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Thursday
Jan012009

Aesthetics of Preserved Nature

There is a longstanding debate among philosophers, aesthetes, and artists about the relative beauty of human art versus natural wonders and – even more broadly – between the relative merits of human artefacts and natural phenomena. Nature and art have been defined and redefined against each other, generally as two more or less isolated and mutually exclusive terms. In his collection of essays on the aesthetic appreciation of nature, for example, Malcolm Budd argues that any aesthetic experience of nature depends on an “appreciation of nature as what nature actually is,” that is, nature is appreciated as nature in contrast to a human-crafted artefact. And for an appreciation of nature to be “pure,” the nature in question must be devoid of any imposed design, particularly any design imposed for artistic or aesthetic effect.

The design and intention in the making of things lies at the heart of most distinctions between art and nature. As T. J. Diffey notes, the crucial difference in the experience of art and of nature is that nature “permits or invites” an experience whereas a work of art “is the intentional object of experience.” That is, taxidermy can be critiqued as well or badly made, lifelike or wooden, but living animals just are.A spontaneous encounter with a wild animal, unplanned and unchoreographed, stands in sharp contrast to the rows of animals in natural history museums. Intention and artistry pervades every inch of taxidermy, from choosing which creature to kill through to posing and arranging its skins. No one could ever mistake a breathing creature for its taxidermic reconstruction.

  Image from the picture library of the Natural History Museum, London

 Technically speaking, considering the skinning, tanning, sewing, and stuffing involved in both taxidermy and upholstery, a leather chair is not so very different than a piece of taxidermy. But of course they are different. Anyone who has ever stepped into a room with leather furniture and hunting trophy can attest to that inescapable fact – taxidermy is not mere upholstery. Good taxidermy can capture some sense of the creature’s former liveliness and character; exceptional taxidermy may even achieve that uncanny spark of animation which gives viewers the tingling sensation that the hawk might any moment leave its perch or the lion spring through the glass. But even bad taxidermy and old, poorly crafted mounts will evoke a visceral realization that this thing is not just a human-made artefact no different than any sort of product made from animal skins. If aesthetic encounters of preserved animals are distinguished from encounters with living animals, they are also markedly different than encounters with leather chairs. So what sort of objects are taxidermied animals: nature, artifice, or something in between?

Landscape design and environmental art potential suggest a similar blurring. The marriage of natural phenomena (plants, trees, rocks, lands and water) and artistic or political intent engenders something that stands apart of Budd’s “pure” nature by harmonising design and organic matter into a symbiotic relationship. Such manipulations respond sensuously to the features of a site, emphasizing or shaping natural features in ways that make viewers contemplate their own relationship to particular pieces of nature. Yet while lawns and flowers may be planted, trees pruned, and landscapes managed, the organic materials persist in realising the necessity of their natures; they grow and reshape themselves despite all human intrusions and interferences. Gardens are created with living things. In contrast, while taxidermy similarly blends nature and art, the relationship is hardly symbiotic. The animal is dead. Dead, but not gone.

Bone sculptures from Sedlec Ossuary. Image from Curious Expeditions.The best avenue for explaining the emotive intensity of “dead but not gone” is to consider the perception of preserved human remains. In the Church of All Saints in the little town of Sedlec in the Czech Republic hangs a chandelier made exclusively from human bones and said to hold at least one of every bone in the human body. The candelabras in the ossuary are made of skulls. Femurs and more skulls line the walls. Over 40,000 skeletons were used to decorate the church. The objects seize our attention with an intensity no other material could do because they still speak to us, human to human, friend to friend through their immortality. The bones are human no matter how ornately these are used, no matter how strange the decoration. Mummies, scalps and shrunken heads, medical collections of anatomical normalities and deformities, all still impact us as human.

