Fraudulent Animals

From the boiler room of the human imagination have arisen a myriad of strange animal concoctions, welded together from parts of animals, humans, and plants. From jackalopes to Batboy the tabloid legend, from the Sphinx to Frankenstein to genetically modified foods, whether crafted in literature or created in material form, hybrids are precarious creatures, abnormal, aberrant, and potentially unstable. The repugnance or titillation aroused by composite creatures stems from their ability to rupture normally autonomous categories. Hybrids either represent the fruitful violation of the natural laws segregating species (species are interbreeding groups reproductively isolated from other groups), or they blur together the three kingdoms of nature (humans, animals, and plants), or, more disturbing still, hybrids confuse the distinction between the productions of humans and the productions of nature. Like the Minotaur, born from the unholy lust of a woman for a bull, hybrids represent human fears of disorganisation arising from unnatural and unlawful mixture.

From ancient times, composite animals have been the stuff of myths and travellers’ legends. Hybrid creatures were part of an alternate reality, distant in time or space and, therefore, were symbols of all that was foreign, fearsome, or mythical. Some creatures possessed unnatural abilities like Pegasus, the flying horse, or Griffins, flying lions with the heads and wings of eagles. Some creatures were malevolent and enjoyed intoxicating powers over unwary humans with the misfortune to encounter them. With the head of a woman and the body of a bird, Sirens lured sailors to their deaths on the rocky shore of their island with the irresistible charm of their voices. Others like mermaids and fur-bearing fish were exotic but not inherently dangerous. Some creatures were simply outlandish. The Barnacle goose was thought to grow from a tree, and the Tartary or vegetable Lamb grew from a small shrub to which it was attached by the navel. Its meat apparently tasted of fish and its blood of honey.

lamb.jpg
image: the Tartary Lamb from Sir Hans Sloane's enormous collection of natural artefacts.  Sloane's collection was donated to the state and eventually became the British Museum, from which the Natural History Museum eventually splintered off.  The image, as you can read, is taken from the website of the Natural History Museum in London. 

While mutant forms do regularly occur in the natural world, fraudulent animals are human creations.

Wednesday
May182011

Artist: Kate Clark

Talk about unsettling ... these sculptures by Kate Clark are some of the eeriest things I've seen in a while. 

Despite the perfect blurring of human face and animal body, these creatures don't seem to have been born this way. Rather, they have the air of humans transformed with the poetic intensity of an ancient Greek metamorphosis.  They exude a distinct philosophical acceptance, a long suffering wistfulness, a calmness that seems hard won after the panic of entrapment has at last subsided.

But then, when reading the stories of Ovid's Metamorphoses or any such tale of transformation, I've always wondered about what it must feel like to realise you have forever become a spider, a bay laurel, or a stream. The finality of a life lost but not finished and the claustrophobic horror of becoming a voiceless tree or rock or a stag.  In makes me think of the anguished thrashing of Wikus van der Merwe in the South African alien film District 9 once he realises that, slowly but surely, he is becoming an alien.  But panic can't last forever.  Evenutally acceptance comes, and a new, ghostly life of the forever transformed begins.

Monday
Nov152010

Cai's wolves: Taxidermy or not? 

A reader named Ash recently posted a great question about the waves of wolves in Cai Guo Qiang's "Head On":  "I wrote about this and his tiger works for my dissertation. Cai has a background in theatre prop making, apparently these 'wolves' are made from sheep skins. This wolf in sheep's clothing tickled me greatly!  Question: knowing this, does it still count as taxidermy?"

