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
The Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia is a newly open research centre and museum focusing on all thing natural and all things naturally diverse.
Read more about the museum here +
Do you like this website? Perhaps you'd like to donate a few pennies to help keep it going. But no pressure.
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
Why natural history museum collections rock! Read David Ng's article in boingboing here http://www.boingboing.net/2010/09/01/why-natural-history.html
David Ng is a science literacy academic based at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia. He is currently on sabbatical at London’s Natural History Museum, and encourages you to check out the PHYLO project.
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?"
In light of recent comments from readers (see below), my next few posts will try to get to the heart of why particular pieces of taxidermy are more offensive to some than other uses of animal. Hunting trophies seem a good place to start. Let's call this one: Hunting Trophies versus Belts: Which is more ethically icky?
When most people people think of taxidermy, especially those who dislike the practice, they think of hunters' trophies: severed heads of animals killed for sport, attached to wooden plaques, and mounted on the wall over the fireplace.
Why do trophies elicit such strong emotion, even in meat-eaters? Disgust is understandable from vegetarians, animal-rights activists, and any community who believes that there is no excuse to kill an animal. But for meat-eaters, jello-eaters, and anyone who owns leather shoes, belts, or bags the reaction is less straightforward. What is the difference? A steak, a belt, a trophy. In all cases an animal has been killed and refashioned. And yet a clear distinction exists in contemporary opinion: trophies are worse, ethically speaking. Why?
It could be argued that trophies are more appreciative of animals than leather belts since trophy heads strive to capture some semblance of the beast. Belts, which are nothing but strips of cured, tanned, dyed skin, don't look anything like an animal. The animal has been reduced to a bit of utilitarian material, easily discardable, completely disassociated from the animal it once was. And in this sense, trophies potentially highlight a hypocrisy: if you eat meat or wear leather,what makes trophies so additionally abhorrent?
But this isn't the way debates usually go about the moral merits of belts versus trophies. The reason? It is the particular way the animal died that offends, not the product that is made afterwards. Leather belts are typically made from the hide of cows that have been raised specifically for their utilitarian benefits to humans (meat and leather), which is to say, leather belts are the products of cold, anonymous killing. The death is planned from birth and conducted in a sterile space with machinery invented precisely for the purpose. Trophies, on the other hand, are the products of passionate, hot blooded killing. Someone has specifically sought out the opportunity of killing an animal, and the trophy head is a remembrance of that experience. Belts are not remembrances of anything: not of the cow, not of person (or machine) that killed the cow, not really even of the belt manufacturer. Belts erase everything about the cow, its life, and its death. Trophies bring it all into focus.
Then again, a degree of respect is always due to the dead. Parading or desecrating dead bodies is as morally reprehensible as violating the living. That is, just because we may eat an animal, does not mean we want to see its death memorialised. And this begins to get us closer to the heart of contemporary dislike for trophies. It is not so much death that offends but the blurring of animal with a personal human significance. The animal's death is bound up with a personal narrative of triumph: the two are inseparable. Trophies exist because they embody a significant personal narrative. The animal is remembered because it put up a battle, a worthy chase, but ultimately fell to the hunter’s weaponry, skill, and violent desire. Such passionate desire makes many urban dwellers queasy. And any memorialisation of the outcome of this desire is necessarily even more queasy-making.
But still, if you eat meat or wear leather, an animal has also died. Does it matter how it died? Or who did the killing? You tell me.
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...
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.
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.
The International Committee for Museums and collections of Natural History (ICOM-NATHIST) is concerned with the conservation of biological, paleontological and geological diversity in museums collections an in the natural environment, the scientific study of the world's natural heritage, and the education of the wider public through museum displays, conferences, field trips, etc. Of recent interest to ICOM-NATHIST is the trend towards what is termed "modernization," that is, the removal and destruction of old, historic taxidermy and dioramas from museums in the name of improving public education.
