Dead Animals: Taxidermy in Art

Mar 10, 2016

Have you given any thought lately to your relationship with animals? Statistics reveal a contradictory interaction between humans and other species.

Here in the United States, the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that there could be as many as 176 million dogs and cats being kept as pets, many of them no doubt treated as beloved members of the family. On the other hand, figures from the Humane Society show billions of cattle, chickens and other livestock slaughtered every year for food.

We protect certain animals in the wild, with the Endangered Species Act. Others we capture and keep in zoos.  It’s a complex relationship, and it's now on display in a provocative art exhibit at Brown University's David Winton Bell Gallery in Providence. The show features animals preserved through taxidermy in art works both darkly humorous and confrontational.

"I'm cute, I'm dead. I'm cute, I'm dead," said Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery, as she walked through the exhibit she curated: Dead Animals, or the Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art.

The title deliberately echoes Sherlock Holmes, a reference the Victorian era, when taxidermy filled the world's museums of natural history. That has changed, Conklin said.

“At the same time as taxidermy is being moved out of natural history museums, it is finding a place in art galleries. And I was interested in figuring out why that was and what the artists were interested in doing, by bringing animals, and specifically taxidermy, into their art works.”   

Conklin stands next to the most well-known piece in the exhibit, Damian Hirst's Away from the Flock. Art enthusiasts will know this as the dead sheep preserved in formaldehyde. While not actually an example of taxidermy, it's a striking addition to the works of the 17 other artists in the exhibit, and Conklin found that three major themes that emerged as she curated the display.

“The first is death. Taxidermy is always made of dead animals, so no matter how lively, we know that this animal is dead," Conklin said. "And there is this issue of using the dead animal as a surrogate for our feelings about our own mortality."

Another theme is "hybridity." A number of the artists in this show make use of the the fact taxidermy often combines parts of different animals and, sometimes,  mixes human and animal parts.

"This can raise up issues of cloning and genetic engineering," Conklin said. "And then the largest group of artists are people who are very concerned about our relationship with animals and where that divide is between the human and the animal. And they’re trying to sort of reposition it, so that we think of animals as one of us rather than others.”   

On that last theme, Conklin points to an installation by two artists, a husband and wife, who framed rows and rows of photographs of taxidermied polar bears. Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir, who is Icelandic, and her husband Mark Wilson surveyed all of the taxidermied polar bears in the UK for the piece, according to Conklin. They call the result Nanoq: flat out and bluesome. Nanoq is the Inuit word for polar bear. 

“My name, Snaebjornsdottir, it basically means the daughter of a snow bear,”   Snaebjornsdottir said, explaining her interest in polar bears.

The bears that Snaebjornsdottir and Wilson photographed were killed in the Arctic or brought back alive to Great Britain. All were eventually stuffed and mounted, and the artists found them in museums, zoos and private homes.Next, they researched the personal history of each animal, and they provide that story beneath each photograph.

“As you look into them, these individual stories actually unravel and contradict that impression of sameness, so that is very much about finding that individual story behind each photograph,” Wilson said.   

The works in this exhibit are multi-layered and thought provoking, and some carry a strong emotional undertow as well. For example: the creation Killed to Be Dressed, by Deborah Sengl.

“This is a funny, disturbing piece," said curator Jo-Ann Conklin, pointing to three taxidermied specimens, a stoat, a fox and a mink. All wear clothing made out of human flesh.

"And we can see the nose of the human, we can see their thumb and thumbnails," Conklin continued.  "We can see breasts and nipples. And they’re playful and funny, but they have a real sort of yuck factor.”

Definitely a "yuck factor," but the work also comes with an added kick. All of a sudden you see yourself as simply an accessory to an animal.

“Right," said Conklin. "As they have been to us, for a long time.”

One of the most affecting pieces in the exhibit is called Inert, by Nicholas Galanin. The word "inert" means lacking the ability or the strength to move, immobile, and indeed the piece depicts a beautiful wolf, unable to move because, of course, it's dead.

But the very air around it seems to vibrate with the intensity of the animal’s will to rise. The back end of the wolf is flat on the ground, like a wolf-skin rug. From the shoulders up, the animal is stuffed and appears to be trying to pull itself up onto its feet.

"It’s an incredibly powerful image of struggle. It was made by a Native-American who talks about it in terms of the Native-American struggle to be seen outside of the cliché of our stereotype of them," said Conklin. "But you could look at it and say it’s about the wolf’s struggle to survive against the ranchers. You could look at it and say it’s about animals or people struggling against death. It could be this very open-ended piece."

"And it’s gorgeous," Conklin added. "I just want to hug it.”

There are some pieces in this exhibit you will most definitely not want to hug. You may not even want to get very close to some, like the 8-foot tall African kudu, with a haunted, human face, by Kate Clark. But you won’t soon forget what you see here.

Conklin says the reaction to the exhibit has been gratifying. Attendance has been higher than usual at the gallery, and people seem excited about the exhibit. But there have been concerns raised about the use of taxidermy.

"We’ve had a few calls and emails from people who were concerned by the use of taxidermy in art," said Conklin. "I am convinced that if they could see the show and see what the artists were doing with it, they would have better feelings about that. But people have very personal views about this stuff and it is really weighty material, so I respect their responses that way.”

Dead Animals, or the Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art remains at the Bell Gallery at Brown University until March 27th.