Great question Ash! As I've argued here, there, and elsewhere, taxidermy is a lively presentation of animal form.  Sewing bits and pieces of animals together is not taxidermy. (Leather shoes are not taxidermy.)  In my opinion, to be considered as taxidermy, the mount must convey some degree of animal charisma, some sense of a holding together of animal form - basically some notion of liveliness. (A mink stole with head and paws still attached is not taxidermy.)  In which case, yes - the wolves in sheep's clothing are still taxidermy ... but with a twist.
There are lots of example of contemporary artists who are putting together bits and pieces of different animals.  Perhaps the most famous is Thomas Grunfeld and his strange Misfit series.  Mark Dion also created a polar bear using goat skins in his 1995 piece, "Ursus maritimus." Both these artists use taxidermy and animal form to provoke thought and to warn about human uses and abuses of nature, that is, the combination of animal parts is not without moral message: viewers are meant to read through and between the animal stitches.
Dion is the more articulate of the two.  After all, polar bears are THE icons of global warming.  Interestingly, if there was a living icon of human environmental folly, (as opposed to the dead dodo or other extinct species), goats would probably be it.  As Europeans sailed around exploring the world, they often introduced goats and pigs onto island with the idea that the animals would reproduce, providing good eating the next time the sailors came back that way.  Of course the goats proliferated, often doing severe harm to local species.  Such introduced goats are considered such pests, and -- rather shockingly, I think -- they are frequently exterminated wholesale, often gunned down by men in helicopter, all in an effort to save the indigenous species.  What happened on the Galapagos Islands is an interesting example read here +.  In other words, polar bears are everything we are trying to save - goats are a dime a dozen.
But I digress... Dion's "Ursus maritimus" and Cai Guo Qiang's "Head On" are both still taxidermy - a lively representation of animal form using a genuine skin of an animal. Of course animal form mixed with human ideology, but then, all taxidermy is.  There is no escaping the fact that taxidermy is always as much a representation of animal form as it is a presentation of animals. 
Tuesday
Oct212008

North Woods Chimera

3vv-head-smalles.jpgAccording to Homer, the Chimera from ancient Greek legend had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a serpent for a tail. The fire-breathing monster was said to have terrorized the Lycians of Asia Minor before being slain by Bellerophon.

In contemporary usage, the word chimera has lost its ferocity and refers to a mere illusion, an unrealistic fancy, a wild fabrication of the mind. The scientific meaning, however, highlights the ancient beast's genetic fusion: a chimera incorporates the genomes of more than one organism. For example, a bough from a peach tree graphed onto the stalk of a plum tree could be termed a chimera if both peaches and plums flourished on their separate limbs.

Sarina Brewer's North Woods Chimera is rather more provocative: three vulture heads sprouting from the body of a cat. Using only roadkill, donations from veterinarians, discarded livestock, and other already deceased animals, Brewer views her work as a form of resurrection by endowing carcasses and animal remains with a new life and a disturbing beauty. Co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists along with Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury, Brewer aims to expand the imaginative possibilities of taxidermy by manipulating and transgressing the limits of the natural world. "I call it art," Brewer states, "you can call it whatever you want."

go to Brewer's website +

Tuesday
Oct212008

Life can be so nice

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of taxidermy that makes new - and often woebegone - creaturesfrom the parts of other animals. I think much of such combinatory art uses animals as mere raw materials, manhandledfor shock effect or to manifest thedark depths of the human imagination. Perhaps this is just not my personaltaste (I am hardly a fan of ghoulish aesthetics), but I think a certain respect is always due to the dead, animals included. Of course, it could be argued that kittens wearing dresses or post-suicidal squirrels are equally disrespectful, misusing animals for humorous effect, yet at least these beastsare whole, recognisable, and retain their organic integrity. But of course, with taxidermy everything is open fordebate.

Having saidthat, I must admit I find Iris Shieferstein's series "Life can be so nice" immensely compelling. Little pigs, snakes, birds, and other small animals are combined into new species and posed to spell outa refrain fromthe Prince song "Life can be so nice."Prince's lyrics are unambiguously blissful: "Kisses never lie when delivered / with milk from your lips / Morning glories never cry / My love for you baby drips / Life can be so nice / It's a wonderful world, sweet paradise / Kiss me once, kiss me twice / Life can be so nice, so nice / Life can be so nice." Transmuted in animal flesh by Sheiferstein, the refrain becomes something different, not darker or sadder exactly, but filled with a searing sort of reality, a haunting enigmatic truth.

All taxidermy renders animals immortal, and by that immortality they exist apart from us while still physically lurking in this world. Shieferstein's "Life can be so nice" wouldn't be the same if she had spelled theletters with "real" animals. There is something extra that is conveyed by the fact that these are dream beasts, immortal dream beasts, which literally spell out a yearning for a simple paradise on earth.

