Julia Lohmann

At last! Ravishing Beasts revealed: The backstory and related controversies

Tomorrow night marks the opening of our latest exhibit, Ravishing Beasts. Long time coming. Most exhibits take years to plan and execute. In a way, this one has taken decades. Some of the animals and specimens on view haven’t been on public display in half a century; others were acquired and have remained in storage ever since. Credit our guest curator Rachel Poliquin for bringing new life to this historic, eclectic collection. Ravishing Beasts features some 110 species, representing two-thirds of MOV’s natural-history collection. The opening party starts tomorrow at 7 p.m. For details and tickets, click here.

In the exhibit, Poliquin presents a thorough analysis of taxidermy, from its origins to its future relevance, and devotes much space to its current cultural moment in art and design. Taxidermy might not appear an obvious design trend at first, but once alerted to it you start to notice it everywhere from Cactus Club restaurants (note the head trophy mounted over the fireplace in most locations), to contemporary art (George Vergette’s Waning Light is featured in the exhibit), to local design (Pemberton-based Pamela Beattie fashions reclaimed furs into upholstered furniture in homage to B.C.’s pioneer past. Interestingly, her husband is a taxidermy enthusiast with an extensive bird collection. The natural world figures prominently in their home. Click here for details on her design practice.).

Taxidermy is not easily described, running the gamut from strange to profound to provocative to kitschy to offensive. Example: In the latest issue of T magazineThe New York Times’ style magazine, Julia Lohmann is interviewed. The London artist and designer is best known for her piece “Cowbench” (pictured left) in which a single cowhide is “stretched over a  framework to look like the live animal that gave up its skin for us. Except that the cow is without a head. Or legs… It is a depiction of a cow, made of a cow.” In her design “Ruminant Bloom,” a preserved cow stomach is used as a lamp shade. Her stool “Lasting Void” uses a cast of a calf’s internal cavity after it’s been gutted.

Lohmann’s work inspires much controversy, even outright hatred. For her, the outcry is the ultimate hypocrisy. “You kill and cut up a cow and people are outraged,” she is quoted as saying in the piece. “Yet we do that every day. And what percentage of that meat is being thrown away?” For her, the point is to mark the transition from animal to product—and shake up our comfort level. “The transition point is not the killing, or when you take the organs out—we still have emotions for the animal then. It’s only when it’s cut up that it becomes steak, and we feel detached.” (Read the rest of the article here.)

Poliquin, too, has encountered a backlash in her research and documentation of taxidermy (she is currently at work a Ph.D. on the subject through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and will publish a book entitled Taxidermy and Longing next year). Her question is this: Is taxidermy more honest to animal form than fashion or art? Interestingly, one of her least favourite pieces in the show is a stool made from an elephant’s foot because the animal was dissected for the design. She sees Ravishing Beasts as a “question show,” and an opportunity to not only explore the related, and many, controversies, but also to see taxidermy in a new way. “Taxidermy isn’t just about death. Its history is rooted in the wonder and beauty of nature. It reveals much about us, and how we see nature in the world.” For Vancouverites, it’s also a chance to see a collection largely donated by local residents. This is a window into the city’s and the Museum’s past. Much more to come on all of this in the coming weeks.

Image credits (from top to bottom): Rachel Poliquin and Julia Lohmann

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