The aXolotl: a vehicle for knowledge and the postcolonial ‘return’

The aXolotl: a vehicle for knowledge and the postcolonial ‘return’

Issue 26

Runway Journal



The axolotl is a neotenic salamander endemic to the lakes of Xochimilco, Mexico. Its name derives from the ancient Aztec deity Xolotl, the ‘patron god of twins and monstrosities’.[1] Indeed, it is an amphibian marked by an abnormal appearance and a set of unique biological traits: it is metamorphous, reaches sexual maturity in a juvenile state and has the capacity to regrow lost limbs.

The axolotl, like a myriad of other animals, operates as a multifaceted symbol across the fields of literature (Julio Cortazar), fine arts (Fiona Hall) and pop culture (Pokémon). However, unlike more common figures of zoomorphism or anthropomorphism, the axolotl remains a relatively obscure animal metaphor. Yet according to Mexican sociologist Roger Bartra the axolotl has served as a vehicle for critical thought in works as varied as René Daumal’s novel La grande beuverie (1938), Aldous Huxley’s book After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), Giorgio Agamben’s treatise For a Philosophy of Infancy (1996) and Julio Cortazar’s short storyAxolotl (1956); while Roger Bartra himself summoned Cortazar’s anthropomorphic axolotl in his book La jaula de la melancholia (1987) at the service of querying Mexico’s national identity.[2]

In these works, the axolotl is primarily associated with the themes of otherness, ethnicity, youth and the environment. This is largely due to its ‘strangeness’, connections to a pre-Columbian world, state of eternal youth and endangered status in its natural habitat. These human-centric concerns are often explored through gestures of anthropomorphism, giving way to the psychological projections that typify human/animal relations—where the animal is coded with cultural meaning (for example, the pig is associated with laziness) to subsequently act as a vehicle of thought and knowledge making (such as in the fable of The Three Little Pigs). In the particular case of the axolotl, its symbolic signification revolves around an axis of alterity, as evidenced by the Nahuatl (Aztec) spelling of its name—in which the ‘x’ in axolotl, like in Malcolm X, stands as a signifier of the unknown.[3]

What follows unpacks the axolotl as a symbol of the post-colonial ‘return’ in the works of Julio Cortazar’s Axolotl (1952), a magic realist short story about a man that transforms into an axolotl, and Fiona Hall’s sculptural work Ambystoma mexicanum / axolotl (2009-2011), a mixed media sculpture depicting an axolotl carrying a skeleton.

The axolotl

To approach the axolotl in the aforementioned works one must first discuss:

  1. its anthropoid features, and
  2. a brief history of its ‘discovery’.

1. In effect, the axolotl appears evocative of a human figure. This is largely due to the simplicity of its facial features (its face is comprised primarily of two eyes and a humanizing ‘smile’), body shape (resembling a phallus), and legs (which parallel human hands, particularly those of a foetus); as well as the ‘fleshiness’ of its skin and varying skin tones (white, black, brown, etcetera). For example, images of anthropomorphic axolotls are widespread in popular culture, featuring among its most notable incarnations are the album cover of Irmin Schmidt & Kumo’s Axolotl Eyes, which portrays a naked heterosexual couple with axolotl heads, and Pokémon’s ‘Wooper’, a biped anime reimagining of the axolotl.

2. The Western world first came into contact with the axolotl during the colonial encounter. In the sixteenth century, Spanish naturalist Francisco Hernandez was the first to write on the subject, remarking (wildly and incorrectly) that the axolotl exhibits a vulva similar to that of women, menstruates and is shown to possess aphrodisiac properties.[4] These erroneous observations were perpetuated in Javier Clajivero’s Historia antigua de Mejico (1780) and remained current until 1864: the year in which the axolotl was first shipped to Paris as a by-product of the French intervention in Mexico. Its peculiarities provoked great intrigue among the scientific community, an interest that only escalated after some specimens born in the Old World metamorphosed into salamanders. Consequently, it was discovered that the axolotl is in fact a larval salamander caught in a juvenile state, a condition known as neoteny.