Photographs by Stehpan Rabold. 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Oct212008

Grunfeld's Misfits

Thomas Grünfeld's anomalous creations are some of the strangest and most surreal of contemporary taxidermy. The creatures from his appropriately titled Misfit series are composed of bits and pieces of animals, all flawlessly sewn together to create entirely new species: a doberman pincher with a calf's head, a beast combining monkey and parrot, another creature, part mule, part giraffe, part ostrich.

The sixteenth-century mathematician Girolamo Cardono claimed that the only way to tell a genuine mermaid from a fake was examine its joints: a fake would inevitably have a seam betweenthe monkey top and fish bottom. But there are no visible seams on Grünfeld'smisfits. The beasts are as incredible and implausible as mermaids, and their most implausible attribute is their organicism - the sense that these wildly mismatched animal parts coalesce with an organic harmony. The Misfits could have seemed jerry-rigged together. They could have looked piecemeal and man-made (which of course they are) but instead the structural integrity of their parts convey a sense that these beasts are anatomically plausible, that they could actually exist, that they could actually function.

The Misfits are reminiscent of early natural histories in which strange and unfamiliar animals were described according to the bits and pieces of well known creatures. For example, the camelopard, now known as the giraffe, was described having the height and neck of a camel, the head of a stag although somewhat smaller, the teeth and feet of an ox, and a leopard's spots. The armadillo was a pig with a turtle's shell, and the sloth, part bear, part ape. The platypus displayed complete anatomical confusion, seeming to "possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird, and a quadraped" as Thomas Bewick wrote in 1824. On inspecting the skin of a platypus for the first time in 1802, George Shaw, director of the British Museum, observed that it appeared to have "the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped." Such a hybrid animal seemed too strange to be true, and Shaw claimed that "it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been some arts of deception in its structure." In fact the specimen Shaw examined still bears the marks from his efforts to prise the beak off. As Shaw highlights, it is only a small step from describing animals as if they were composite to actually making a new species.

Thursday
Jul312008

Life can be so nice

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of taxidermy that makes new - and often woebegone - creatures from the parts of other animals.  I think much of such combinatory art uses animals as mere raw materials, manhandled for shock effect or to manifest the dark depths of the human imagination.  Perhaps this is just not my personal taste (I am hardly a fan of ghoulish aesthetics), but I think a certain respect is always due to the dead, animals included.  Of course, it could be argued that kittens wearing dresses or post-suicidal squirrels are equally disrespectful, misusing animals for humorous effect, yet at least these beasts are whole, recognisable, and retain their organic integrity.  But of course, with taxidermy everything is open for debate. 

Having said that, I must admit I find Iris Shieferstein's series "Life can be so nice" immensely compelling.  Little pigs, snakes, birds, and other small animals are combined into new species and posed to spell out a refrain from the Prince song "Life can be so nice."  Prince's lyrics are unambiguously blissful: "Kisses never lie when delivered / with milk from your lips / Morning glories never cry / My love for you baby drips / Life can be so nice / It's a wonderful world, sweet paradise / Kiss me once, kiss me twice / Life can be so nice, so nice / Life can be so nice."  Transmuted in animal flesh by Sheiferstein, the refrain becomes something different, not darker or sadder exactly, but filled with a searing sort of reality, a haunting enigmatic truth.  

All taxidermy renders animals immortal, and by that immortality they exist apart from us while still physically lurking in this world. Shieferstein's "Life can be so nice" wouldn't be the same if she had spelled the letters with "real" animals.  There is something extra that is conveyed by the fact that these are dream beasts, immortal dream beasts, which literally spell out a yearning for a simple paradise on earth.

Photographs by Stehpan Rabold.


Saturday
Jul192008

wind-up baby crocodile

Taxidermist & sculptor Lisa Black combines taxidermy with working gears and other mechanical contraptions including, yes, a wind-up baby crocodile. You tell me what to think of this because, really, I've got no idea where to begin.

See more of her work here +

lisa_black_croc1.jpg

 

lisa_black_croc2.jpg

lisa_black_croc3.jpg

 

Thursday
Jul172008

Iris Shieferstein

Iris_shieferstein.jpgCheck out John Bland's short 2008 film "Life can be so nice" on Iris Shieferstein, a German artist who works with dead animals.  Joining the fragments together to create new creatures Shieferstein's pieces are hauting commentaries on beauty, necessity, life, sexuality, and death.  A bit ghoulish at times, but intensely compelling. "The earlier you die - the longer you are dead."

