Photo: Anthony Cheung.
On the white floor of the gallery, a lioness is sleeping, her head resting on her crossed paws, her ears softly turned downwards. She is relaxed, at peace, without worry. But there is only half of her, the front half, beautifully taxidermied, which disappears into globules of gold arcing away from her middle section. The work is a collaborative creation by the Dutch artists Afke Golsteijn, Ruben Taneja and Floris Bakker and is evocatively entitled Ophelia after the tragic heroine of William Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The presence of a real animal in a gallery space, especially half an animal, is disconcerting to say the least. If the lioness wasn't so flawlessly taxidermied and so gently posed, and if she wasn't accompanied by the lumps of gold, Ophelia would seem better assigned to "road kill" than "art." But the visual appeal of the work lulls viewers, and the lioness's almost-human pose almost allows us to imagine ourselves in her position. Hiding the seams hides the violence inherent in taxidermy.
Despite the rawness of the work, its meaning hardly seems confined to its materials. Lion: dun-coloured predatorial mammal native to the African savannahs and Indian forests. Gold: atomic number 79, soft, shiny, yellow, malleable, dissolved by mercury. Rather, Ophelia seems to exist somewhere between its concrete presence and its allegorical significance: t he lioness and the gold, the queen of beasts, the king of metals and money.
The work offers a vision of a world where fantasy and reality merge into infinite possibilities, uncertainty, and wonder. Is the lioness liquefying or coalescing? Has she fallen under some enchantment or is she dreaming herself into existence? Or is this an alchemical vision of matter being transformed into the highest and purest of elements, or a more sinister symbol of humans' transformation of nature's vitality into capital? Is this aesthetic hedonism or brutality? The work brings to mind Stephen Greenblatt's description of wonder as "the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention." A wonder isn't a wonder until it completely bewilders our expectations. A wonder enthralls us with its strangeness. It's magnetic, magically charismatic, and altogether spellbinding. Yet, while a wonder may transport us out of ourselves by evoking strange and unnatural imagining, a wonder always draws us back - binds us so to speak - to its very real, very concrete presence.
In writing about their work, the artists draw attention to the frailty of the line dividing observed reality and poetic imagination. Combining their talents with glass, metal, embroidery, and taxidermy, the artists decorate and adorn real animals, transfiguring them from regular creatures - rabbits, hedgehogs, swans, birds, mice - into the tragic heroes of contemporary fairy tales. "The basic idea is that various stuffed animals undergo a transformation. It is difficult not to think about death when looking at stuffed animals, but in this case, the morbid is transformed into something beautiful." In one work the ears of a rabbit, its head mounted on a wall as a traditional hunting trophy, are embroidered with intricate looping flowers. In another, a small hedgehog has been soldered on the antique frame of a child's wheeled toy. Sewing pins blend in with its own quills. The works oscillate between brutality and beauty, melancholy and wonder. Ultimately viewers are left to make meaning of the pieces from their own reservoir of images.