Why should an animal’s death diminish its animalness? Or, more to the point, why should a dead animal, stuffed and reanimated, lose its natural essence as something beyond human creation and fade into mere human mimicry of natural beauty? If the humanness of humans remains solid through death, why should animal parts be any difference? Taxidermy is more than a queasy species of trompe-d’oeil. Despite the artistic re-interpretation, the visceral impact of animals remains. The animal continues to exert itself. In short, taxidermy is neither not nature nor not art: it is a bit of both and neither. By straddling the nature-culture binary, taxidermy obliterates (or at least renders uninteresting) any division between the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art. And in doing so taxidermy requires its own aesthetic vocabulary.


Friday
Sep262008

nanoq: flat out and bluesome

Spike Island, Bristol 2004 In 2004, nanoq: flat out and bluesome opened in Spike Island, a large, white-walled art space in Bristol, England. On display were ten taxidermied polar bears, each isolated in its own custom glass case, each transported from separate locations across Great Britain to exist briefly together yet solitary. The exhibition marked the conclusion of Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson’s quest to find and photograph every mounted polar bear in the United Kingdom, a three-year journey which unearthed thirty-four bears. Most were located in natural history museums, some on display, some in storage, boxed in among filing cabinets and other discarded displays. Other bears stood in parlours and hallways of private homes or blended with the eclectic décor of a country pub.

Each of the bears was photographed in situ where Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson discovered them, captured in the mix and muddle of their dwellings, not their native environment, to be sure, but their second and more permanent home. Although the photographs exude a colourful vitality, there is also an indeterminate wistfulness to the images, a sense of lingering or waiting: the gentle sadness of the bears’ stoic persistence in the face of artificial ice flows, bottles of beer, and African animals. One of the bears holds a wicker basket of plastic flowers; another is penned in between a wallaby and a tiger; yet another has been forgotten behind a dust-covered bicycle and a child’s rocking horse.

Stands in the hallway of a private residency in Somerset.

As part of their project the artists researched the personal history of each specimen. The bears were variously shot during arctic adventures or euthanized in zoos. One died of old age; another traveled with a circus. But whatever their precise story and route, the bears are all aliens to Great Britain; they were all taken from their native landscapes at some stage of life or death and manhandled into everlasting postures. The artists’ choice of documenting specimens of an arctic species in Britain rather than indigenous creatures obviously adds an additional layer of significance to the polar bears. Many date to the mid-nineteenth century and linger as relics of Victorians’ fascination with the arctic.

The bear at the Natural History Museum in London may have been killed during Captain Parry’s efforts to find the North-West Passage in the early 1820s. The National Museum of Ireland’s bear was shot in 1851 in Baffin Bay during a reconnaissance to discover the fate of the Franklin expedition. The bear in the Kendal Museum was shot by the Earl of Lonsdale on an arctic voyage prompted by the request of Queen Victoria, and the bear in the Dover Museum was one of sixty shot during the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition which unexpectedly encountered Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen from the Fram, who had survived overwinter on polar bear and walrus meat. And with this early history, the bears also evince the Victorian infatuation with taxidermy as a pre-photographic medium for documenting nature. Some of the bears were preserved by the greats of late Victorian taxidermy, most notably Rowland Ward and Edward Gerrard & Sons, in aggressive standing poses that make clear the era’s reveries of the exotic animal dangers of distant lands. As such, the bears are documents of a British cultural imaginary, which has slipped – thankfully or not – forever into history.

One of two bears mounted ‘symmetrically’ and standing in the entrance hall at Somerleyton Hall. Mounted by Rowland Ward.

More pressingly from a contemporary perspective, the bears can also be read as an anxious narrative of global warming. Here are so many bears from territories under threat. But if the bears are troubling environmental documents, they also stand as quiet educators. They offer visitors an opportunity to experience the majestic size of polar bears and to appreciate personally, intimately, the dignity and exceptionality of the species. If the bears provide a critique of past collecting practices, they also make material the intrinsic worth of preserving animals. If a creature were to go extinct, no matter how much video footage and photographic images may have been amassed, nothing can ever compare to the physical presence of the animal, admittedly dead and stuffed, but a physical presence nonetheless. The taxidermied remains of passenger pigeons, Barbary lions, great auks, and all other extinct species are precious beyond words. They are the definition of irreplaceable.

