The Right Stuff

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Recent years have seen an unexpected rebirth of taxidermy as a resource for art. But this rebirth is also necessarily and purposely a stillbirth, a balked resurrection. In traditional taxidermy, it is the animal that is put on display; in the deployments of taxidermy by contemporary artists, it is arrangement itself, the taxidermic dispositif, that is on show. Art upstages taxidermy. In Susan Bozics Northern Harrier (Hawk) (2002), from her "Incarnation" photo series, a hawk perches on an Underwood typewriter, sharing the space with a pair of binoculars and a scroll tied with a ribbon. It crouches over the instrument with a fiercely proprietary air, as though over captured prey. Where taxidermic displays typically reduce the animal to an exemplificatory role, here the hawk seems to have taken possession of the space of the photograph, rendering the seemingly superseded instruments of observation (the binoculars) and description (the typewriter, the scroll) the mere signs of sign making.

The resurrectionist subterfuge of traditional taxidermy is also eschewed by Polly Morgan, who stuffs dead animals and mounts them as corpses. These animals are not restored to life but, so to speak, resuscitated into their deaths. Traditionally, taxidermy mounts the carcass of the animal, giving it not just volume but the illusion of vigor. By contrast, Morgan’s works all emphasize the dying fall of the animal’s body, often precisely by means of the visible splints and supports by which they are propped up. In Still Life After Death (rabbit) (2006), a magician’s top hat floats above the figure of an unresponsive white rabbit. In Still Life After Death (fox) (2006), a fox is snugly curled in an outsize champagne glass. And in Mind over Matter (2006), a small bird is cradled in a spoon. (Haunch of Venison in London is featuring Morgan’s work in the exhibition "Mythologies," on view from March 12 through April 25.)

 

It is not clear that "Oh, how sweet" cuteness is kept entirely at bay in these works, especially in the miniature chandeliers that Morgan rigs up for some of her lyings-in-state. Indeed, To Every Seed His Own Body (2006), in which a long-tailed tit lies on its side on a prayer book under one such chandelier, seems to make explicit allusion to Walter Potters precious Death and Burial of Cock Robin (1861), which congregated 98 species of stuffed British bird to illustrate the nursery rhyme: "‘Who’ll make his shroud?’ ‘I,’ said the beetle. ‘With my thread and needle. I’ll make his shroud.’ ... ‘Who’ll be the parson?’ ‘I,’ said the rook. ‘With my little book, I’ll be the parson.’" (This piece was in a collection that Damien Hirst unsuccessfully bid £1 million for when it was offered for sale in 2003.)

Taxidermy is an art that conceals art and aims to create something like a photographic sculpture of the animal, in which the animal’s body is the raw material used to suggest its appearance. A number of artists use photography to effect an ironic displacement of taxidermy, perhaps in confirmation of the claim made by Annette Messager — whose work of the 1990s, especially Anonymes (1993), which impaled 22 stuffed birds and squirrels on spikes, helped to initiate the revival of taxidermy in contemporary art — that, in preserving objects against change, photography itself already "is taxidermy." In this space of irony, the struggle of the animal to escape the ordeal of ostension becomes the spectacle itself. The squirrel, for example, who has evidently just done away with himself in Maurizio Cattelans Bidibidobidiboo (1996) is richly ridiculous in a Tom and Jerry way, but the logic of the piece coils spikily in on itself. If a squirrel were really able to live the kind of doll’s-house life we give to it in fantasy — precisely this kind of fantasy — it would very likely find it unbearable enough to want to die. Having dispatched itself, it would, then, naturally, be available to be stuffed and mounted in just some such scene as this.

Cattelan’s taxidermied horse in Untitled (1996) shows us the outcome of a desperate and undignified gymkhana: a horse, perhaps attempting to leap out of the gallery, has ended up with its head stuck in the wall. It is perhaps from the same stable as the racehorse Tiramisu, which Cattelan stuffed and suspended from the ceiling of a gallery in La Ballata di Trotsky (1997) (when he re-created it for the Tate show Abracadabra in 1999, it was entitled Twentieth Century). In Cai Guo-Qiangs Head On (1996), a stream of 99 wolves launch themselves furiously and unavailingly against a glass wall (these figures were in fact made of adapted sheepskin rather than the bodies of wolves). We might say of all these figures something of what Ted Hughes writes of the black rhino, dying not just of human greed but of the very infantile, aphrodisiac fantasy of her power: "She is vanishing/Into a hallucination./She has blundered somehow into man’s phantasmagoria, and cannot get out."

