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My book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing!

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Taxidermy Artists

In recent decades, taxidermy and other preserved animal parts have begun to appear in a surprising amount of contemporary art.  Taxidermy has become a potent medium to discuss a variety of pressing issues: the contours of the line between humans and other animals, questions about conservation and species loss, and more basically to provoke deeply enigmatic encounters with the natural world.  The thing is recognised as an animal, but the nature of the encounter is less clear. 

 

 

Tuesday
Jun262012

Steve the Stuffer

Thanks to Vern Cummins and Jamie Gallant for sending me their documentary video of Steve Massam, chief taxidermist at the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust in Stanley. As Cummins and Gallant write, Massam "sees his work as a means to bring about awareness and understanding of the plight of animal species in this part of the world. If there was one animal he’d have liked to work on that he hasn’t, it would have been a Bee Hummingbird, but his eyesight, he feels is past it now." 

See more here: http://51degreessouth.com/no1-steve-the-stuffer/

Wednesday
Jul062011

Where's Chloe?

Ok ... more old stuff.  I've just come across this piece from 1994 by Nina Katchadourian.  As you can see, it involves a stuffed lapdog on a pillow, but the story of the piece is what counts.

"A group of artists were invited to make sited works at the San Diego Museum of Natural History as part of inSITE '94. I kept coming back to the animal dioramas as my primary point of interest, because they seemed so full of paradoxes: the animals were shown "in the natural habitat," but the viewer always came unnaturally close to them; they were made of their real skins, but at the same time, they seemed dead and artificial. To me, pets have always presented interesting questions around the natural and the unnatural, I found myself wondering if people ever preserved domestic animals this way. It turned out that people did, and I found a taxidermist in the San Diego area who sometimes stuffed people's pets. Through her, I arranged to borrow Chloe, a Papillion lap dog, who belonged from an older woman who lived in Palm Springs (Chloe was at the taxidermist's for some cleaning and touch up). I interviewed Chloe's owner on the phone about Chloe's natural habitat: a house with a cream-colored carpet, a special pillow, and a peach-colored towel that Chloe slept on. I proposed setting up Chloe in the same manner as the other animals in the Natural History Museum: presented in a vitrine, with signage indicating Latin name, habitat, etc. The museum, however, refused to exhibit the piece, stating that it was offensive, and that people would find the situation confusing and that children might get upset. I pointed out that Chloe was genetically very much like the Coyote who lived in a nearby diorama, and that the Coyote didn't seem to upset or confuse anyone too much, but to no avail. The piece was booted out of the show. I was allowed to place the vitrine in the museum, sans, Chloe, and Chloe was displayed at a local gallery instead with the anecdote of how she came to be there."

And here's the picture of the display sans Chloe -- the vitrine in the middle with a bio on the pillow rather than Chloe. For more visit: http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/confusinganimals/chloe.php

Wednesday
Jul062011

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On 

I've just come across this great article on Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On which discusses the piece within the various museums it has been displayed, in particular the National Museum of Singapore and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. http://opencontours.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/terror-and-beauty/

 

Friday
Jun242011

Interview with Iris Schieferstein 

Check out Iris Schierferstein's latest interview about here work in Obsession in Vogue here: http://obsession-in-vogue.blogspot.com/2011/06/interview-with-iris-schieferstein.html

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.

Saturday
Apr092011

Fantastic Mr. Fox 

Claire Morgan's Fantastic Mr Fox is taxidermied and poised among a perfect cube of nylon and fishing hook-suspended, lead-weighted pieces of torn black polythene… and rotted rabbit meat.

 

Tuesday
Mar012011

Betty Spackman

Not officially taxidermy, but if you happen to be in and around the Lower Mainland area of Vancouver, check out Betty Spackman's exhibit "Found Wanting." I haven't seen the show myself, but it consists of 43 forty relic boxes filled with animal bones variously found or given to the artist.  The animals on exhibit are mainly domestic animals that are consumed as meat or tranformed into other "useful" products for human use.  The exhibit is meant to offer both a reality check and a lament for human ingratitude towards the animal world, the misuse of animals, and the human greed for ever more.