The natural history method (categorization, observation and conjecture) is embodied in axolotl illustrations from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. These works commonly render the axolotl’s body in great detail, communicating (or perhaps miscommunicating) a sense of desire via the intensity of the gaze. Furthermore, its anatomy commonly oscillates between ‘alienness’ and ‘cuteness’, accompanied by an act of naming and classification. The sum of these elements amounts to a similarity with ethnographic imagery, an unsurprising parallel since the indigenous body was long perceived as ‘primitive’ in Enlightenment thought.Indeed, the interest in the axolotl belongs to a wider fascination with the exotic, intersecting with broader formulations of ‘race’. Particularly in the field of Enlightenment visual culture and thought, in which ‘curiosities’ were valued as signs of prestige (as epitomized by the ‘cabinet of curiosities’), and Indigenous bodies were equated with flora and fauna. The resemblance between the axolotl’s natural history iconography and ethnography becomes more evident during slippages of representation. For example, in some illustrations the axolotl’s colourful external gills are drawn like feathers, incidentally evoking the headpieces commonly associated with Indigenous stereotypes and archetypes (for example, Moctezuma II). The visible tension generated by the simultaneous repulsion and fascination directed at the axolotl also evokes the Western gaze at play in ethnographic imagery—in which non-Western bodies are systematically observed, classified and signified in a pool of fear and desire (for example, in nineteenth-century photography of Aboriginal peoples in Australia).

‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar

These elements conglomerate in Axolotl, a short story published in 1956 by famed Argentinian magic realist writer Julio Cortázar.

Axolotl deals with an anonymous man living in Paris who transforms into an axolotl. Although the ethnicity of the character is not explicit in the narrative, his Latin American identity is implicit via references to Mexican themes and Cortazar’s identity (who was at the time, and for the rest of his life, expatriated in France). In the story, a man encounters the axolotl for the first time during a visit to an aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes, consequently developing an obsessive sense of identification with the animal. After multiple and extensive visits to the aquarium, he transforms into an axolotl.

Cortázar places great emphasis on the otherness of the amphibian. Remarking on the deep blackness of its eyes (which are attributed in the story with a different way of seeing), pre-Columbian appearance (its face is described as ‘Aztec’), and altered perception of time (the protagonist asserts it experiences time differently). In fact, otherness sits at the core of Axolotl, which summons the axolotl’s figure to address the confusion associated with the Latin American condition, defined for the purpose of this text as a sense of loss, nostalgia and alienation.

Julio Cortázar builds upon the axolotl’s symbology to generate an animal metaphor for the ‘return’. The ‘return’ is a postcolonial notion making reference to the desire to return to an era prior to the colonial encounter under the belief that the contemporary self is ‘erroneous, inauthentic, not one’s own’.[5] The metamorphosis in Axolotl is commonly interpreted in academia as a lyrical account of the protagonist’s reconciliation with his pre-Columbian heritage in disavowal of his contemporaneous self, bringing to conclusion a return to his indigenous past.[6] In other words, the man leaves behind his present post-colonial self by merging with his pre-Hispanic past, symbolized by the axolotl.

Although Cortázar represents the axolotl with stasis (a window to a frozen pre-Columbian past), its mere presence in Paris suggests a narrative of mobility. Indeed, the axolotl’s shipment to France in the nineteenth century codes the animal with a diasporic character. The axolotl’s biology and displacement facilitates this projection. Its metamorphous body symbolizes change, acculturation and transition, while its transportation (or migration) resonates with the movement of people who characterize contemporaneity.

‘Ambystoma mexicanum/axolotl’ by Fiona Hall

Post-colonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan unpacks the notion of the ‘return’ in two distinct yet overlapping trails: the ‘subaltern route’ and the ‘Indigenous path’. In the first, the ‘subaltern’ identity recourses to dominant narratives and discourses to seek agency and definition (through negation, identification and negotiation), while the latter engages with memory and forgetfulness.[7] This text is concerned with the first, the ‘subaltern route’.

Cortázar’s return is an oblique articulation of the ‘subaltern route’, in which the protagonist finds identification in the figure of the axolotl via its signification as other by Western modes of thought. However, Julio Cortázar formulates a radical disavowal of the present, favouring an escapist revisitation of the past and thus, missing the nuances of diasporic identity formation—in which the self finds definition within a wider network of nation, place, popular culture, historiography, etcetera.

To elaborate further on this matter, I call upon a more open-ended work by Australian artist Fiona Hall that utilizes the axolotl in summation with familiar signs of Mexican-ness. The combination of these signs point to a wider array of social conditions that allow for multiple arrangements, giving way in turn to a plurality of meanings and ‘returns’.

Fiona Hall’s Ambystoma mexicanum/axolotl (2009-11) is a mixed media sculpture suspended from the ceiling. The work takes the form of a floating axolotl carrying a skeleton and comprises various materials and signs that communicate, primarily, a dual meaning of Mexican-ness and environmental concerns, including skull-poison imagery, shredded textiles, Catholic crosses or ‘x’ symbols, and Corona bottle caps—forming the shape of the skeleton’s skull. In the sculpture, the axolotl appears to be leaning forward, emphasizing the notion of movement as it takes place between Mexico and Australia (Corona bottle caps), life and death (skeleton), and water and air (the aquatic axolotl is now suspended in air).

