Monthly Archives: February 2015

Why Look At Dead Animals?

A young male polar bear balances on top of a fridge floating like an industrial iceberg, a male lion free from its collar and chain rolls on a king sized bed, two Magellanic penguins have made a nest of plastic soldiers. This is the stunning, impressive and thought-provoking taxidermy art of Rod McRae in the setting of the National Trust’s historic Tasma Terrace.

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Often, it is taxidermy about taxidermy: The Dome of Doom, one of McRae’s smaller installations, refers to the nineteenth century displays of birds or butterflies in glass domes. The headless animals reminding the viewer that they were shot for their heads as hunting trophies, the cost of shooting a zebra… It is also about what humans are doing to other animals and their habitats.

It might seem an odd idea to use stuffed animals as art about conservation but all McRae’s animals have been ethically sourced. What does “ethically sourced taxidermied animals” mean? In the case of the polar bear it was shot by Inuit hunters and the skin sold to support their community.

For centuries humans have been looking at dead animals, mostly as a source of food and also, for information about the animal. Natural history museums are full of display cases of dead animals, there are many more preserved in storage for species identification. Displays of hunting trophies along with still life paintings that include dead animals amongst the food depicted made an art of looking at dead animals. Toulouse-Lautrec’s father would regularly sketch and then eat what he hunted. With the increase in human population this aesthetic interest in dead animals was unsustainable and most people now avoid looking or, even, thinking about dead animals.

Along with the environmental ethics there is a religious tone to the exhibition, the lion lying down with the lambs, makes it obvious and McRae has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize for religious art. Not that this is uncritical belief with McRae noting Christian hunting organisations on the zebra’s crate. (See Derek Beres ‘The Cult of Christian Hunting and America’s Gun Problem’.)

Rod McRae started as a children’s book illustrator and there are still some elements of that in his art with clear visual communication in the illustration of idea. Five years ago he started creating taxidermy installations to illustrate ideas about animal conservation.

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

The original occupants of Tasma Terrace in East Melbourne, or Easthill as it was once known, would have had their own collections of taxidermy animals. The Victorian interest in exploring the natural world and collecting has come full circle with contemporary art reflecting the on its legacy.

Tasma Terrace was built in 1879 by George Nipper who two years after Tasma Terrace was completed he build the majestic Windsor Hotel and then went bankrupt. Tasma Terrace was saved from demolition in 1969 by the public and National Trust. The conservation of this piece of built environment creates itself parallel theme to the exhibition’s theme of natural conservation.

For more on taxidermy and contemporary art see my blog post or just enter ‘taxidermy’ in the search box in my sidebar. It is surprising just how many contemporary artists are working taxidermyfrom the gothic, bejewelled work of Melbourne-based Julia Devilla to New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who had an exhibition of faux-taxidermy at GOMA in 2014. There are so many that there is a book Taxidermy Art by Robert Maybury that covers many of the notable taxidermy artists that includes Maybury, himself, along with Rod McRae and Julia Deville.

Rod McRae and the National Trust presents Wunderkammer at Tasma Terrace, 6 Parliament Place in East Melbourne. ‘Wunderkammer’ has to be the most overused title for an exhibition in the last two years.

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012


Time Warp to Victorian

Sitting upstairs at Coco Black enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and looking out the half-circle, one-way mirrored window out to the Royal Arcade. Watching the shoppers, the group of cub scouts and the tour group. Walking tours are now a common sight in Melbourne, this one is lead by a guide with a stereotypical red umbrella, not that there weren’t walking tours of Melbourne in the nineteenth century.

Royal Arcade

At the base of the display windows in Royal Arcade the shop signs, like that of The Games Shop, are still hand painted in keeping with the late nineteenth century design of the arcade. I think about how many sign painters are still working in Melbourne.

Royal Arcade Games Shop

Time warp back to Marvellous Melbourne, through Royal Arcade and its sister, the Block Arcade, to the invention of shopping as a social experience in the nineteenth century. So much of life as we know it; a home in the suburbs, ‘childhood’, ‘domestic bliss’ and ‘the standard of living’ are nineteenth century inventions.

The Victorian legacy haunts the state of Victoria. Each generation after has created their own version of this time as they live in the houses on networks of roads that were all built in the late nineteenth century. We can’t avoid it, we have inherited a built environment like we have inherited our genes. The Victorian legacy also defines the Australian constitution and other aspects of the nomesphere, the legal construction of geography.