A working group on the Art of Taxidermy and its Cultural Importance has been established to help save these creatures. As Eirik Granqvist (Senior adviser of ICOM NATHIST) writes on their website:
"When fire, earthquakes and wars destroy the world's historical and cultural heritage, it might not be possible to do anything, but when that destruction is undertaken by the very people employed as guardians of our heritage, then it is a criminal act and we must all despair for the future of our collections. It is especially difficult to understand the fact that those causing the disastrous damage call themselves scientists when, due to a lack of scientific and historical rigour, they burn or otherwise destroy historical evidence of for example, increasing or decreasing pollution of the environment, both through the destruction of irreplaceable specimens and the context in which they were displayed."
go to the website: http://icom-nathist.de/icom/nh-wk12.htm
What sort of knowledge do you get by staring at all the animals in their glass cases at museums? Recently museums have been trying to emphasis the cultural resonance of taxidermied animals, that is, to posit the animals as potent symbols within a history of violence against nature.
Mountain goats at the Field Museum of Natural HistoryThe dioramas at the Field Museum in Chicago offer an example of the cultural and ideological deconstruction of museum exhibits. The dioramas are accompanied by narratives about past damage done to animals and their habitats and the abuses perpetrated by hunting and the exotic animal trade. The cases of brightly illuminated dioramas of buffalos, for example, in their “natural” landscape narrate how the arrival of the Europeans decimated herds. Their farming practices pushed the huge beasts to the brink of extinction. But staring at those stolid, hairy creatures, what do visitors see? Do they see the buffalo neatly inserted into a story of sadness and ecological loss or do they stand absorbing the visual intensity of the buffalo?
While a natural history museum is an appropriate institution to examine past and present encounters between humans and the rest of nature, the pairing of dioramas and abuses of ecology has the effect both of highlighting active human history against a placid backdrop and of exposing the illusionism of the diorama. That is, rather than attempting to enchant viewers by creating a mysteriously “real” vision of “nature as it really is,” the signs call attention to the human forces which brought these creatures into view and the constructed perspective of the resulting vision. In a sense, looking at nature almost becomes secondary to knowing human history: rather than textual description illuminating the animals, the animals now supplement a cultural exegesis.
A standing Grizzly bear at the Field MuseumAnd yet, the overall aesthetics of the hall - a dark passage flanked by superbly crafted 3D pictures of animals in landscapes – creates an undeniable visual magnetism, and brings to mind the wonder-generating display tactics in museums and art galleries, where the precious object is dramatically spotlighted in order “to evoke an exalted attention.” Despite the acknowledgement that this vision is a manipulation and the tacit commentary that perhaps these animals shouldn’t in fact be here to look at, the very visual power of the display, this exalted attention it commands, strangely serves to strength the critique of its very presence. That is, the sheer magnetism of the animals impels viewers to look at nature and implicitly encourages them to appreciate the intrinsic value of the creatures, and simultaneously to recognize the problematics of looking at them within a museum context. In a sense, the animals are caught between invisible and visible pedagogy, and between materiality and meaning. In short, if taxidermy is the use of animals for looking and the knowledge that comes from looking, it is no longer entirely clear what we are looking at.
If anything, however, the ambiguity of looking generated by this recent shift and multiplication of interpretations has made taxidermy more interesting to look at as it slips between nature and natural history, cultural and ecological critique. Animals are not fixed entities fully explained by the hierarchies of natural order, nor – either - by recent cultural or political discourse, but rather provocative forces, both ruthlessly physical and semantically ambiguous: is this cultural history on display or nature? Casualties of human culture or edifying artefacts?
Taxidermy had its heyday in the nineteenth century, when an advance in preservation, a general fascination with the natural world , and rapid exploration of the world colluded to create cathedrals of taxidermied birds and animals. But even natural history museums are beginning to question the ethics of exhibiting dead nature. I recently visited the Natural History Museum in London, one of the oldest and largest collections in the world of all things natural. Scattered among the animals in their glass cases were apologetic signs explaining not only why the animals were so old and musty but also why the museum displays taxidermy at all.
