Caged Rats

Rat King

I have recently become interested in the role that rats play in our lives. They have lived alongside and parallel to us for tens of thousands of years, bordering the line between wild and domesticated. Like us, they easily adapt to ecological shifts, and have a psyche shaped to thrive in a social environment. This shared evolution has produced for us a perfect model for our psychological and biological experiments.

In a recent series of screenprints, I anthropomorphized rats to emphasize our historical and behavioral connection with them. I used rats as stand-ins for humans in our familiar settings, playing on the idea that rats are just like us, and therefore perfect models on which to carry out our studies.

My current work builds on this series, taking visual elements and ideas from that work a step further. I create multimedia prints of rat kings: a (possibly cryptozoological) phenomenon in which two or more rats become irreversibly attached to each other as their tails are tangled. For me, the rat king has not only visual interest, but metaphorical meaning. First, rats are social creatures, and form powerful, meaningful attachments to each other. Second, through our actions – our built environments, our food production systems, our laboratory experiments – we have forged a strong, and permanent bond with them. However, this bond is a contentious one.

In my first image, I imagine a naturally-formed rat king between two rats. These rats are reinforcing their emotional bond with a physical one, as their tails intertwine. Like real rat kings, the tails are matted together with hair. In another image, I depict severed rat tails – the rat king has been separated from the rats by a human hand. This is metaphor for our forcible severing of their social bond as we put them in separate cages in laboratory settings. My third image shows the beginning of a rat king in which the rat’s tail is becoming entangled with the human hand in a lab setting, alluding to our relationship with these creatures. There is a physical tension and a reluctance between the rat and human that is meant to parallel the tension between gain and cost as both species benefit and suffer from the relationship we have forged.

My fourth image is of two rats in separate cages with their tails intertwined. Studies show that rats feel very human-like empathy for each other, and I allude to that emotion in this image. I also ask the viewer to feel empathy for these rats that are forced apart, but long for connection. The antique cages are a comment on the archaic way we treat these creatures in laboratory settings with no regard to their needs as social animals.

My fifth image is a reference to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. I use this reference to discuss the creation of our bond with rats. I use the opium poppies to refer to the common use of morphine in our psychological studies in which rats become depressed, addicted, and dependent on both the drug, and the humans who administer it. The rats are being drawn apart by the human hands, and pulled from their natural connection to each other. The hair in this image is both a visual connection to the other rat king images in the series, and an allusion to the commonalities between humans and rats.

An added layer of my interest in rat kings for me is the debate as to whether they occur in nature, or are part of the genre of cryptozoology, meaning the few recorded instances are the result of human hoaxes. Whether real or hoax, the interest in rat kings serves as another testament to a human conception of the natural world, and the interference with it.