Watch the film here: http://www.oneeyedmonster.tv/content/issues/issue1/movies/IrisSchieferstein/LifeCanBeSoNice.html

Click here for Shieferstein's website: http://www.iris-schieferstein.de/ (in English and German)

Friday
May092008

On the Art of Mermaids

If you've ever wondered about mermaids, this is the article for you.  Takeshi Yamada's "On the Art of Mermaids" is available online.  And Yamada knows his stuff: he wins awards for his mermaids.  Here he is with his 6 foot long Fiji Mermaid at the opening reception of the 9th Annual Mermaid Show at the Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn.

mermaids_taxidermy.jpg

Read Yamada's mermaid article here +

Read a biography of Yamada and a small gallery of his images here +

Monday
May212007

Robert Marbury's Urban Beast Project

mephisto1.jpgKnown as a vegan taxidermist, Robert Marbury documents the existence of little known wild and feral plush animals inhabiting our urban environments.  With tongue firmly in cheek, through his Urban Beast Project, Marbury hopes to garner attention and general concern for the plight of such strange creatures.  As he describes on his webpage: while most of the Urban Beasts exhibited on his site "have met the end of their species, it is our hope that with exposure and attention many other Beasts will be saved."

This little brown beast is the lesser Yeti or Mestipho.  "Mephisto has the identifying reddish-black hair covering his body and during his liftime his odor was almost unbearable to a new acquaintance." Despite his insane snarl, Mestipho is a gentle soul, a strict vegetarian, and severely endangered.

Check out all the other creatures: http://www.urbanbeast.com/beasts/.html

 

Sunday
Apr222007

Wolpertingers and Skvaders

Not to be outdone by America's Jackalope, both Germany and Sweden have their own rabbit concoctions: the Wolpertinger and the Skvader.  In fact, both creatures have much longer histories.  Sweden's Skvader originated in Hakan Dahlmark's tall hunting tale over what was probably a very boozy dinner.  Dahlmark claimed that he had shot an animal in 1874 which had the legs of a hare and the back, wings, and tail of a female wood grouse.  The story must have become legendary as Dahlmark's housekeeper gave him a painting of his beast for his birthday several years later.  Dahlmark later donated the painting to his local museum in Norra Berget in Sundsvall.  The painting inspired the curator to ask a taxidermist named Rudolf Granberg to construct the beast, which has been on display since 1918.

The Wolpertinger is commonly sighted in the alpine forests of Bavaria in Germany, and stuffed Wolpertingers are frequently sold as souvenirs to tourists.  With both horns and wings, the Wolpertinger combines the best of jackalopes and skvaders.

wolpertinger-painting.jpg

 

 

Saturday
Mar312007

Thomas Grünfeld's Misfits

Thomas_grunfeldThomas Grünfeld's anomalous creations are some of the strangest and most surreal of contemporary taxidermy. The creatures from his appropriately titled Misfit series are composed of bits and pieces of animals, all flawlessly sewn together to create entirely new species: a doberman pincher with a calf's head, a beast combining monkey and parrot, another creature, part mule, part giraffe, part ostrich.

The sixteenth-century mathematician Girolamo Cardono claimed that the only way to tell a genuine mermaid from a fake was examine its joints: a fake would inevitably have a seam between the monkey top and fish bottom. But there are no visible seams on Grünfeld’s misfits. The beasts are as incredible and implausible as mermaids, and their most implausible attribute is their organicism – the sense that these wildly mismatched animal parts coalesce with an organic harmony. The Misfits could have seemed jerry-rigged together. They could have looked piecemeal and man-made (which of course they are) but instead the structural integrity of their parts convey a sense that these beasts are anatomically plausible, that they could actually exist, that they could actually function.

