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Taxidermy as High Art

by Mallory Nanny

Taxidermy as High Art

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November 10, 2011

In 1991, when Damien Hirst unveiled his installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, critics responded with both disgust and worry for what the art world was becoming: obscene. The notorious piece consists of a tiger shark submerged in a tank of formaldehyde. Similar to other shocking works in history, like Duchamp’s Fountain or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Hirst’s installation set the stage for a new trend in contemporary art by introducing taxidermy as innovations in both medium and concept.

The initial criticism surrounding Hirst’s shark stemmed largely from the public’s disdain for the medium. Many consider it outdated and grotesque, as “death on display.” Understandably, using the skins of an animal once-alive to create an immortal, yet frozen, animal would turn some people off. Its roots in colonialism certainly don’t help. And more often than not, it is considered a low-brow art form designated to mount hunting spoils. These unattractive traits associated with taxidermy have made it not only unpopular, but detested by many.

History breeds a new avant-garde

Taxidermy initially was popularized in nineteenth-century Europe to educate the masses about foreign animals. The subsequent onset of zoos and wildlife videos have rendered it useless in this way, but it still informs us about the historical practices and perspectives common in the Victorian era. With the public’s growing discomfort towards viewing it however, it has become a rather controversial issue and museums now are challenged in their methods of showcasing it.

While some argue in favor of taxidermy’s nostalgic and theatrical elements of display, the decision to visit a natural history or science museum that exhibits works of taxidermy really is up to the public.

To keep numbers high, more and more museums have taken steps to modernize their displays. Some confront the issue by posting apologetic signs while others use dioramas to purposefully emphasize the artificiality of the practice. One museum went so far as to burn their collection of more than 200 animals, claiming it was an embarrassment lingering from the Victorian era.

Sometimes history is embarrassing, but the worst thing you can do is hide it. As the history of art repeatedly informs us, the more shocking the work, the more praise it may receive later. Only three years after his heavily-criticized tiger shark, Hirst was awarded the Turner Prize for his Mother and Child, Divided, in which he cut a calf and cow in half and placed them in formaldehyde. He continues to upstage the shock value of his own work, most recently with Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (2010), an installation including two large glass cases buzzing with flies (those still alive, anyway) and a white plastic table sheltering a decapitated cow’s head.

Without using taxidermy in this work, he achieves the ultimate appearance of “death on display,” by including rotting animals. Branded as an icon in the contemporary art world, it’s possible that Hirst has introduced us to a new breed of avant-garde.

A visceral viewer response

Since winning the Turner Prize, Hirst has the authority to disgust his audience - but he’s not alone. Artists not only are allowed to frighten, offend and infuriate us, but are encouraged to do so. When an artwork gains a natural response, it becomes memorable.

Since Hirst headlined the use of taxidermy in 1991, more artists have appropriated the historical medium into sculpture and installation. The controversy attached to it has made it something of a hot material - and now a growing trend - in contemporary art.

Not all artists working with taxidermy aim to mock our squeamish stomachs, though. While it maintains an element of surprise, it actually has proven more versatile a medium than one used purely for shock.

German-artist Thomas Grünfeld communicates his concerns about humanity’s intervention with nature. He plays God in his Misfit series by combining two different species into one visually-striking hybrid (i.e. St. Bernard/sheep). The delicate craftsmanship given to each manipulated beast gives each the appearance of having resulted from a test in genetic engineering.

In a society that perceives cloning, genetically-altered food, and breeding labradoodles as yesterday’s news, he’s got a real message.

Other artists apply taxidermy in their work to call awareness to animal suffering, specifically Belgian-artist Berlinde de Bruyckere. Both her sculptures entitled K36 (The Black Horse) (2003) and K21 (2006) appear equine in their shiny coats and manes, but she has sculpted their bodies and positions to appear so deformed that they are visually perplexing. The feelings of stress and discomfort perceived by these works, coupled with her restriction to use only equine imagery, most likely refers to issues of horse abuse.

Alternatively, British-artist David Shrigley merges taxidermy with his signature dark humor. His 2006 piece entitled Cat with No Head appears just as the title suggests, in which a headless black cat sits frozen before the viewer. A similar sculpture entitled I’m Dead (2010) shows a Jack Russell standing on its hind legs holding a sign that echoes the title of the work. Through adding wit to a morbid subject, his work taunts our feelings, but somehow dares us not to laugh. The playful humor functions to distance our emotion from a uniquely sensitive subject, and treats us to a devilish laugh at something normally considered inappropriate and offensive.

From sub-culture to high art

While taxidermy continues to gain exposure in art galleries and museums, there is still growing debate around its displays in natural history and science museums. Art has the freedom that taxidermy needs to flourish, whereas the latter realms do not. So often regarded as a sub-cultural art form used to mount hunting trophies, it has now been elevated to high-art status, making it a worthy medium in our postmodern era.

Also, unlike other media, taxidermy forces us to think from a fundamental level onward because the medium is a paradox in itself. It is impossible to connect with something dead, but effortless to connect with a work of art. When confronting it in an art-specific space, we may find ourselves trying to rationalize the death of the animal rather than looking for greater meanings as to what it represents and why it was used.

What we really ought to contemplate, however, is its place in contemporary art, as we may be witnessing the progress of a new avant-garde in art history.

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