The bears are also purloined object of science. The majority were taken from natural history museums, where they stood as examples of their species and representatives of arctic whiteness. With respect to museum exhibits, the display of ten polar bears is most likely a unique historical occurrence. It would be rare to see ten polar bears – typically solitary species – together in the wild, and certainly such an assembly would never occur in a natural history museum. Most museums would have a solitary bear, having neither the space nor the educational need of displaying more than one. More than one is unnecessary repetition. Amassed together within the neutral space of an art gallery, disconnected from the didactic trappings of a natural history museum, the polar bears are transfigured by their multitude and setting, becoming together objects which are neither fully science nor fully art: mysterious, unsettling, provocative, and overwhelmingly visually magnetic.

Spike Island, Bristol 2004

A day conference held in the gallery entitled White Out engaged speakers to discuss the bears’ significance in considering human relationships with animals in general and the bears in particular. The title suggests a blizzard, an environmental obliteration, a toxic erasure of words and meaning, a blank slate, a new beginning, always with the bears as off-white canvases across which humans inscribe meaning. “The polar bear is a totem creature,” Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson write in the exhibition catalogue. “We have witnessed how in living memory, the image of the polar bear has been appropriated and put to the most varied and unlikely purposes – selling dreams, sweets, lifestyles, travel.” A formidable predator and an icon of kitschy Winterland fantasies, the polar bear is “a catalogue paradoxes,” a “prism with the capacity to contain and refract all manner of responses in us: fear, horror, respect, pathos, affection, humour.” From one angle, the polar bears are relics of nineteenth-century British infatuation with arctic territories and sport hunting; from another, they are cautionary tales offering traces of human activity inscribed in nature. They are contemporary art, scientific specimens, and natural wonders. They offer the opportunity to observe intimately a fearsome man-eater and indulge in the sheer pleasures of looking at objects which may be nearly two centuries old. At once symbolic and individual, both victimized and saved, the polar bears resist any easy interpretation. And it is this ambiguity which makes the bears such potent and potently ambiguous symbols.

For more information and to see all the images please go to Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson's website: http://www.snaebjornsdottirwilson.com/nanoq.php  All images are taken from the site.

 

 

Friday
Apr132007

Rupert, my stuffed red fox in a stump

Rupert.jpgSitting on a stool not far from my desk, watching me as I write, is my stuffed fox named Rupert. With almost complete certainty, I can say that no fox has ever looked like Rupert before, and anyone who has seen Rupert would hope that no fox will ever again suffer the same indignities. Let’s start at the top. Rupert had been a Christmas gift the year before, purchased on e-bay for a grand total of 15 dollars. I’d called him Rupert to give some dignity to what was essentially a misshapen carcass: his face has the taut and brittle look of a mummy; his ears are bent and crooked, some teeth are missing, and his middle section likely intersected with an automobile tire since his head and arms emerge from the top of a hollow stump while his scrawny legs and tail stick out the bottom. He’s mounted on a ragged board about 3 feet long, which only adds to the cumbersome dimensions of Rupert and his stump girdle. There was nowhere to put him in my small apartment except alongside the sofa where he would suddenly – or so skittish visitors seemed to think – pop out from the shadows like an unhinged puppet in all his mangled glory.

At various times in our lives, we’ve all dealt with the material detritus of failed romances. Like the Coke bottles, the bits of Styrofoam and rope, the random shreds of clothing washed up the beach and left behind as the tide recedes – all coated in bubbly ocean scum – the objects that linger when love has passed always need some form of tidying and sorting. What to keep. What to give away or sell. What to set on fire, if that’s your style.

And so, when my relationship ended a few months ago, I found myself picking through the typical flotsam and jetsam of sweaters, photographs, Cds and socks, and also – and not so typically – Rupert.

Needless to say, I was never infatuated with Rupert while I was in the relationship, but what to do with him now? I can’t just hide him in a box of photographs or throw him away like a chipped vase or a pair of men’s briefs. But why not? In the first instance: because he’s too big, but why not just toss him, especially as he’s recently developed a greyish crystallised lump in his mouth that I’m too afraid to investigate.