What the signs are really saying is “don’t blame us; we didn’t kill them.” While the curators may no longer mount animals for public display, the museum, like all natural history museums, is constantly increasingly its collections of animal and bird skins and body parts, which are stored in temperature and light controlled cabinets in the backrooms. Museums, especially national centres such as London’s, still have the same mandate to ensure their collections contain as complete a record of the natural world as possible in part to identify any variation particular species might exhibit, changes in migratory behaviour, for example, coloration patterns, egg size, or in their physiological systems.
What is on display for the general public in the taxidermy halls, however, is the museum’s historical collections, which is to say, what is actually on view is not so much nature itself but another era’s vision of the natural world. The apologetic signs allow the museum to present a fresher, more ecologically sensitive outlook while still displaying the musty relics of a past generation. The effect is to turn the museum into a museum of cultural history, which in turn highlights the shifting meaning of the natural world.
Certainly natural history museums are experiencing an identity crisis. Taxidermy makes us squeamish; it is seen by many as a gratuitous spoilage of nature, and museums with nineteenth-century roots have been criticised as complicit with the colonial project. Their collections have been branded as an imperial archives of the natural world, materially displaying to an eager public the empire’s success and geographic reach by means of the stuffed shells of lions, birds of paradise, and koala. Natural history museums are also struggling legitimise their existence in a post-Discovery channel era, when wildlife videos can bring living, breathing, fighting, mating creatures into everyone home, no shooting or stuffing required.
Captain Cook's Mamo collected around 1778. Image taken
from The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures of the
Harvard Museum of Natural History. Perhaps it is because of these dilemmas that museum are increasingly presenting their taxidermy as cultural artefacts. A stuffed finch isn’t half so grisly if we know it was collected by Charles Darwin or some other notable naturalist. The Harvard Museum of Natural History has a pair of golden pheasants sent to George Washington in 1786 from the aviary of Louis XVI, a black woodpecker shot and stuffed by Meriwether Lewis on what has now become known as the famous Lewis and Clarke expedition, and an extinct black bird with yellow tail feather known as the mamo collected during Captain Cook’s third and fatal voyage to Hawaiian in 1779 – Cook was stabbed to death during fighting between the Hawaiians and his crew. The stories behind the specimens and renown of their collectors enrich the cultural value of the taxidermied birds immensely. But are the birds now documents of human endeavour? If “real” nature is something out there, beyond human contact and human history, the stuffed peasants, the woodpecker, and the mamo seem more like cultural artefacts than as pieces of nature.
The current ecological perspective emphasizes nature as a source of intrinsic value, truth, and authenticity. Nature is wild and pristine, untouched and timeless. It is unique, nonreplicable, prior to human culture, and uncorrupted by human desires. In short, nature in recent years has come to represent everything that our urban modern society is not. While a walk through a city park can be pleasant, real nature is far beyond city limits. It is there, surrounded by alpine meadows, violent rivers, or majestic forests that we find refuge from the turmoil of urbanism, commercialism, capitalism, and mass production. Out there, beyond any physical evidence of human contamination, nature will save our souls.
The extinct blaauwbok or blue antelope. Image taken from
Rosamond Purcell's book of photographs Swift as a Shadow:
Extinct and Endangered AnimalsMuseums are also highlighting the extinct and endangered animals in their collections as a means of accentuating their cultural and societal importance on a global and historical level. Tasmanian devils, great auks, passenger pigeons, paradise parrot, Labrador duck, quaggas, the Cape and Barbary lion have all disappeared from the world except for those which were taxidermied and preserved in museums. They have lingered on for decades and sometimes tens of decades, immortal and musty, bereft of their clan. What are they now but dark moral lessons of nature’s fragility, that is to say, documents of human transgression. Extinct animals are an extreme example, but can nature ever escape from human meaning? Is the natural world ever just nature?
