Tag Archives: taxidermy

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


Taxidermy Spectacular

Julia deVille: Phantasmagoria and Leslie Rice: Bacchanalia at Sophie Gannon Gallery.

Julia deVilla, Rocking Alpaca

Julia deVille, Rocking Alpaca

After the dining room theme of her installation, Degustation in Melbourne Now, deVille’s Phantasmagoria is more from the bedroom and the nursery. In Beatrix, a rabbit, wearing a black formal coat with tails, sits alert on an antique high chair. Rocking Alpaca has a white, baby alpaca standing on a rocking horse base. In other works a fawn and a rat lie in a crib and a piglet, decorated with antique lace, lies in an antique baby carriage. There are wind up keys in many of the taxidermy animals suggesting toys with a clockwork mechanism.

Julia deVille’s art is beautiful but it is the emotions that it causes, ranging from cloying sentimentality to mawkish horror, that amplify the charge this beauty. The spectacular sensationalism of her taxidermy installations give them a neo-baroque style. Her art makes it seem that aesthetics, like cute, horror, sentimental and nostalgia are more about emotions than beauty and that beauty is only another quality, added on top of an emotional response.

To concentrate on deVille’s taxidermy, especially the delicate work with the extremely tiny young animals, is to forget other aspects of the exhibition. The contemporary techniques of assemblage and installation, most notably in her jewellery work and the installation itself. Jewellery has always been a kind of assemblage technique, reusing old materials, resetting old stones but deVille makes it contemporary art. Her installation aspect combines with collecting antiques with contemporary art’s interest in the mechanics of display.

Although the installation of antique furniture that the work is displayed on does somewhat, alleviate the clinical white of the gallery. The paintings of Leslie Rice, dark bacchanal scenes painted in acrylic on black velvet, also help with the atmosphere. When I first saw Rice’s paintings I thought that they must have been bad ‘old master’ paintings with fugitive colours, that had been dug out as an accompaniment to deVille’s Degustation. Now that I am aware of them, I still have the same opinion; they seem stuck in the past and lack the contemporary sensibility that deVille brings to her assemblages of antiques.

It has been a couple of years since I have been to the galleries in Albert Street, East Richmond and things have changed. Where there were once half a dozen galleries now only two cling on (or three if we include the artist run space that was closed when I visited). Along with Sophie Gannon Gallery, Anita Traverso Gallery is still in Albert Street. It is not that they have all closed. John Buckley Gallery is now located in Prahran, Jenny Port Gallery is now in Collingwood and Karen Woodbury has moved to Flinders Lane.


The Birds @ Flinders Lane

“among all things that fly the mind is swiftest” Rig Veda (Book 6, Hymn IX)

Two exhibition at Flinders Lane Gallery both with a theme of birds.

In Jon Eiseman’s exhibition “Other Realities” the birds are in symbols of the mind transcending the surface reality. Like Max Ernst or local artist, Kevin Mortensen Eiseman has the head of a bird in his art. Symbolically birds and fish are creatures that regularly move from the surface world into other worlds/realities. In Eiseman’s small bronze sculptures a Magritte-like everyman in a suit, a traveller with suitcases inhabits a world of birds and fish. Eiseman’s fantastic world has an enchanting sense of poetry that translates into a photographic collaboration with Anne Coran.

In Michelle Molinari’s exhibition the birds are dead, there is no avoiding the subject, not that their death is dwelt in a grisly way, it is just that they are undeniably dead. There is no air in their bell jars. (Narrowly avoids descending into Monty Python’s parrot sketch.) Molinari’s taxidermy and oil paintings are not intended to create the illusion of life, or a euphemistic ‘sleep’, only to preserve the beautiful image of the animal. Molinari’s images of dead animals are beautiful, spectacularly beautiful with a neo-baroque style to the images and their frames. Her paintings are set against a dark background that emphasises the colour and light on the feathers of the birds. The spectacle of the beautiful dead reminds the viewer of the contemporary world that attempts to avoid looking at the dead or even mentioning it. The title “Nature Mort” reminds me of my first attempt to translate the French mort nature (still life) that I garbled into “dead nature”. (See Arts Diary 365 for more on Michelle Molinari and my post on Taxidermy and Contemporary Art.)

 


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)


New Sculpture @ Michael Koro

On Friday night I went to the opening of Obecjkt (new sculpture) at Michael Koro Galleries. Adrian Doyle and Joel Gailer curated the exhibition; selecting a wide variety of contemporary sculptures from notable sculptors ranging from the monolithic to the street.

The opening was worth attending not just to drink the wine and to talk to the curators and artists. I was shown work in progress in Blender Studios out the back, watched Michael Meneghetti’s performance and the live spraying in the laneway. I almost forgot to look at the Melbourne Propaganda Window by video artist Pip Ryan; this is the first time I’ve been there after dark.

Michael Meneghetti "Vixen"

Michael Meneghetti "Vixen"

 

Michael Meneghetti did a performance of “Vixen”; body art is another type of contemporary sculpture. The leather and pine wood harness that Meneghetti uses in his performance are displayed vestigial remnants propped up against the gallery wall. The actual performance was impressive for the modification of human movement and Meneghetti’s half-hour endurance. Meneghetti did not restrict his performance to the art gallery; he dodging traffic crossing Franklin Street and wandered around. The performance incorporated sado-masochistic references in the saddle and headwear and also the idea of objectifying the body.

I had seen Natalie Ryan flocked animals earlier in the year at her solo exhibition at Diane Tanzer Gallery. Combining the kitsch aesthetics of flock covered toys and taxidermy Ryan has produced uncanny sculptures – a pink fox, a white skunk and a black hare. Taxidermy only preserves the skin of the animal, the eyes, the tongue and the form of the animal underneath the skin is artificial. Ryan has replaced the skin with synthetic flock fibers. The viewer might want to stroke the flocked covered animal forms but is stopped by the artificially unremittingly gaze of their lidless prosthetic eyes.

Ben Fasham has been a finalist in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award 2008 and the Montalto Sculpture Prize (2009). His elegant formal geometric sculpture is exhibited in a study maquette and in monolithic scale in white painted aluminum. His “Unexpected interruption” is a geometric phallic erection.

There were three of the bent skateboards of Jason Waterhouse from the Federation Square Skateboard Series. The worn decks had been carefully sawn up and reassembled so that the plywood decks bent around corners.

English culture-jammer street-artist, D*Face Big Mouth Project was previously on exhibition at Lunar Park. It had been moved to the end of the laneway adjacent to Blender Studios. Big Mouth is a large open mouth. This is an old take on an old image: the mouth as a gate, like the mouth of Hell in medieval mystery plays or Melbourne’s own Lunar Park entrance. It is crude but effective.

D*Face Big Mouth

D*Face Big Mouth

 

I was un-impressed by Tim Sterling post-minimal assemblages of white paper clips, black cable ties and colored pins form rectilinear areas on the wall particularly as I had seen many better works by him. I also felt indifferent towards Andrew Gutteridge’s basic sculptures; in  “Twisted Ink” the dynamic ribbon of twisted aluminum spans two points.


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