Horse Glue by Angela Kingston


'The imagery is graphic, crude and degraded, and the sound distorted: it matches the subject matter.'


In her book Wickedness (1984), philosopher Mary Midgley analyses the darkest aspects of human behaviour. In Talking to the Enemy (2010), anthropologist Dr Scott Atran describes the mindsets of violent extremists. Artist-animator Stephen Irwin shares with them the need to grapple with bleak humanity.

In Horse Glue (2010), Irwin’s central character is a trusting, innocent boy who progresses from victim to perpetrator. The boy is caught up in the euphoria of a parade; is led off into the woods by a masked man who attacks him; witnesses scenes of mass-murder; takes up the mask of his assailant and becomes a murderer himself. Finally, he dies in shame.

Superimposed on the bottom section of the screen are scenes of a war that’s out-of-control, sickening, sadistic – and horribly recognisable in terms of our wars now. The increasing barbarity of this other narrative is in step with the growing horror of the boy’s story. And sometimes the main story’s characters dip into the action of this sub-plot of war, and vice versa. Irwin’s message seems to be that individual blood lust and state violence are inextricably linked.

The imagery is graphic, crude and degraded, and the sound distorted: it matches the subject matter. Irwin explains that it’s all hand-drawn, and that he works with cut-out figures, ‘messing it all up in the computer’ using Adobe After Effects animation software. The searing soundtrack is by his regular collaborator, Sorenious Bonk.

The title will remind many of the devastating scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), in which the all-powerful pigs sell a trusty carthorse to a slaughterer for glue. Likewise, the leaders in the scenes of war in Irwin’s animation – the tragicomic, duck-riding, hobbyhorse warriors – reduce the worth of lives to nothing. And their distant slaughter would seem to infect the boy’s story, when he’s attacked and when he goes on to kill his own prey: but the boy alone is remorseful.

There’s also a more direct link between Animal Farm and Horse Glue: in both works there are chilling parades that serve to delight and intoxicate the weaker characters.

Irwin works very freely and intuitively and can be shocked at what emerges from his unconscious. The moment in Horse Glue when the boy is led away by the hand struck him, as he drew it, as coming almost directly from CCTV footage of two-year-old James Bulger’s abduction in 1993 by 10-year-olds.

A story that was more at the forefront of Irwin’s mind, however, was Babes in the Wood, which is, incidentally, based on a real event in which infants were abandoned in a wood to die, in sixteenth century Norfolk. How the horror of the killing of children endures – down the centuries in this particular case.

And the parades keep coming. Only last weekend I was in a small Kent town when 400 cadets filed by, some as young as 12, marching, drumming, and carrying imitation machine guns.


Angela Kingston is a curator and writer. Her latest show, Underwater, which includes ten international artists, was commissioned by Towner, Eastbourne, and is on tour to five galleries round the English coast.

She's written, for example, an essay for a monograph about Janaina Tschäpe's work for IMMA, Dublin, numerous other catalogue essays, and 'provocations' for APEngine.