes and morals within a contemporary, rather than medieval, society.

I completed numerous studies off the back of my initial round of research into the unicorn, following which I started planning a new body of work that was directly inspired by the tale of the hunt for the unicorn. Of course, it has been established that the unicorn is an imaginary being and so hunting a ‘real’ unicorn would be a fruitless task. Instead I set out on a hunt for metaphorical unicorns; the unicorn is a masculine symbol representative of fertility and so I set about hunting fertile masculine creatures with a (the) horn.

Using the personals pages of a popular free ads website I posted an advert which might have appeared as if it had been written by a young virgin girl; as the tale tells a unicorn can only be lured into captivity by a chaste young girl! The adverts gave little more information than the age of the apparent advertiser, that she’s a virgin, and that she’s looking for man. Since Scotland is closely linked with the unicorn (as seen on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom) I elected to place the advert in amongst the personals adverts for Edinburgh.

The responses were plentiful! They were mostly no more than a sentence or two long a large number of them contained images of either the senders genitals or their face – never both!

Having reviewed the responses that I received I elected to embroider the results in a format akin to old European embroidered samplers. A needlework sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework. They often include the alphabet, figures, motifs, and decorative borders.

I chose a natural linen fabric as the ground for my embroideries. Whilst there was to be significant symbolism within the visual content of the works it is also important to me to consider the materials and processes that are being used. Using a cloth for the ground that is a near to its raw state as possible was important as unsewn, unbleached fabric has been a signifier of purity throughout the ages, in a number of civilisations. For example, among the early Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks, priests wore linen as a sign of purity, whilst in India homespun unbleached cotton held similar significance. As a symbol of purity this fabric relates to the virgin in my tale of the hunt for the unicorn. My embroidery of sexual content onto this surface can be viewed as reflecting the intentions of those men who replied to my advert whose desire it was to sully this chaste young girl.

Embroidery is still regarded by many, particularly in the Western world, as a feminine pursuit. Not only am I subverting this assumption through my actions but the content of the works themselves is overtly masculine. In addition to this the physical act of embroidery; repeatedly penetrating the fabric with a needle, provides a metaphor for the sexual acts that are alluded to in the content of these works. Where the raw fabric can be read as a reference to the virgin in the tale of the hunt for the unicorn, the needle can be seen as a phallic signifier of the men (unicorns) I’ve been hunting.

The Hunt for the Unicorn | Subversive Cross Stitch by Spike Dennis

I have adopted the use of cross stitch in the creation of these works specifically due to the similarity between the form of these stitches and the digital pixel. Each stitch is created by perforating the fabric at four points forming a square that is intersected diagonally in both directions by the thread. Due to the size of the stitches, and the close proximity of the holes in the fabric, the images appear if they are made up of squares of coloured thread. Similarly, digital images are created from a field of square pixels that form a coherent image when viewed at a distance. This use of cross stitch therefore refers to the digital origins of the content of the work. These digital origins are also referred to in the content of some of the works. For example, it is traditional, though not compulsory, to include an alphabet in a needlework sampler; a number of my works include the alphabet in a QWERTY configuration as found on a computer keyboard.

In addition to the alphabets, there are a number of symbols and motifs that appear throughout the works. Of these symbols the unicorn and the wolf are recurrent throughout all of the works (as pictured above). The unicorn is a direct reference to the medieval tale of the hunt for the unicorn which provided the inspiration for this particular body of work. The wolf is a predator and is often seen as a symbol of greed, lust and destructiveness, particularly in biblical contexts, and it can be read as a signifier of the perception that the men replying to my advert are sinners, giving in to their carnal desires, defying society’s moral standards.

Other symbols within the works vary from piece-to-piece and include pomegranates, fleur-de-lys, mandrakes, cherries, as well as the logos of condom manufacturers and popular internet dating websites. Some of the works also incorporate imagery which has been taken from sixteenth century cross stitch pattern books. This includes heart shaped borders and hunting scenes. Whilst reinforcing the themes already present in the work they also acknowledge the history of the medium.

Hunt for the Unicorn (Detail_ - Contemporary Embroidery by Spike Dennis Stitched Stitch

A selection of the embroideries also feature QR codes that have been incorporated into the designs. These all link to content hosted online at taking the work back into the digital realm that originally provided the content for the embroideries in the first place. This includes animated GIFs, videos and web based content including the opportunity to sign up for your own ‘Unicorn Dating’ profile; which I hope will eventually lead to a secondary body of work.

The responses to these works so far have been interesting and varied. Some folk have been horrified by the language and images; some have found the images that I have received (and embroidered) revolting, whilst others have found the series humorous, and perhaps even enlightening.

As a child of the internet age I have grown up in a world in which nudity has become commonplace; whether through the unavoidable abundance of internet porn, shared photos of anonymous amateurs, and celebrity sex tapes (or more recently phone hacking scandals). This nudity has almost become the norm to me; I’ve become desensitized to it.

That’s not to say that everyone feels the same of course!

The phallic images that I’ve stitched, are to me nothing more than pictures of body parts; no more revolting than someone photographing their nose, or their left foot. It is only when considering the images alongside the text that I consider them to be activated as overtly sexual images, but to others they are grotesque, sexually explicit images that are not fit for public viewing.

‘Dick pics’, as they are often referred to, are commonplace in the age of the internet having been shared via text message, dating websites and social apps for a number of years. They are amateur portraits of a sort, albeit unfailingly ugly portraits, of often lonely and/or insecure men. But the aggressive and harassing nature of the way in which they are often distributed imbues them with a duality; these pictures are phallic and aggressive but also painfully pathetic; they are dull, un-erotic, homogeneous and wholly artless.

Whilst I understand that these images will offend the moral values of some spectators I do find it odd that our bodies in their natural state do cause so much offence. Incorporating this imagery into a work of art raises some interesting questions though; for example, if the spectator has their moral values offended upon their first encounter with the work are they then still in a position to consider the work as a piece of Art?

This leads me back around to my original intentions; to explore our moral values, particularly in relation to our attitudes towards sex, within our digitally interconnected contemporary society. However, this short essay (long blog post) has been quite a pragmatic look into some of the ideas that have informed my ‘Hunt for the Unicorn’ embroideries and a discussion about moral values is a more philosophical affair. It’s a discussion that I would appreciate, but it is perhaps not so well suited to a static blog post like this, but I’m always happy to chat with anyone who might be interested in some of these ideas!

You can view a selection of my ‘Hunt for the Unicorn’ embroideries on my website here.