Tag Archives: National Trust

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

Street Culture Centre for Melbourne

I have heard various people talking about establishing a street art museum or a street culture centre in Melbourne. Last year I woke up from a dream such a place so vivid that still felt like calling someone to raise money for it. CDH’s post on Street Art Salvage presumes that eventually some institution will be interested in the material collected. So I am writing this post to start a public discussion about the possibility of a street culture centre.

There are no other street art centres in the world – there is a proposal for a Museum of International Street Art (MISA) in Los Angeles, but it hasn’t got very far. I think that a “culture centre” is probably better description than “museum” and “street culture” rather than “street art” because it is a broader description. Street culture is an actively evolving and changing range of culture practices from aerosol art to zines. It would be good not to limit the place by defining its purpose only in terms of our current taste and understanding. And it does need to be a place that supports current street culture and not just preserve the past. The past must not be isolated from current forms of street culture.

The fact that street culture is largely ephemeral doesn’t mean that the past should not be preserved but that conditions mean that it is unlikely to survive. To repeat George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And there is a lot of repetition in street culture – it is frequently repeating the past. A subculture requires not only a present and a future but also a past. And in preserving the past a street culture centre would facilitate and support future street culture.

Ideally what would such a place be like? It needs to be large, very, very large space, a former factory or warehouse that already has a history of graffiti. I would like to see a hybrid venue something between an art gallery, a skate park and a band venue. It would need to have some very large spaces for a permanent collection and temporary exhibition space. It needs to have walls that are part of the centre and not a barrier. And a car park and loading dock that are multi-functional. MISA’s design ideas are something close to what I am trying to envision. There also need to be a library (including a digital archive), indoor and outdoor space for classes, storage space for the part the collection not on exhibition and, yes a gift shop and café.

The centre would need to be in an area that has adequate infrastructure (public transport and cafes). It would also need to be located in an area that was sympathetic to the additional street art around the space, a tolerance zone like Hosier and Rutledge Lane.

Street art is worth preserving for future generations, this is not a radical statement, in 2004 the National Trust in Victoria’s graffiti policy statement acknowledges that some street art had should be recorded and protected. No matter how things change on the streets people will be interested in seeing examples of this decade of street art. And they will want to experience the street art from this era for real for themselves and not just in books, digital photographs and documentary films. The need to preserve the collective memory must be balanced with the understanding that these works were originally on the street and were intended as ephemeral gestures.

There are many issues with preservation but preserving something appears to be sanctioning it something the anti-graffiti state government appears loathe to do. The 2010 study into the heritage value of significant street art in Melbourne by Heritage Victoria that the then Minister of Planning, Justin Madden asked for, has not been made public. Politically such a street art centre will be difficult and it would need government support. It also needs the support of those active in street culture, something that, from my experience with the Melbourne Stencil Festival/Sweet Streets, is equally politically charged.

But what a fantastic monster this place would be. It would be a unique international tourist attraction for Melbourne.

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