Is the nature Out There, beyond city limits really beyond culture? Or is this vision of a pristine untouched eden a stance of anti-urbanism, anti-industrialism, and frequently anti-human? The more vociferously claims against human modification and manipulation of nature, the more those stretches of wildness become domesticated parks, managed, controlled, protected, and ultimately without meaning without human cultural politics and the more pieces of nature - killed, collected, stuffed, and displayed - become not documents of nature but moral lessons, artefacts from a human life, relics from past generations.
During the heyday taxidermy in the nineteenth century, not only were stuffed birds and beasts valued as delightful household ornaments but the practice itself was considered to be a pleasurable and even elevating pastime for all peoples of all ages, and particularly for ladies, clergymen, and young boys. As Joseph Batty describes in his Practical Taxidermy and Home Decoration published in New York in 1885,
“With growing fondness for Taxidermy, many ladies are endeavouring to master the art, and in the variety of work necessary to perfect it, feminine taste and skill can be brought effectively into play. The collector can learn to mount his own specimens, the schoolboy his game, and in the general household, a buck’s head in the dining-room, or a bright oriole in the parlour, presents a pleasing contrast to other ornaments.”
But from this cheerful ambience that taxidermy once radiated, far darker shadows have grown. In fact, taxidermy has come to stand as a symbol of darkness, destruction, and even psychological decay. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho, for example. The disturbed killer, Norman Bates, has made quite a hobby of stuffing birds. The back parlour of his motel is filled with his handiworks which cast ominous shadows up the walls. Far from the warm glow of Joseph Batty’s bright oriole, Norman Bates’ dark birds are dead giveaways of his aberrant and troubled mind. Hitchcock took taxidermy to its extreme connotations of creepy violence, and I doubt the practice will ever recover the daintiness of a Victorian lady’s feminine taste. Stuffed animals, it seems, don’t need any explanation: they have become unmistakable symbols of ruination.
At the beginning of “Making a Garden” in his recently published book of essays Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural History, Wayne Grady finds himself idly roaming through the big iron gates at the entrance of the University of Florence. He wanders into the very room in which Galileo lectured in 1610, and then through the astounding collection of eighteenth-century wax anatomical teaching figures of corpses in various degrees of evisceration, and finally into the galleries of stuffed animals of the university’s natural history museum: a Tasmanian wolf and gazelles, a room of primates that gave “the extremely creepy sensation of being observed by [an] unknown next-of-kin,” a case of extinct birds containing an auk, the head of a dodo, and a passenger pigeon. The experience was not altogether pleasant:
“Walking among the glass cases, each containing pairs of dead, accusatory eyes, I couldn’t help but think of the vast stretches of wilderness that had been emptied to supply them. The sheer number suggested it: could there be any left in their natural habitats?"
Grady suggests that natural history museums of bygone eras cultivated nature into something tamed, pretty, and inherently ornamental. “Wild nature was a museum; somewhat chaotic, perhaps, but full of interesting things. The animals and plants arrayed there had been placed on display by some Cosmic Curator for our amusement or enjoyment.” The dilettantes once danced, Grady seems to be saying, and look what havoc they wrought.
Grady goes on to contemplate wildernesses and gardens and, more specifically, humans wholesale destruction of wild nature. With wilderness at the brink of extinction, Grady claims, our only hope is to plant a new sort of garden, not just any garden and certainly not a garden for recreation, but rather a garden of restorative wilderness: “to make a place where native plants can begin to reclaim their birthright, not merely create something artificial that looks natural.”