The exhibit is on until March 27th, 2011 at The Reach - the gallery museum in Abbotsford.  For more information visit http://www.thereach.ca/exhibitions/currentexhibitions.html

Tuesday
Nov302010

Z is for Zebra

On now at the King Street Gallery in Syndey until December 11th is Rod McRae's exhibition "The Heart of the Matter," which explores the human impact on the animal world.  Using only animals which have died naturally or were ethically sourced, McRae's exhibition addresses a number of issues in condensed taxidermic form including hunting culture and the meat industry.

''This is not a show about taxidermy, this is a show that uses taxidermy specimens to talk about the environment … for people to have empathy for the animals so that they feel something for them - a sculpture in bronze doesn't pull at the heart strings like animals do,'' McRae said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. Read article here +  See more images on the gallery page here +   

Tuesday
Nov232010

Maurizio Cattelan's cat cage

This just sent in from a reader.  See a few close-ups here + Thanks Eric! 

 

 

Tuesday
Nov162010

Tom Schmelzer, Darwin, and the Church

Take a gander at Tom Schmelzer's fabulously eccentric 2009 installation, "Homo Bulla, or the sacred baboon" composed from baboon, carpet, bishop's ring and miter, and a bubble machine.  The piece is a reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury's apology to Charles Darwin on the 200th anniversary of his birthday, September 14th, 2008:  "Charles Darwin, 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still."   See more of Schmelzer's work at http://www.tomschmelzer.com/

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. 
Monday
Mar222010

Joseph Cavalieri's Two-Headed Swallows

 

See more of Cavalieri's work here + http://cavaglass.com/gallery/1.SCULPTUREelizA.htm

Thursday
Jan142010

A Few Words on Tinkebell

Tinkebell, the Dutch performance artist best known for killing her own cat and making it into a handbag (below) and a reversible cat-dog purse known as the popple presented an exhibition of her work at Torch Gallery in Amsterdam late last year. 

  

The Torch gallery offers this analysis of TINKEBELL's work:

"TINKEBELL. provokes by exemplifying the blind spots of modern society. She confronts a public that revels in being indignant about everything that has nothing to do with them, but at the same time is very apologetic about their own actions. She questions why millions of male chicks are brutally killed every day (often by throwing them against the walls of a barn) but she gets arrested for threatening to do the same in public. Why are people who openly discuss the lowering of the sexual age of consent treated as vile pedophiles, but are 'barely 18' websites intensely popular? By turning her own cat into a handbag she tries to show people their own hypocrisy about the use of animals for consumption and leather production. If anything, her works form a extreme incentive for the discussion of our morals and the way society is developing." 

 

Any thoughts from readers?  What do you think of that reddish fox-like thing being dragged down the street outside Cartier? Is she actually challenging hidden beliefs?  Or are her goulish aesthetics too strong to provoke any thought beyond, "eww .. gross?"

Friday
Dec112009

Alex Randall's Rat Swarm

A few unusual pieces from Alex Randall collection of taxidermy and lighting fixtures.  Above "Rat Swarm" with twenty-seven taxidermied rats swarming together into a rat pillar in order to reach the globe of light.  Below is "Duck Desk Lamp."  Check out more at http://www.alexrandall.co.uk/

Friday
Aug282009

Artist Julia deVille

Some work from Julia deVille, a New Zealand born, Australian based artist.

 

  

 

Check out more of her work and her highly impressive website here: http://www.discemori.com/

Monday
Jul132009

once again ... 

sigh... once again I have received comments about how I'm sick, disgusting, and morally reprehensible.  (For the last one: http://www.ravishingbeasts.com/what-to-think/2008/10/21/what-do-you-think.html

Here are the latest comments posted in my Guest Book on July 7th, 2009:

From Steve: "Wow, I thought my uncle Bob was twisted with his moose head perched on the wall of his office. This goes far beyond that. You really should think about using things that haven't died for such a useless reason. Ouch." 

And from Linda: "You use dead animals to create art? You're really quite sick. I'm sure many if not all of these animals are kills for this purpose which makes you quite disgusting....as is your art."