The Misfits are reminiscent of early natural histories in which strange and unfamiliar animals were described according to the bits and pieces of well known creatures. For example, the camelopard, now known as the giraffe, was described having the height and neck of a camel, the head of a stag although somewhat smaller, the teeth and feet of an ox, and a leopard’s spots. The armadillo was a pig with a turtle’s shell, and the sloth, part bear, part ape. The platypus displayed complete anatomical confusion, seeming to “possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird, and a quadraped” as Thomas Bewick wrote in 1824. On inspecting the skin of a platypus for the first time in 1802, George Shaw, director of the British Museum, observed that it appeared to have “the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.” Such a hybrid animal seemed too strange to be true, and Shaw claimed that “it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been some arts of deception in its structure.” In fact the specimen Shaw examined still bears the marks from his efforts to prise the beak off. As Shaw highlights, it is only a small step from describing animals as if they were composite to actually making a new species.

Saturday
Mar032007

North-Woods Chimera

3vv-head-smalles.jpg
copyright Sarina Brewer
According to Homer, the Chimera from ancient Greek legend had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a serpent for a tail. The fire-breathing monster was said to have terrorized the Lycians of Asia Minor before being slain by Bellerophon.

In contemporary usage, the word chimera has lost its ferocity and refers to a mere illusion, an unrealistic fancy, a wild fabrication of the mind. The scientific meaning, however, highlights the ancient beast’s genetic fusion: a chimera incorporates the genomes of more than one organism. For example, a bough from a peach tree graphed onto the stalk of a plum tree could be termed a chimera if both peaches and plums flourished on their separate limbs.

Sarina Brewer’s North Woods Chimera is rather more provocative: three vulture heads sprouting from the body of a cat. Using only roadkill, donations from veterinarians, discarded livestock, and other already deceased animals, Brewer views her work as a form of resurrection by endowing carcasses and animal remains with a new life and a disturbing beauty. Co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists along with Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury, Brewer aims to expand the imaginative possibilities of taxidermy by manipulating and transgressing the limits of the natural world. "I call it art,” Brewer states, “you can call it whatever you want."  go to Brewer's website +

Tuesday
Feb202007

Ancient Gorgades

When travelling in distant lands, it is always advisable to bring back some part of a hairy man-like creature to prove that a) you did travel beyond the horizon into strange lands teeming with strange creatures and b) that you did indeed see the hairy evidence that man and animal are only ever separated by a razor.  The first written document of the tradition is the 18 lines scratched in stone temple to the chief god of Carthage, Ba’al Hammon.

In the 5th century, Hanno was ordered to sail west from Carthage with 30,000 men and women in 60 boats each with 50 oars to establish colonies beyond the Pillars of Heracles as the Straights of Gibraltar were known. Having accomplished his task, Hanno then turned his boats south and sailed down along the western coastline of African.

On an island of the coast of present day Gabon lived a hairy tribe of savages, which his interpreters called “Gorillae.” Hanno and his men were unable to ensnare any of the “men” savages, but succeeded in capturing three fierce and furious females, who bit and scratched and refused to come on board. “So we killed and flayed them,” Hanno relates, “and brought their skins to Carthage.  For we did not voyage further, provisions failing us.” So ends Hanno’s narrative. [read more on Hanno's voyage +]

The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder writing five centuries later noted the gorilla furs had been exhibited in the temple of the goddess Juno "to prove his story and as a curious exhibit." They remained on show until Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in146 B.C. Pliny refers to the creatures as Gorgons and the group of islands they came from as called the Gorgades.

Wednesday
Feb142007

Update on the Fur-bearing Trout

The furry-bearing trout has a long Canadian history.  It was apparently first sighted by Scottish immigrants to Eastern Canada in the seventeenth century.  With further research, the geography of the furry fish was extended to include Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.  As Alex Boese notes, a few theories have been suggested to explain the rare phenomena: evolution or human-made disaster. 

On the natural side, some say that the chilly lake fish spontaneously developed its luxurious coat to cope with the severe northern winters.  On the more cataclysmic side, the fish hair is said to have resulted from the accidental spillage of four jugs of hair tonic in the Arkansas River in Colorado at some point in the 1870s.  http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/tall-tales/trout-fish.html

fur-bearing-trout
image: fur bearing trout made from rabbit fur and trout from
the National Museums of Scotland. 