But what then is the significance of the galleries of accusatory glass eyes? Grady doesn’t connect the dots. He doesn't need to. He relies on his faith in shared sensibility about taxidermy, not quite Batesian but hardly Battysian either: taxidermy signifies damage; a sterile and defanged wilderness. Unlike plots of land that might grow back with sensitive plantings, a gallery of stuffed animals will no more flourish into a second wilderness than an ornamental garden of marble statues. Grady muses briefly on the possibilities of repopulating the garden using the DNA trapped within the skins of stuffed extinct species. But what good could come of that? Rather, Grady suggests that museums of stuffed extinct species, some more than centuries old, lingering immortal and musty, should earn the queasy epithet: "the Museum of Lessons Unlearned.”
As taxidermy sits increasingly badly with general audiences and contemporary sensitivities to the natural world - so much so, in fact, that natural history museums have become almost apologetic about their displays, taxidermy has become increasingly common on the international art scene. Damien Hirst, Thomas Grünfeld, Paul McCarthy, Maurizio Cattelan, and Mark Dion are just a few of the artists whose work incorporates animals and animal parts in their installations. The works are purposefully ambiguous, troubling, and ruthlessly physical.
As Steve Baker highlights in Postmodern Animal, “across these works, regardless of any ethical stance, materials count, materials create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought.” The materials in question, however, are not paint and lumber but animals – sometimes alive, sometimes stuffed, sometimes only presented in parts, or, as in Thomas Grünfeld’s Misfit series, sometimes the parts of various animals are sewn together into seamless mutant species. Materials certainly do count, but the sort of imaginative thought they provoke is less directed towards gaining knowledge and more towards generating unsettling encounters.
While some artists draws upon the world of fairy tales and enchantment (see Ophelia +) , many of the animals in contemporary art engage viewers with a very different sort of story telling: the meaning given to animals by the natural sciences. Recent historians of science have chipped away at the foundational mythology of science, which has tended to construct its practitioners and practices as above or somehow outside the biases and beliefs of the general culture. Far from being an antiseptic generator of irrefutable “truths,” science and its veneer of objectivity have been scraped down to expose questionable underpins which at times have been constructed from cultural manipulation, value-laden paradigms, and prejudiced assumptions.
If science is anything but neutral, the visions of the natural world it constructs are likewise anything but impartial representations. As Kate Soper explains, such postmodern critique of the natural science is “nature-sceptical,” not sceptical of that nature exists, but rather sceptical about the abilities of science to uncover and make known the meaning of the natural world and its inhabitants. If science attempts to fit nature into hierarchies and classes and impose a static structure, nature, always “messy and multifarious” as Stephen Jay Gould described, always breaks or climbs or slithers free of rigid law or formulae.
The animals in many works of contemporary artists engage such questions about how we come to know the natural world and what such knowledge means for human-animals. Nature and animals become not fixed entities fully explained by the hierarchies of natural order but provocative forces “whose properties remain radically unknown and unknowable,” as Norman Bryson writes about Mark Dion's installation The Library for the Birds of Antwerp. On display are questions about the ability of science and philosophy to make sense of the world, about the limits of human understanding, and the potential for alternate systems of thought to provide a less confident but more holistic perspective on our relationships with the natural world and its other non-human inhabitants.
Damien Hirst is perhaps the most well known among this new breed of animal artists. His medium of choice is formaldehyde, although he does make excursions into taxidermy. His acclaimed works include The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) consisting of an pickled 17 foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, a cow and calf both laterally bisected and displayed in four cases (Mother and Child Divided) a lamb (Away from the Flock, 1994), similarly bisected and presented, all arranged so that the animals’ insides and outsides can be viewed simultaneously. His works are abrasive, confrontational, and ultimately bewildering. Are these scientific experiments or art? Are we meant to learn anatomy or critique the aesthetic?
Mark Dion’s work is aimed even more precisely at the issue of how knowledge is generated by natural objects and – conversely – what images of nature have been constructed by particular systems of thought. Dion’s installations expose science as a cultural practice with its own particular biases and aesthetic resonance. What constitutes as “science” is hardly stable: different ages have used different sets of objects to construct particular images of the natural world.