Hall brings to the forefront the Mexican origin of the amphibian. Capturing the economy of ‘cool Mexico’[8] and its symbolic capital as it makes its way to white Mexican restaurants (Corona bottle caps), dumb skull tattoos (skull imagery) and ‘Day of the Dead’ pastiches (the sculpture hangs like a piñata). The axolotl’s return is now manifold, signifying the return of waste, culture, consumerism and peoples.

Indeed, otherness operates in the work as an expansive algorithm that enables its elements to continually reassemble and disperse. The work locates identity in the midst of a shifting spectrum of Indigeneity and Europeanness, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, and ultimately, Self and Other. The ‘cerveza’ caps mark the skeleton’s skull with an origin (Mexico), a journey (Mexico to Australia), a time (the now), a site (consumer culture) and an ethnicity, albeit they are equally indexical of the general hype surrounding Mexican beer in Australia.

In effect these references reveal the Australian gaze as it rests upon Mexican culture, however, their meaning is not fixed but rather fractured and mobile. By way of example, in the sculpture the axolotl is covered with crosses that evoke the Judeo-Christian symbol of the crucifix when standing vertically, but represent an ‘x’—symbol of the unknown—when lying horizontally. This resonates with the axolotl’s duality, primarily in connection with its metamorphous and amphibious character.

In sum, Fiona Hall opens the notion of the ‘return’ to signify a wider movement of culture, peoples, and waste. Although the central focus of the work is the environment (commenting primarily on the return of pollution), it is equally significative of a pre-Columbian return—symbolized by the figure of an axolotl carrying a skeleton. However, in contrast to Cortázar’s short story, Hall maps a broader constellation of contemporary ethnic markers that speak more widely to the contemporary movement of peoples and cultural expressions (for example, beer and its transnational sites of consumption). Therefore the ‘return’ now surpasses a mere act of nostalgia (Julio Cortázar) to function as a way of negotiating the pre-colonial past with the post-colonial present at the service of being contemporaneous.

The ‘Return’

Indeed, the ‘return’ manifests with most nuances when located in a continuum, an in-between space that finds articulation in the figure of the neotenous axolotl. Caught in a liminal stage of physical growth, the axolotl gives voice to the negotiation that takes place in the ‘return’, where the post-colonial subject incorporates aspects from an era prior to the colonial encounter, in tandem with contemporary expressions of self, to enunciate its own identity. Under this configuration, the post-colonial self is neither Indigenous nor European, but something else. The axolotl, a larval salamander that occupies a species class of its own by refusing to metamorphose, exemplifies this sense of ‘otherness’. Julio Cortázar and Fiona Hall summon the amphibian to think through the ‘return’ by drawing upon its broader symbolic signification in the Western and pre-Columbian world, ranging from its anthropoid shape and mythology to its dislocation and ‘discovery’. However, while the first deals with self-othering, the latter touches on the othering of others. This text overlaps these works to locate a point of contact in which the axolotl symbolizes the ‘return’ at the intersection of Self (Julio Cortázar) and Other (Fiona Hall). How would this ‘aXolotl’ look? I propose to envision it as a Mexican cult movie monster mashed up with a cute anime boy: weird, kinky, violent, juvenile and pretty fucked up.

[1] Steven Smith, ‘Xolótl: god of monstrosities’, Clinical Genetics 57 (2000): 176.
[2] Roger Bartra, Axolotiada: vida y mito de un anfibio mexicano (Mexico D.F.: Fondo de cultural económica, 2011), 251.
[3] Brett Levinson, ‘The Other Origin: Cortázar and Identity Politics’, Latin American Literary Review 44 (1994): 6.
[4] Roger Bartra, Axolotiada: vida y mito de un anfibio mexicano (Mexico D.F.: Fondo de cultural económica, 2011), 41.
[5] R. Radhakrishnan, ‘Postcoloniality and The Boundaries of Identity’, Callaloo 4 (1993): 166.
[6] Brett Levinson, ‘The Other Origin: Cortázar and Identity Politics’, Latin American Literary Review 44 (1994): 11.
[7] R. Radhakrishnan, ‘Postcoloniality and The Boundaries of Identity’, Callaloo 4 (1993): 167.
[8] This is a play on the concept of ‘Cool Japan’, which originally makes references to Japan’s soft power, particularly in relation to the boom of pop idols, kawaii, sushi, etc. of the early 2000s.
[9] I sought to ‘make this happen’ in my project aXolotl’s Smile (2014), a mixed media installation observing and re-interpreting axolotl iconography through a variety of mediums: video, vector drawings, prints, light box, etc. In my mind, the link between the axolotl and cult movie monsters lies precisely on its monstrousness and cult status as well as circulation around the globe, while the axolotl already has its place in anime culture with notable renditions such as Pokémon’s ‘Wooper’ and ‘Mudkip’.