Perhaps the artists who have made the most serious attempt to use art as a critical displacement of taxidermy are Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, who spent four years, from 2000 to 2004, attempting to track down every stuffed polar bear in Britain (they located 34) to investigate their provenance and to photograph them in situ. Ten of the bears were also displayed, now lifted out of their contexts, in Spike Island in Bristol, and their 2006 book, Nanoq: Flat Out and Bluesome, brought all the materials together. Unlike other artists, for whom the stuffed animal is always a bodily witness — however dismal or damaged — of an animal life that has been lived before or behind its current condition of display, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson aim to show the irreversible "‘eclipse’ of the ‘real’ animal" and its entry into a second "cultural life," as the subtitle of their book, A Cultural Life of the Polar Bear, puts it.

Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson are in the tradition established by Mark Dion, who has said his work "has never been ‘about nature’ but rather has been concerned with ideas about nature." Dion has used various forms of research and installation to explore the ways in which nature has been construed and constructed through different kinds of display. A particular point of connection is supplied by his Ursus Maritimus, a piece that in its 1997 manifestation showed a polar bear, rather poorly stuffed and looking like a mangy Labrador, enclosed in a small puddle of oily liquid on top of a packing case. This has since been amplified into a series of photographs of polar bears in different museum settings bearing the same title. In another iteration, a polar bear sits in a ridiculously small tin bath with a boom box held in its mouth; in Iceberg and Palm Trees (2007), the stranded polar bear now carries the burden of palm trees strapped to its back in a ridiculous sort of howdah, in a visual pun on the animal’s name that suggests the weight of global warming that is coming to bear on it. (For more on Mark Dion, see Artist’s Collection.)

Rather than asserting the specificity of species, taxidermy is now often the vehicle of thought-and-eye experiments in artifice and body modification. The best-known of these is the series "Misfits" produced by Thomas Grünfeld, in which he literally stitched together heads and bodies of different species to create a series of exquisite corpses, which seem to be appealing to us for names — as it may be, the peakeroo (peacock’s head on kangaroo body), budgericat (budgie’s head, cat’s body), lambhound (self-explanatory), cowstrich (cow’s head on ostrich), and ostrookey (ostrich head, rooster’s body and donkey legs). The works certainly arrest but perhaps do not sufficiently detain, for we must wonder how well they succeed in exceeding their descriptions.

The eye occasions more occupation for the mind in the creations of the Dutch duo IdiotsAfke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker — who compound animal forms with fabrics, glass, silver, and jewels. Their works include songbirds fitted with gaily decorative winding keys in their backs and, in a sequence called "Industrial Evolution," familiar birds "improved" by long peacocklike trains decorated gorgeously with beads and needles. The most striking of the works produced by Idiots is Ophelia (2005), which shows a contentedly snoozing lioness, head poised snugly on paws, whose lower body tapers off into bubbles of molten gold. The implied alchemy is palindromic: we may well imagine the animal being melted down into an industrial product but might also see a miracle of form emerging from indeter-minate matter, both alternatives perhaps contained in the dream of the lioness.

In his 2000 book Postmodern Animal, Steve Baker influentially identified a characteristic form of "botched taxidermy" in contemporary artistic practice, in which the result of the botching is that the animal becomes visible as a "fractured, awkward," "wrong," or "wronged thing," and taxidermy itself becomes a phenomenon in which "things ... appear to have gone wrong with the animal, as it were, but where it still holds together." In this way, the "compromised being" of the animal allows it also to become a "questioning entity." The artistic engagement with taxidermy does indeed seem caught up in a dynamic of damage and repair.

Some artists, like Angela Singer, deliberately use taxidermy to open up wounds and exhibit the damage done to animals in effecting their apparent rescue from time. Here, the visible wounding and careless repair of the animals is part of the effort to make restitution for a larger violation. But the "questioning entities" that taxidermic art brings about may have questions to ask of that art as well as of the traditions from which that art may claim or feign to distance itself. In no other arena of art, perhaps, do violation and restitution lie so close to each other. As Klein writes, "[t]he struggle with nature is therefore partly felt to be a struggle to preserve nature, because it expresses also the wish to make reparation." But this means that, as in Dutch artist Katinka Simonses Popple (2008), a Möbius-strip cat-dog, a dog that turns inside out to become a cat, restitution may also further the impulse to violent incorporation, if only in art’s institutional refusal to countenance any kind of containment or inhibition.

"The Right Stuff" originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' March 2009 Table of Contents.