Not only geography but our psychology and taste are still effected by the Victorians. The next generations, the moderns, turned their back’s on their parent’s tastes, even though they had been brought up in a nineteenth century manner. For the baby boomers this meant the joyous rediscovery of all the decorative excess of their grandparent’s generation that were now readily available as heirlooms or filling second hand dealers. Nineteenth century design became part of the psychedelic aesthetic. The spiritualism of the late nineteenth century was also revived as the new age. For the Gen X, with no living connection to their nineteenth century ancestors, they are free to invent their own interpretation, steam-punk. In much the same way, and about as accurately, as the Victorians has re-invented King Arthur, Vikings and the Druids. We continue to try to live with and adapt the legacies of the late nineteenth century.

Also remembering the connections between modern art and modern shopping; Walter Benjamin on shop window displays. Almost every time I go past Aesop I have to remind myself that I’m not passing a contemporary art gallery but an up-market cosmetics shop. Their display is so elegant and minimalist. What is the difference between a shop window display and an art installation? I was not surprised when I read that there was a performance art piece at Aesop during the Melbourne Art Fair 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of the Victorian era on Melbourne’s culture. There are so many aspects from the architecture and design of Melbourne and my own suburb of Coburg, to the current revival of the popularity of board games. I should think, research and post some more on this subject.

(For more about the Gog and Magog clock in Royal Arcade see my post on Melbourne’s novelty clocks.)


The City and the Spectacle

“It was fantastic; I didn’t see anything but the backs of people’s necks for the whole night.” A friend was telling me about his experience of Melbourne’s White Night in 2014. Many people have told me about their experiences with the crowds at White Nights. Nobody that I know will be going again.

Very early on in White Nights 2013

Very early on in White Nights 2013

I didn’t go in 2014 as the crowds in 2013 were enough for me – I don’t consider queuing for food to part of an enjoyable evening. Instead I retreated to Brunswick where I saw an excellent free gig and had some good food. I know where to find good food and music in Brunswick because I’ve lived in the area for many years. I might have viewed it differently if I was a visitor.

Mega-city Melbourne has a spectacle and events based economy that needs to attract tourists and local visitors to the centre of the city. A spectacle based economy is the post-modern version of the bread and circuses economic model for a city, drawing in the festival crowd.

People might complain about individual events nobody complains about the whole spectacle based city; after all for a post-industrial city Melbourne could have ended up like Detroit. However, as Rio and the rest of Brazil knows after the 2014 World Cup, Melbourne is learning creating a spectacle based economy has costs.

Living in a spectacle driven city where every week there is a festival or major event where a large part of the economy is driven by presenting constant spectacles to attract local, interstate and international visitors might seem great but there is a dark side to the bright lights.

Few question if being presented in a festival format is appropriate. Gina McColl in “Blockbusted” (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013) argues that blockbuster exhibitions that: “distorting the wider role and purpose of our state-funded collecting institutions: curating, exhibiting and caring for their own archive, complete with scholarly research and conservation.”

Attracting international events costs, including bribing the members of the committee that decides where these events can be hosted, paying for the event takes away money that could be spent on the needs of local residents. The spectacular events can be alienating to residents; Melbourne’s Grand Prix attracts crowds while annoying and inconveniencing residents.

While the politicians are busy trying to attract major events they ignore the fact that Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure is insufficient for hosting spectacles. During the Melbourne Commonwealth Games workers were asked to work from home to make room on public transport for people going to the games. The central hub structure of the public transport network concentrates the crowds into a small section of the inner core of the city.

Public Event Ahead

What is the real evidence for the claim about a spectacular based economy? According to a recent an evidence review, zero (Evidence Review Sports and Culture, July 2014). I will repeat that number, in case you missed it, zero. There is no evidence to back up the claims that major sporting and artistic events contribute anything to local economy but there is still faith in Melbourne that the international reputation of the city will have some subtle unmeasured effect. However, evidence counts for little in current political debates.

How do we create diverse city, aware of the dynamic forces at work? What is the tao of urban design? Urban acupuncture projects? How does a mass spectacle benefit the residents? Not just thinking about profits for multinational construction firms but local business. What does it give to the people who use the area every day?


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