Speculative Taxidermy
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Speculative Taxidermy

Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene

Giovanni Aloi

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eBook - ePub

Speculative Taxidermy

Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene

Giovanni Aloi

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About This Book

Taxidermy, once the province of natural history and dedicated to the pursuit of lifelike realism, has recently resurfaced in the world of contemporary art, culture, and interior design. In Speculative Taxidermy, Giovanni Aloi offers a comprehensive mapping of the discourses and practices that have enabled the emergence of taxidermy in contemporary art. Drawing on the speculative turn in philosophy and recovering past alternative histories of art and materiality from a biopolitical perspective, Aloi theorizes speculative taxidermy: a powerful interface that unlocks new ethical and political opportunities in human-animal relationships and speaks to how animal representation conveys the urgency of addressing climate change, capitalist exploitation, and mass extinction.

A resolutely nonanthropocentric take on the materiality of one of the most controversial mediums in art, this approach relentlessly questions past and present ideas of human separation from the animal kingdom. It situates taxidermy as a powerful interface between humans and animals, rooted in a shared ontological and physical vulnerability. Carefully considering a select number of key examples including the work of Nandipha Mntambo, Maria Papadimitriou, Mark Dion, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Roni Horn, Oleg Kulik, Steve Bishop, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, and Cole Swanson, Speculative Taxidermy contextualizes the resilient presence of animal skin in the gallery space as a productive opportunity to rethink ethical and political stances in human-animal relationships.

