All sorts of stuff
The use of taxidermied animals in contemporary art and elsewhere
By Paul Carey-Kent. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 12 June 2013
In this overview of the different types and uses of taxidermy, the author, Alexis Turner, defines taxidermy art narrowly as “the art of preparing and mounting skins in a lifelike manner”, but then includes examples of the related areas of pickling and the display of skeletons, antlers and horns. Yet when it comes to his consideration of art, these are omitted (as are, therefore, any references to skulls and Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde works). Constructions with feathers, photographic collages and facsimile animals are, however, among his examples. Definitional boundaries aside, this is a sumptuously produced and picture-stuffed survey that presents taxidermy in the context of the fluctuating history of its reception.
One can distinguish four ages of taxidermy. First, the age of insufficiency: until 1743, when Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur came up with arsenic soap as a means of preventing the growth of larvae on the inside of hides, techniques were not reliable enough for the results to survive in the long term. Second, the age of mainstream acceptance and elaboration (around 1800-1920): now that stuffed animals, if prepared correctly, could be rendered imperishable, it was possible to develop souvenirs of hunting prowess, educational means of presenting examples of natural science and increasingly sophisticated and imaginative—if not always tasteful—3-D genre scenes. The French, for example, developed the technically difficult (because of their thin skins) art of presenting frogs and toads dressed as humans. Third, the age of unpopularity: in the 20th century, aesthetic trends and ethical concerns, notably the protection of wildlife, made taxidermy a dubious undertaking. Fourth, the age of recrudescence: in the past 30 years, and in this century in particular, taxidermy has returned to favour. The animals are now roadkill or “ethically” procured, and the increasing popularity of Victoriana fits in well with this change. One confirmatory indicator was the success (after a failed bid of £1m by Damien Hirst) of Bonhams’ auction of the contents of Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in 2003, and there has been a simultaneous, if more controversial, revival in the acceptability of wearing natural fur.
Building on these developments, this book is an upbeat account that emphasises how widespread and fashionable taxidermy has now become—although it should be noted that the author is the founder of London Taxidermy, a commercial supplier of stuffed animals, and so has a vested interest in that positive view.
Turner organises his material effectively, using a mixed approach: three chapters are based on places in which taxidermy can be seen, a further three look at taxidermy’s characteristics, and there is a concluding consideration of its use in art. He considers museums, interior decoration (including the macabre business of keeping one’s dead pets on view) and commercial contexts, such as the decoration of fashion-conscious restaurants. He also looks at anthropomorphic tableaux, “freaks and fakes”, and what he terms the zoomorphic—furniture and objects fashioned from one or more parts of the animal. Elephants’ feet, for example, can act as waste bins, and armadillos make particularly good sewing baskets. These, Turner concedes, have not yet returned to popularity.
Taxidermy as art receives coverage similar to that of other themes, with 40 pages of illustrations covering, for example, the surge in British artists—mostly women, as it happens—who work principally in the area: Tessa Farmer, Polly Morgan, Kate MccGwire and Claire Morgan. Among the featured artists who have used taxidermy as part of a broader practice are Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Daniel Firman (his elephant balanced on its trunk adorns the cover) and Thomas Grünfeld, whose “Misfits” fuse different animals into one conjunct body to disturbingly attractive effect. Another such artist, Maurizio Cattelan, is the most surprising omission. Several of the Italian joker’s most memorable provocations could have been included (for example, his suicidal squirrel, infestations of pigeons, TV-carrying donkey, ostrich with head buried in the floor and elongated hanging horse). There is, however, no discussion of why they use taxidermy. Is it a category with its own distinct tendencies and developing tradition, or is it that contemporary artists use a wide variety of techniques, of which taxidermy is but one?
What Turner gives us, then, is a thorough visual overview of the full range of taxidermy. He obviously loves much of it, but does not make much attempt to explain why we should share his passion. No matter: Taxidermy will help you assess your own tastes as you journey through its curious world.
Taxidermy, Alexis Turner, Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £19.95 (hb)
The writer is a Southampton-based art critic who writes reviews for publications including The Art Newspaper and Art Monthly. For his blog, visit paulsartworld.blogspot.com
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