The National Museum of Scotland has a rather fine example of the elusive fur-bearing trout.  According to Dr. Geoff Swinney - curator of lower vertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles - a woman arrived at the museum with a furry fish she'd bought in Canada as a souvenir of her trip.  Whether her vacation had been during the winter or summer months is lost to time, but the rather gullible Scottish traveller had been told that indeed Canadian winters were so impossibly cold that even fish needed fur to survive.  The story seems far fetched: indeed Canadian winters are painfully cold, but Scottish winters aren't exactly balmy either. When the museum's staff poo-pooed her creature, she left it behind, and the poor hybrid soul was eventually tossed.

 

However, when Peter Dance's book was published on animal fakes, visitors began asking for the fish.  And so, in a strange turn of events, the museum's taxidermist made a new one - pictured above. 

Image taken from an article posted on Scotsman.com.


star.jpg

Sunday
Feb112007

Waterton's Hallucuinations

During Charles Waterton’s fourth and final journey through the jungles of Guyana to collect strange and rare specimens, Waterton stumbled upon and procured a great hairy monkey-like animal with a long tail. Being too large to carry whole, Waterton cut off the head and shoulders, preserved them with his superior taxidermy techniques, and brought his “Nondescript” back to England for public display. With his affably affected public schoolboy humour, Waterton proclaim his monkey-thing to be a new species – quite without precedent – and yet, something about “his face and head cause the inspector to pause for a moment, before he ventures to pronounce his opinion of the classification.” That something is its likeness to a human face:

“The features of this animal are quite of the Grecian cast; and he has a placidity of countenance which shows that things went well with him when in life. Some gentlemen of great skill and talent, on inspecting his head, were convinced that the whole series of its features has been changed. Others again have hesitated, and betrayed doubts, not being able to make up their minds, whether it be possible, that the brute features of the monkey can be changed into the noble countenance of man.”

Waterton’s ruse, however, was not to earn praise for his “discovery” a new species, but to laud his prowess at preparing specimens. The confusion and uncertainty that Waterton claims his Nondescript provoked was a sign of his complete mastery of taxidermic preparation so as “to hit the character of an animal to a very great nicety, even to the preservation of the pouting lip, dimples, warts, and wrinkles on the face.”

Waterton offers the possibility that this bust of a monkey-man could indeed be a real creature, although should anyone succeed in bring home another specimen with "features as prefect" as Waterton's specimen, that adventurer would indeed be a modern day Hercules fully entitled to register a thirteenth labour. "Now if, on the other hand, we argue," Waterton continues, "that his head in question has had all its original features destroyed, and a set of new ones given to it, by what means has this hitherto unheard-of-charge been effected?"

Although Charles Waterton was one of the most skilful taxidermists of his age (his superb specimens of birds and animals have remained pristine to this day), his reputation as a serious naturalist has been tarnished by such disturbing ability to combine and mould parts of nature into hallucinations.

His creatures were satirical monstrosities crafted from bits and pieces of animals: his aim was not to fool the viewer into believing they were observing a work of nature but rather to make present his opinion on institutional corruption and religious perversion (Waterton was a Catholic living in a predominately Protestant country).

Among his fraudulent creatures is an orangutan adorned with donkey’s ears called “Martin Luther” and the more poetically titled “Noctifer, or the Spirit of the Dark Ages, unknown in England before the Reformation” was crafted from the head of an eagle owl, the legs of a bittern, and the wings of a partridge. Even more elaborate was his tableau labelled as “John Bull and the National Debt,” which included a porcupine with a human face and tortoise shell surrounded by menacing lizards and serpents.

Interestingly, Wanderings, Waterton’s spirited travel diary, with the Nondescript as a frontspiece was published just eight years after Mary Shelley’s notorious literary hallucination, Frankenstein. The process of taxidermy always borders on resurrection by breathing life into corpses and endowing them with a quasi-immortality. It is hard not to compare Waterton’s taxidermy Dr. Frankenstein’s own creative process. Both had a comprehensive knowledge of nature. Both attempted to usurp her generative powers in order to create new creatures and new life.

Tuesday
Jan232007

Hairy Fish

fur-fish.jpgProf. Burnaby Q. Orbax's virtual Museum of Natural and Unnatural Curiosities displays a fearsome array of goulish oddities of which this fur-bearing trout is among the most palatable.  For those with stronger sensibilities, Orbax offers cyclope kitten fetus, the skeleton of alligator boy (what are those holes in its skull?), and an assortment of human remains.  Orbax's motto - "fixing god's mistakes since 2003" - says it all. 