But living with a stuffed fox tends to get you thinking: what is Rupert? Considering the skinning, tanning, sewing, and stuffing involved in both taxidermy and upholstery, my leather sofa and Rupert really aren’t all that different. But then, the sofa doesn’t have Rupert’s sad, sad face. And this, I think, is part of taxidermy’s queasy potency: unlike leather sofas and leather shoes and leather jackets, stuffed animals have faces. And those wizened little mugs are constant reminders – in a way no leather handbag could ever be – that they once belonged to a very alive, very sentient creature.

 

Friday
Mar092007

Charred dodo head

The woeful demise of the dodo is one of nature's most famous extinction stories. The dodo’s first contact with Europeans occurred in 1507 when a Dutch expedition headed by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck landed on an island off the East coast of Africa, subsequently named Mauritius by the admiral. Sailors would take dinner breaks surrounding by lush tropical verdure and consume boiled dodo. Dodo flesh was clearly an acquired taste as the sailors named it 'valghvogel'- meaning disgusting bird.

Controversy surrounds the date of the dodo’s disappearance (some say the 1660s, some say three decades later), but the dodo had been extinct for at least half a century when Carl Linnaeus - the father of binomial naming and taxonomy - named the bird Didus ineptus . Linnaeus derived didus from the Dutch name for the bird - doodor - meaning sluggard and stupid, and ineptus needs no translation. The poor bird has subsequently been renamed Raphus Cuculatus .

Several stuffed dodo were known to exist in European collections. In 1599, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II actually acquired a live dodo, probably the first seen in Europe. It died, however, shortly after reaching Rudolph’s menagerie of rare and curious beasts, and by 1609, it is recorded among the Emperor’s catalogue of preserved creatures.

But perhaps the most famous stuffed dodo was that belonging to seventeenth-century father and son gardeners and collectors both named John Tredescant. The Tresdescant's Ark - as it became known - was a veritable cabinet of wonders, bulging with the most superlative and spectacular creatures in existence.  The museum's catalogue published in 1651 lists a "Dodar, from the Island of Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big" among the whole birds on display.  dodo head.jpg

The Ark was taken over by Elias Ashmole under rather suspicious circumstances.  Despite widow Tredescant's refusal to give Ashmole the collection, he did eventually acquire it after Mrs. Tredescant's body was found at the bottom of a lake. Ashmolean renamed the collection after himself and moved it to Oxford.

In 1755, the curator of the Ashmolean Museum purged the museum's mouldering contents and tossed them on a bonfire. Among the “useless” items was a stuffed dodo from the late sixteenth century, thought to be the last surviving taxidermied specimen in the world. Only the charred head and a foot were salvaged. 

The image of the charred dodo head is taken from the website of Oxford's Museum of Natural History. Read more (opens as a pdf): http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/learning/pdfs/dodo.pdf

Saturday
Mar032007

Victorian Hummingbirds

The Victorians were - quite literally and without the least exaggeration - absolutely besotted with hummingbirds.  Not only did the number of known species proliferate over the nineteenth century - from 18 in 1758 to over a hundred in 1829 - but each new discovery seemed to shimmer more brightly with all the colours of the rainbow or was even smaller or more perfectly formed than all that had been seen in England before.  "There is not, it may safely be asserted, in all the varied works of nature in her zoological productions," William Bullock wrote about hummingbirds in 1824, "any family that can bear a comparison, for singularity of form, splendour of colour, or number and variety of species, with this the smallest of the feathered creation."

hummingbirds2.jpg
A case of nineteenth-century hummingbirds in the Natural History Museum, London.

Hummingbirds were frequently arranged on branches and displayed in visually intoxicating hoards like the image above, believed to have been created by Bullock in the mid-nineteenth century.  As Judith Pascoe notes, the diminutive size of hummingbirds and their appeal as bijouterie "increased the enthusiasm for and the ease of creating these kinds of conglomerations."  Hoarding accentuated the shimmer and vibrancy of the plumage and created a sort visual ecstasy for those not lucky enough to see the birds alive in the indigenous habitats.