I must presume that Steve and Linda are friends since they both posted their comments on the same day.  Friends in outrage, but also friends in vagueness.  What is it that got them going? Steve's "this" is a vague reference, which does nothing except highlight the perils of starting sentences with nebulous pronouns. 

Steve, if you happen to read this, can you let me know what it is that is so twisted?  As those readers know who have actually read through ravishingbeasts, this site is dedicated to all things taxidermy, both past and present, from sixteenth-century cabinets of wonder to contemporary art.  In other words, a pretty wide range of stuff.  Perhaps, Steve's "this" is the entire ravishingbeasts.  Fair enough.  I don't presume everyone will like my site, and I am always open to a lively debate about hot topics.  Taxidermy is challenging.  Some contemporary art is offensive.  But we can't have a debate if I don't know what offends.  So, Steve and Linda, can you let me know?

But please, please readers ... read through the site before you get on your high horse.  I do not create any of the posted art myself.  I am not an artist.  I have never myself done taxidermy.  Don't go throwing around insults about how my art and I are "quite disgusting" when I make no art. 

Steve & Linda, hoping to hear back from you... 

Wednesday
Mar182009

Raf Veuleman at Strychnin Gallery, Berlin

Belgian taxidermy artist Raf Veulemens is exihibiting his work at the Strychnin Gallery until March 22nd, 2008.  See more of his work here + http://www.strychnin.com/_new/_shop/content.php?kat=5030&sess=3f9ec0ca69100a21e93891245eb7a8f5&ts=1236167178&next=0&page=1

 

Tuesday
Feb102009

Børre Sæthre's Unicorn

Check out this recent installation by Norwegian artist Børre Sæthre. It can be seen at the PS1 in Queens.  The exhibit is a highly immersive experience infuence by an 2001: a space odyssey aesthetic with flashing lights and strange noise and odd visual affects such as the cloudy unicorn - at times the glass is perfectly transparent, at times the glass appears hazy and obscure.

 See a video of the exhibition here http://blip.tv/file/1492267.  The unicorn piece is at the end, around 3:15. 

Tuesday
Oct212008

What do you think?

Yesterday I received this e-mail through my ravishingbeasts account:

I have seen your web page, and I just wanted to say that you and your practice is absolutely disgusting. I do not understand how you can even think this is appropriate at all. You are just as bad as those who look into your services. I see nothing wrong with taxidermy, but you, modifying one animal with a different animal, is completely unethical. How would you feel if you got cut in half, after you were dead, and were sewn together with another half of something else? Pretty fucked up. There are not many things in the world that I am ashamed of, but you are one.

I assume that the writer (who shall remain nameless) thought that I was the creator of some item of fraudulent taxidermy.  Perhaps the work of Iris Shieferstein that caused the outburst of disgust.  Or Thomas Grunfeld's Misfits or maybe even Ophelia by Idiots.  Who can say?  Thank god the writer didn't get a peek at the Popple or who knows what I would have been called. 

 

From "Life Can Be So Nice" by Iris Shieferstein

But despite the writer's misdirected anger (I have never created a single piece of taxidermy) and totally inappropriate language, s/he does raise an issue which is worth raising: how appropriate is the work of contemporary taxidermy artists who combine the parts of animals?  Many artists are in fact using taxidermy to make strong statements for animal rights (for starters, read Angela Singer's interview in Antennae's issue on Botched Taxidermy here +). Personally, I have never been a huge fan of the sort of combinatory works that uses big theory to legitmise its existence [read here+].  At the end of the day, whatever has been said about certain works and however they might be theorised, there are certain emotional and ethical fundamentals that remain.  In the writer's words, "How would you feel if you got cut in half, after you were dead, and were sewn together with another half of something else?"

So that's my question to you, readers: is the work of many contemporary taxidermy artists appropriate or not?  In manipulating real animals into new and sometimes horrifying creatures, has art gone too far?  You tell me.  Check out some of their work here +  Please leave your comments by clicking the *comment* tag above in the headline of this posting.

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.