According to his website, the fur-bearing trout "is native only to the most Northern parts of Canada and the United States, where the cold water currents require the fish to grow a peach-like fuzz around areas of their body with little blood circulation. These furry coats 'molt' prior to the spring thaw, and therefore spotting a furred trout is a rare occurence. This specimen was caught by an ice fisherman in Gaspe."

http://www.fiendishcuriosities.com/index.php

Thursday
Jan182007

Feejee Mermaid

Before exhibiting his infamous Feejee Mermaid in 1842, P.T. Barnum created quite a media frenzy by distributing flyers and writing letters to newspapers that claimed a certain "Dr. Griffin, agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London" will be traveling through New York with a "veritable mermaid taken among the Feejee Islands." In reality "Dr. Griffin" was Barnum's friend Levi Lyman and the "veritable mermaid" was nothing more outlandish than the upper torso of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish.  The mermaid had been borrowed from Moses Kimball, the owner of the Boston Museum.

The Mermaid rapidly became one of Barnum's biggest attractions during his first year of business, helping him to treble his monthly profits. Merging the worlds of science and entertainment, Barnum challenged his audience to tell the fact from the fraud. His sideshow capitalised on the idea that there is as much pleasure in being deceived knowingly by a hoax as in spotting the fake and figuring out how it was made. The audience became the experts, testing their knowledge or trying their gullibility, but always enjoying the experience.

 

Friday
Nov032006

Jackalopes

The jackalope was born in the 1930s when two teenage brothers, Douglas and Ralph Herrick, returned home from a successful hunt and tossed a dead rabbit next to a pair of antlers: the accidental pairing immediately sparked Douglas' creative imagination. The brothers had studied taxidermy by mail order, and Douglas set to work to create his legend: a cross between a pronghorn antelope and a jackrabbit.

The jackalope has since become a totem of the Old West and American tourist kitsch, and Douglas, Wyoming - Herrick brothers' hometown - has become a shrine of the elusive creature. An eight foot statue of jackalope stands in the Jackalope Square in the center of Douglas and a 13-foot jackalope cutout was erected on a local hillside. The Douglas Chamber of Commerce has issued thousands of jackalope hunting licenses despite regulations stipulating that hunting can only occur on June 31st between midnight and hunter must have an IQ lower than 72.

While the jackalope has a solid place in American cultural history, the horned hare (Lepus cornutus in Latin) has a much longer history in European natural history. The earliest reference to the horned hare dates back to the early sixteenth century, and the first depiction is perhaps the illustraion in Joris Hoefnagel's Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia from the late 1570's.

Jackloupe.jpg
image: from the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC. See more details

Other early examples of the Lepus cornutus include an image in 1606 edition of Conrad Gesner's Thierbuch (a German version of the first book his Historia Animalium by Konrad Forer, first published in 1563) and P. Gaspar Schott's Physica Curiosa published in 1667, the frontspiece of which includes a tiny horned hair in the corner.
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image: Frontispiece of P. Gasparis Schott's Physica Curiosa, Sive Mirabilia Naturae et Artis Libris, 1667

 

The fantastic images in Physica Curiosa include such prodigies and marvels as centaurs, winged men, and a rooster with a serpent's tail, which might lead modern readers to believe that the horned hare is just another product of a naturalist's fertile imaginations or gullibility. However the horned hare is more than a tall tale.

The growth of tumors in the shape of horns or antlers is a common rabbit disease called papillomatosis caused by an agent called the Shope papillomavirus, a similar virus which causes human warts. The disease is most common in the Midwest and Great Plains states in the United States of America, where - some speculate - the disease perhaps originated and spread back to Europe with the first explorers, which may explain why Lepus cornutus is absent in natural history texts before the sixteenth century. Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas has a remarkable taxidermied example of a rabbit severely affected by papillomatosis, pictured below. The image was taken from Chuck Holliday's excellent website on jackalope mythology and the disease which perhaps gave rise to the myth of the horned hare [read more +]

 

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