Like Bullock, John Gould was also impassioned with the tiny birds, which he described as a "family of living gems." During his life he had amassed a collection of 1,500 mounted birds and 3,800 unmounted specimens and his five-volume Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of the Humming-birds, which he began in 1849 is considered by many to be his greatest achievement.  "That our enthusiasm and excitement with regard to most things become lessened, if not deadened, by time, particularly when he have acquired what we vainly consider a complete knowledge of the subject, is, I fear, too often the case with most of us," Gould wrote, "not so, however, I believe, with those who take up the study of the family of Humming Birds. Certainly I can affirm that such is not the case with myself; for the pleasure which I experience on seeing a Humming Bird is as great at the present moment as when I first say one.  During the first 20 years of my acquaintance with these wonderful works of creation my thoughts were often directed to them in the day, and my night dreams have not unfrequently carried me to their native forests in the distant country of America.”

Thursday
Nov092006

Crocodiles

At the Natural History Museum in St. Gallen, Switzerland is a taxidermied crocodile from 1623. It is the museum's oldest exhibit and thought to be the oldest example of taxidermy still in existence.  The museum had initially been established as library in the former monastery of St. Katharine in 1615. Brought to Switzerland from Egypt by Ulrich Kromm, the stuffed crocodile was sold to Daniel Studer, who then bequeathed the creature to the city's library in 1623.  It was in great part due to the arrival of such a natural wonder, as Georg Caspar Scherer explains in his history of the library, that prompted the directors of to collect not only books but also, when the opportunity arose, rarities from the natural world. In 1644 the following "Merkwurdigkeiten" or marvelous curiosities were purchased for 24 Reichsthaler: the skeleton of a human and a dog, the backbone of a whale, and the mould of a swordfish. And so the collection began to grow. 

Now more than 350 years old, the crocodile was restored to its former glory in 1994 and is still the museum's most prized specimen.  

 

crocodile-restoration-wee.jpg
Image: taken from Geschichte des Naturmuseums St. Gallen, kindly sent to me by Dr. Toni Burgen, director of the Museum.

 

Other early examples of preserved crocodiles include one given to King Alfonso X by the Sultan of Egypt in 1260. When the animal died, its body was dried and hung in the Portal of the Lizard (named for the reptile) which leads from the cloister to the Cathedral of Seville. The crocodile eventually decayed, however, and was replaced by a wooden replica.

theodore.jpgAlthough medieval churches frequently hung preserved exotic items to evoke awe at the wonderous variety of God's creations, the crocodile has a more precise significance for early Christians. The crocodile is the symbol of St. Theodore, martyred in 306. As the story goes, St. Theodore was a soldier in the Roman Empire when an edict was issued against the Christians.  He was ordered before the magistrates and was asked to offer a sacrifice to the gods.  When he refused, proclaming his belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the magistrates gave him some time to consider as he was still a very young man.  Rather than ponder, he acted and burnt down the Temple of Cybele, a crime for which he was burnt at the stake. The crocodile represents one of the Roman gods he destroyed.  St. Theodore was adopted as patron saints of Venice and can be seen represented atop one of the two Byzantine columns standing in the Piazzetta of the Piazza San Marco, treading upon the sacred crocodile of Egypt.

Crocodiles (undistinguished from aligators) were almost indispensible items in cabinets of curiosity - and the bigger, the more provocative and curious. As Borrilly had four crocodiles; Trichet had one five feet long, and Borel's crocodile (classified with the quadrupeds) was not less that nine feet. Bernon possessed two crocodiles from Egypt, two from America, one cayman, and two crocodile eggs. Ferrante Imperato had an enormous crocodile hanging from the ceiling of his collection.  Sir Hans Sloane tried to bring a small crocodile back to England from the South Indies in a tub of salt water. He kept it alive for several months on food scraps, but it eventually died although in a much less spectacular fashion than Sloane's iguana (which was frightened by a sailor, leapt overboard, and drowned) and an enormous yellow snake (which escaped from its barrel and was shot).

 

 

Wednesday
Nov082006

Ophelia

lion-idiots.jpg
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.