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The Breathless Zoo:
Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing 

From sixteenth-century cabinets of wonders to contemporary animal art, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing examines the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lively postures. But why would anyone want to preserve an animal, and what is this animal-thing now? I suggest that taxidermy is entwined with the enduring human longing to find meaning with and within the natural world. Her study draws out the longings at the heart of taxidermy—the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance. In so doing, The Breathless Zoo explores the animal spectacles desired by particular communities, human assumptions of superiority, the yearnings for hidden truths within animal form, and the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange human existence, being both within and apart from nature.

  • Release Date: 16/08/2012
  • Dimensions: 8 x 9
  • Page Count: 272 pages
  • Illustrations: 31 color/5 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-05372-1
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    Click below image to purchase.  

    Reviews:

    “I have long been a fan of Rachel Poliquin's otherworldly online museum, www.ravishingbeasts.com, but after reading The Breathless Zoo I know just what she means when she says that all taxidermy, like storytelling, is ‘deeply marked by human longing.’ I am already longing to read The Breathless Zoo again.”

    “With The Breathless Zoo, Rachel Poliquin has made a major contribution to the blossoming field of animal studies. This book is the new benchmark on the place of taxidermy in the social history of art, science, and popular culture. Marvelous, rigorous, and extensively well researched, the work is also refreshingly pleasurable to read. Throughout, Poliquin explores the complex questions around the rich cultural texture of taxidermy. And unlike other works on the topic, The Breathless Zoo examines not only what taxidermy is but also what it means. For those of us engaged in thinking about animals, this is the book on the culture of taxidermy we have long awaited—a book of great innovation that slices through the history of science, blood sports, and art.”

    The Breathless Zoo is an intriguing and poetic meditation on an unlikely subject: stuffed animals in European museums that seem so familiar and so intellectually musty. Rachel Poliquin teases out of them not just a typological order but also a human longing for beauty and wonder, story and allegory. In the dead specimens she finds immortality; in their stasis, movement across the world. The result is a rich panorama of human ideas and desires.”

    The Breathless Zoo is the book that the subject of taxidermy has long deserved. Full of provocative opinions, beautifully expressed, it is a subtle and thoroughly engaging exploration of the difficult question posed by all present-day encounters with taxidermy: ‘What is this animal-thing now?’”

     

    Tuesday
    Feb052013

    Talk at Elliot Bay Books

    If you're in the Seattle area, come here me talk about my book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing this Saturday night (February 9th) at Elliot Bay Books.

    I'll be talking about how I came to write the book that I did, and I'll dabble into a few stories like the taxidermy bonfires and the shrunken skins of man-eating lions.

    Talk begins at 7pm.  Hope to see you there! 

    For more information: http://www.elliottbaybook.com/node/events/current 

    Friday
    Nov162012

    Interview with CBC's Michael Enright 

    Check out my interview with Michael Enright for CBC'sThe Sunday Edition.

    http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/shows/2012/11/16/the-breathless-zoo-by-rachel-poliquin/

    Friday
    Sep282012

    Breathless Zoo reviewed by the Los Angeles Review of Books

    The Los Angeles Review of Books has a massive review of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.  And when I say massive, I mean 4,300 words.  Here's a short snippet to whet your whistle:

    "The power of these material traces and the desire to preserve and touch them animates the lifeless menageries of Rachel Poliquin’s beautiful new study, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. The book tracks the history of whole animal and animal specimen preservation, particularly taxidermy, which refers to the stretching and mounting of the skins of vertebrates, from the seventeenth-century European explorers to the present, with a heavy focus on Victorian practitioners and collectors. From a technical perspective alone, this history is fascinating; it begins with piles of feathers preserved in spirits, smoke-dried in ovens, and inexpertly stuck together in approximations of natural forms, and ends with slowly freezedried “perpetual pets,” lifelike inhabitants of a particularly uncanny valley. A fascinating section describes the innovation of wet clay placed under skins of animals for precision molding and a feeling of fullness, vibrancy, and weight.

    Poliquin gives shape to this history by exploring a range of “incentives” and characteristics embodied in taxidermy, which are grouped under the category of longing after Susan Stewart’s masterful book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. In The Breathless Zoo, Poliquin moves through seven dimensions of longing, which she associates with epochs of wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory and remembrance — phases of knowledge production as much as of affect. Each aspect of longing is further paired with an exemplary animal whose personality, symbology, and history of collection illustrates the ways in which culture constitutes nature through representation, and the ways in which these representations change over time. Poliquin argues that taxidermied animals — from their locus of origin to the way they are stuffed and posed, to what kind of environments they are posed and displayed in — are a better index of a culture’s relationship to and projections of nature than they are of the natural world as such. Each chapter comes back to this idea repeatedly, connecting certain periods’ preferences for particular species (maritime explorers were enamored of birds, for example) and display techniques to concurrent advances in chemistry, anatomy, and taxonomy, as well as cultural fads, artistic movements, and political and economic shifts, particularly those related to imperialism, industrialization, and globalization.

    This argument, a comfortable new iteration of constructionist cultural history, gets underway in an introduction that touches on the melancholic aesthetics of natural history and conservationism. One example is a recent exhibition of taxidermied polar bears culled from homes, museums, and collections around the U.K. Long a powerful symbol of strength and solitude, now a mnemonic for the losses wrought by climate change, the polar bears in the exhibition, “briefly together but solitary,” illustrate for Poliquin the emotional potency of preserved dead animals and the inexorable intellectual and cultural ideologies that determine how and why they are killed, prepared, and displayed. In this exhibition, she sees our attention drawn critically to both an outdated British cultural imaginary of conquest and mastery as well as to the uncanny displacement of the natural world, which serves as a reflection of the “wistfulness,” “waiting,” “loneliness,” and “absence” that filters our relationship to the environment in crisis. These two moments of history called up by the doubly displaced polar bears crystallize some basic questions of taxidermy as practice and artifact: is it symbolic or individual? Victimized or saved? Animal or object? Poliquin suggests that it is the polar bears’ “ambiguity that makes them such potent objects.”

    In beginning with an analysis of a work of contemporary art that already undermines both nostalgic Victoriana and contemporary eco-aesthetics — rather than a piece of historical taxidermy — the book gives away some of its most subtle critical analysis in the first five pages, including the implicit parallel Poliquin draws between the late imperial nostalgia (that of the British empire for its own fading glory, as well as a current nostalgia for all things Victorian) and the biophilia of late capitalist culture. Each subsequent chapter anchors the historical work in a compelling and memorable way by focusing on an exemplary species that illustrates one kind of longing. The hummingbird flits through the chapter on beauty — the finely wrought jewel of the Romantic poetic imaginary, and much beloved by Edmund Burke as a paragon of the beautiful — while the lion is caught mid-pounce in the chapter on spectacle, a demonstration of the dangers and exotica of colonial encounters. The narrative chapter deals with hunting trophies, those spooky domestic herds of bodiless heads, allegory with anthropomorphic tableaux like Walter Potter’s famous kitten wedding, order with zebras, of whom we learn there are a surprising three different species, and remembrance on the family dog. While the book is carefully researched and documented, it is not written for an exclusively academic audience: the prose is accessible, and a wealth of well-chosen illustrations, anecdotes, and deft readings of individual pieces of taxidermy make The Breathless Zoo a rich study that will appeal to a variety of readers."

    Read the whole review here +

    Monday
    Jun182012

    The Breathless Zoo on Cool Hunting 

    Check out the feature on my book on the Cool Hunting Website: http://www.coolhunting.com/culture/the-breathless-zoo.php