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Year
2018
ISBN
9780231543217
1
RECONFIGURING ANIMAL SKINS
Fragmented Histories and Manipulated Surfaces
We will work with iron and wood, with wool and sawdust; starting with the head—whose stuffing is easily removed—and the trunk, then moving on to the body and the legs. A firm structure will be provided by iron—in the legs and to replace the vertebrae—and pieces of wood will be readily shaped to represent the form of the Elephant; then each part of this structure will be inspected thoroughly by myself; should it fail to reach my high standards, the work will be taken apart and we will start again.
—Andrew Drummond, Elephantina
Do not allow your mounted specimens to look like stuffed ones.
—Oliver Davie, Methods in the Art of Taxidermy
UNDOING TAXIDERMY
The renewed interest in taxidermy is a complex phenomenon encompassing interior design, fashion, television series, contemporary art, and the publishing field. As in the nineteenth century, when texts on taxidermy became ubiquitous in France and Britain, we are today not only faced with a new desire to see and own mounted animal skins, but we are also keen to rediscover the history of the craft, to learn how it was made and who made it first.
Recently published titles like Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy and Dave Madden’s The Authentic Animal have presented lively narratives capitalizing on the colorful and eccentric personalities that for years have punctuated taxidermy competitions in the United States.1 Others, like Taxidermy by Alexis Turner and Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury, are presented as lavishly illustrated coffee-table books packed with interesting and well-researched information.2 Meanwhile, academic publishing has critically embraced the return of taxidermy through some challenging and highly informative titles like Pat Morris’s A History of Taxidermy, Rachel Poliquin’s The Breathless Zoo, and Life on Display by Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain.3 Most notable in the artistic publishing field have been the contributions of the artist duo Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson (Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson). An edited collection on taxidermy that documents their epic project nanoq, and Snæbjörnsdóttir’s own Spaces of Encounter: Art and Revision in Human-Animal Relations, offer extremely important institutional critiques as related to the medium.4 Also attesting to the growing popularity of taxidermy in art are two issues of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture published in 2008 and entirely devoted to the subject.5 A number of edited collections on natural history and museum displays have also featured important essays on taxidermy.6
One recurring element shared by many of the aforementioned texts is the persistent desire to legitimize the practice through the construction of a historical metanarrativization of taxidermy’s development through time. This approach mirrors that of the nineteenth-century texts in which authors aimed at popularizing taxidermy as a noble pursuit and scientific endeavor. According to most, taxidermy developed from a clumsy and haphazard stuffing of animal skins reaching the heights of pure realism in natural history dioramas. Authors regularly claim that taxidermy was shaped by slow and steady technological advancements: small refinements in the preservation and mounting methods led to the perfection of hyperrealist dioramas that enthralled audiences in the nineteenth century. But in the suspicion that this metanarrative, like all others, would conceal more interesting realities, I decided to return to the original books that charted and shaped the history of taxidermy for the purpose of recovering what may have been erased through classical historiography.
HISTORIES WITH NO BEGINNING
As is well known, preserved animal bodies are perishable and vulnerable to attack by insects and mold. Thus the material evidence of taxidermy vanishes as we look back in time, curtailing the possibility of establishing meaningful connections between modern taxidermy and any true ancient precursor. According to Pat Morris, the oldest surviving taxidermy mount is a hippopotamus skin stuffed for the purpose of appearing in the collection of early naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605).7 Prior to that point we find only speculation. To compensate, many nineteenth-century authors felt compelled to identify a silent beginning from which to write a metanarrative of taxidermy that usually begins with a disambiguation between taxidermy and Egyptian mummification. Inevitably, the vast majority of taxidermy treatises and manuals from the nineteenth century open with an introductory chapter that identifies the material and theoretical matrix of the craft in order to justify the existence of the practice or to disclose something intrinsic to its charged but cryptic appeal.8 Montagu Browne’s Artistic and Scientific Taxidermy and Modeling (1896)9 and Oliver Davie’s Methods in the Art of Taxidermy (1894) present opposing views.10 While Browne situates the dawn of taxidermy in Egyptian mummification, Davie discounts the effective relevance of a link between taxidermy and mummification on the grounds that “embalming is simply a means of preservation, is a separate art, and cannot, strictly speaking, come under the head of taxidermy, while taxidermy proper attempts to reproduce the forms, attitudes, and expressions of animals as they appear in life.”11
In line with Davie’s position, contemporary expert Pat Morris argues that Egyptian mummies should not be linked to taxidermy because “they do not represent an attempt to recreate lifelike form (nor were they usually ‘stuffed’), so taxidermy does not begin thousands of years ago with the ancient Egyptians.”12 Similarly, Rachel Poliquin states that “mummification leaves the skin intact and in place, [so] the process cannot properly be considered taxidermy.”13 It seems that to many authors, an essential definition of taxidermy requires the evaluation of technical and aesthetic qualities. But this distinction is generally unsatisfactory because of its sweeping nature—it totalizes all mummified and taxidermy objects into general categories that do not account for the fact that objects refuse to remain constant through history; that they split into multiple objects; and that they morph, diverge, and sometimes converge again through time, geographical spaces, and institutional practices and discourses.14 In many ways, it is true that Egyptian mummification of human bodies might have little to do with modern taxidermy. However, a closer focus on the Egyptian mummification of animals can reveal some intriguing analogies.
Salima Ikram, a distinguished professor of Egyptology and animal representation, has shown that in many cases, the viscera of animals were mummified separately and returned to the animal body as it was “further stuffed with soil and sawdust, giving the [animal] the shape [it] had enjoyed in life.”15 Although the reproduction of “life-like form” may not have been the primary motivator behind the process of animal preservation in Egypt, examples such as the dog found in the Valley of the Kings16 and dating to 1500 BCE prove that mummification, in its diverse range of purposes and applications, went well beyond the wrapping of bodies into lumpy bundles.17 Considering that cultural connections between Egypt and Italy predate the ascent of the Roman empire, it is plausible to contemplate that such animal preservation techniques might have been shared, as was true for some burial practices popular in the south of Italy that originated in Egypt. So why is this connection usually overlooked, and why do authors insist on this historiographical maneuver?
The need to address the connection, or lack of thereof, between Egyptian mummification and taxidermy seems to be caused by a desire to legitimize, characterized by a deep, yet unnecessary, preoccupation with the separation of the secular from the spiritual. Distancing taxidermy from mummification only attempts to validate the former as a rational, secular, and thus scientifically valid epistemic tool—it reassures the author (and thus the reader) that they are not dabbling in the mystifying spirituality of mummification, something that might diminish the seriousness of their subject of study.
It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that Montagu Browne, curator of the Leicester Museum, instrumentally identified Sir Hans Sloane’s bird collection (dating from 1725) as the oldest example of known modern taxidermy, from which he began writing his own historical account.18 Sloane was an erudite collector, knowledgeable in chemistry and botany, who eventually founded the British Museum in London.19 Cherry-picking this beginning for his own taxidermy treatise helped Browne to firmly establish the practice within a purely scientific tradition, implicitly rendering it a noble and rationalized pursuit.
Likewise, historiographers have rarely resisted the temptation to provide an essentialist, and therefore totalizing, definition of what taxidermy is rather than what it does.20 In The Breathless Zoo, for instance, Poliquin contextualizes taxidermy as a practice of longing. She argues that
taxidermy is deeply marked by human longing. All organic matter follows a trajectory from life to death, decomposition and ultimate material disappearance. The fact that we are born and inevitably disappear defines us, organically speaking. Taxidermy exists because of life’s inevitable trudge toward dissolution. Taxidermy wants to stop time. To keep life.21
In a sense, Poliquin is right, but doesn’t this definition bring us back to the realm of the transcendent? Furthermore, this essentialist logic could be extended to all classical paintings and sculptures without requiring much alteration—wasn’t preserving beauty and youth one of the main purposes of the visual arts before the invention of photography? To my point that generalizing definitions of taxidermy serve little purpose, it is important to acknowledge that, when it comes to art objects as well as taxidermy, it is underneath the overarching ambition to preserve beauty and youth that the object’s originality, meaning, and agency are found.
TAXIDERMIE
Bypassing the reductive writing of metanarratives has been proposed in Foucault’s conception of knowledge as something that does not progressively advance but that instead sediments—hence his approach to rewriting history is called archaeology. The first and most important archaeological task is to remove the sedimented strata of knowledge for the purpose of revealing the hidden connections between individuals, groups, texts, discourses, and institutions. This defining phase is known as negative work. In the task of dismantling the metanarrativization of taxidermy, negative work constitutes the first and essential step toward a substantial reconsideration of the newly acquired visibility gained by the emergence of the practice in contemporary art. This undoing enables the recovery of statements, underlining discursive formations, and systems of dispersions.22 At stake in these recoveries is the possibility to unveil human/animal relations that may otherwise be forever lost and that, in some ways, could help us to better understand our contemporary relationships with taxidermy and, most importantly, with living animals.
Departing from the hermeneutics of classical historiography and its structuralist linage, archaeology is concerned with the possibility of describing discontinuous surfaces of discourses for the purpose of denying any absolute truth or meaning; it rejects conceptions of continuous evolution of thought and accumulation of knowledge driven by progress.23 However, archaeology simultaneously acknowledges the existence of and capitalizes upon the traceability of regularities, relations, continuities, and totalities.24 The archaeological level of inquiry is therefore essentially concerned with the point of historical possibility for something to happen or emerge—the cultural and material conditio...

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