Taxidermy & Contemporary Art

Troy Emery’s exhibition “from far away” at Craft Victoria reminded me that taxidermy and contemporary art are currently very close at least in Melbourne. Not that Emery uses any real animals in his work – he creates unreal animals. Troy Emery covers high density foam taxidermy mannequin with a rainbow of polyester pom poms, or in the case of from far away, a small dog form covered in rayon tassels. From far away is the star of the show, although the bear is bigger. There are some good visual gags in his work, the small dog, Listening, a reference to the dog on the label of His Masters Voice (HMV). (You can see the taxidermy art of Troy Emery on Art Nation on the ABC.)

As if I needed reminding that taxidermy and Melbourne contemporary art are currently very close after visiting “Melbourne Now” at the NGV. Greeting visitors on the stairs is the automated waving taxidermy cat by Greatest Hits collective, Untitled 2012.

Julia de Villa’s installation, Degustation at Melbourne Now is over the top and great. There is so much detail, the inlayed red glittering ‘blood’ on the cutlery; her jewellery studies at RMIT proving useful. The baroque paintings on the walls of the room emphasis the baroque sense of popularism, sensationalism and spectacle in de Villa’s art. I spent sometime in there sketching and looking at the layout of Degustation – making use of the elegant sketching materials provided by the NGV.

I could include Natalie Ryan’s flock covered taxidermy mannequins and Marion Drews’s haunting photography of roadkill into this survey. I keep on thinking about why taxidermy is big at the moment. Not forgetting that there is a big difference between the gothic splendour and horror of de Villa’s taxidermy of real baby animals and Emery’s or Ryan’s entirely fake use of taxidermy mannequins.

There is something kitsch or corny or sentimental about most taxidermy; these are aesthetics that modernism eschewed but are now being explored again. Taxidermy is from another time, a recent but largely forgotten past when hunting was admired, before Bambi, The Deer Hunter and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I have done some taxidermy in my time; in the mid-1970s I went on a tour of the Zimmerman taxidermy factory in Nairobi Kenya. Zimmerman’s was huge, they would taxidermy anything, including elephants. The smell of the tanning animal hides was truly obnoxious (I am not surprise that Julia de Villa is a vegan). For me the smell was tempered with the revelation that they were making clay models to cast forms for insides of the animals. (For more on Zimmerman Ltd see Nairobi’s The Daily Nation.)

Is ‘mannequin’ really the right word given that these are animal forms?

P.S.  The mix of taxidermy and contemporary is not just a Melbourne phenomena there is the British artists Polly Morgan and Tessa Farmer, works mostly with dead insects but may be some taxidermy amongst her work. In 2010 the Museum of Art and Design in NYC had an exhibition: ”Dead or Alive- Nature becomes Art” that featured over 30 artists who used organic material in the art; feathers, bones, silkworm cocoons, plant materials, and hair. It did include some taxidermy art with American artist, Keith W. Bentley’s Cauda Equina, 1995-2007 but there was more work with animal and bird skeletons in the exhibition. (Thanks Tanya)

About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Taxidermy & Contemporary Art

  • Vetti

    I love Troy Emery’s art, sadly it felt a bit crowded/under lit in Craft Vic’s front space. Much preferred his previous show at Gould in South Yarra.

    • Mark Holsworth

      The installation was a bit crowded but I didnt think that was too much of distraction. I didnt see his previous show at Gould.

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