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Tag Archives: East Melbourne

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

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Fitzroy to East Melbourne

In my wanderings around the city, searching for art galleries and street art, I walk along familiar and unfamiliar streets. I pass the mural on the wall of Whitlam Place in Fitzroy; it has been there a few years but still looks good. Of course these great public murals on so many buildings in Fitzroy would not be possible without artists working illegally along its back lanes. You cannot have one without the other. And there are so many pieces on the streets.

Anon. Fitzroy stencil

In the back lanes of Fitzroy, along with old stencils by Psalm, Dlux, HaHa, Optic and other veteran street artists, Vandal Spruce has been adding his paste-ups. Vandal Spruce is continuing to paste-up to taunt the Victorian Police with his inverted version of their badge. Vandal Spruce has been doing a great many of these paste-ups; I’ve seen them from Brunswick to Fitzroy.

Vandal Spruce, Fitzroy

Crossing Victoria Parade the municipal boundary between the City of Yarra and the City of Melbourne. Suddenly there is no more street art, legal legit pieces nor any illegal pieces. (Like I said you can’t have one without the other.) The backs of street signs were not covered in stickers, the white cream of all the buildings is fresh and clean. And the streets of East Melbourne are almost empty of people in contrast to the bustle of the streets of Fitzroy.

Tom Civil, 3CR wall, Fitzroy

It is only a couple of hundred meters south from 3CR community radio with its sidewall covered in a two story high painting by Tom Civil, Reko Rennie and others. Tom Civil’s huge section with hundred of figures walking, riding bicycles and sitting around a campfire is a great vision of the idea of community. Victoria Parade clearly demarcates the contrasting patchwork of Melbourne’s inner city and the different policies of its municipal governments. Is this what the City of Melbourne has a dedicated graffiti removal van for? To protect the areas of Melbourne occupied by the Masons, private hospitals, surgeons and the police association headquarters from the dread graffiti.


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