Les KOSSATZ | Sheep on a couch

Australia 1943

Sheep on a couch 1972-73
sheep skin, stainless steel, dyed leather, chrome plated and galvanized steel
91.0 (h) x 203.0 (w) x 91.0 (d) cm
Purchased 1975
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1975.35.A-B
© Les Kossatz. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia


A comical yet disturbing sight, the sheep is strapped to a couch on wheels which sink into the ground. The animal seems to struggle against its bondage. Its soft fleece has hard counterpoints of metal face, horns and hooves, while the dressed leather of the couch is really the skin of dead cows. The incongruity is obvious: life and death are bound together, their fates difficult to disentangle.

Les Kossatz has often challenged us by placing sheep into our human world. Here, the animal lies on a brown couch as though trapped in a bizarre session of psychoanalysis. The two ideas, of treatment and imprisonment, allow the sheep to represent the varieties of medical help for mental illness. What stream of consciousness would come out of this patient’s subconscious? What Freudian complexes? The sheep-patient is a captive however, an unwilling actor in an impossible drama. Like the sheep, the hybrid chariot cannot move, forever bogged in its imaginary ground.

Kossatz sets up a series of oppositional elements in his complex assemblages such as Sheep on a couch. A sheep’s skin, with fleece still attached, is reassembled on an armature to resemble the living creature, albeit in an unnatural pose. Yet whenever sheep come into contact with people, they are constrained somehow: by fences so they cannot stray, by dogs rounding them up, by runs forcing them into dips and pens, or herding them onto trucks for their final journey. Rebellion can be seen in this sheep’s rearing head, the ungainly twisting of its body. Any interchange with humans has unnatural consequences for the animal.

Hard elements of horns and hooves are almost decoratively wrought in stainless steel, yet metal is also used for the sheep’s soft face. The couch is ready made, a bought object which is tilted on its impossible wheels, like a billycart. But the wagon wheels are metal, not wood, never meant to be attached to a domestic seat nor allowed to move. The combination recalls the handmade flotsam of the farmyard, something encountered in a rural shed perhaps.

The animal itself is both symbolic and real, strange and familiar, dead and alive. Joseph Beuys creates a temple in Stripes in the house of the shaman 1962–72 1980 with a dead hare and with other magical elements. Kossatz’s is a more down-to-earth sensibility, although similar ideas of totem and animism can be seen in his works. It is an Australian consciousness, with a rich vein of tragi-comedy, and satire based on wicked observation.

Australia’s national wealth and traditionally rural character are invoked by the artist’s choice of subject. The sheep is a dominant European species chosen to inhabit the land, exploited by settlers for wool and meat. Culturally, the Christian symbol of innocence and sacrifice is a lamb, but Kossatz uses a large, fully-grown creature for his protagonist. We are caught in the ambiguity of the sheep’s fate: struggling for freedom, trapped in an impossible situation.

Christine Dixon
Senior Curator
International Painting and Sculpture
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra