About the book, she says:
"Taking off from some of the things I talk about in this blog, my book explores the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lively postures from sixteenth-century cabinets of wonders to contemporary animal art. Why does anyone want to preserve an animal, and what does this animal-thing become? I suggest that taxidermy is always entwined with the enduring human longing to find meaning within the natural world. By drawing out the longings at the heart of taxidermy—the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance—I explore the animal spectacles we desire to see, human assumptions of superiority, the yearnings for hidden truths within animal form, and the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange human existence, being both within and apart from nature."
If Ravishing Beasts caught your eye, I suspect it this will be a fascinating read for you.
Who knew an exhibit on taxidermy would be such a hit?
As much as we loved the ideas explored in Ravishing Beasts, and the opportunity to reveal all the animals and species we’d been hoarding in our basement for decades, we were surprised by the crowds and media interest it sustained these past few months (some of the press coverage is linked here). Credit guest curator Rachel Poliquin for seeing beyond the stale narratives of taxidermy—hunting, conquest, decay—and telling a contemporary, even surprising, story. In so many ways, she’s given this strange, disparate collection an afterlife.
Of course, taxidermy had gained a new generation of admirers long before Ravishing Beasts came along. Last July, the New York Times posted a stunning slideshow capturing the “New Vintage.” The movement involves a new generation of antiques collectors seeking Victorian oddities like taxidermy, liqueurs, and apothecary items. The New Vintage aesthetic is all over New York City’s once-gritty-now-trendy Lower East Side neighbourhood. Boutique hotels—ever-the-arbiter of the latest design trends—have embraced it. See: The Bowery Hotel and the Ace Hotel’s New York location.
It all seems a reaction to the minimal, contemporary aesthetic that’s dominated the design world for well over a decade now, and a return to the rare and one-of-a-kind. This new breed of collectors finds beauty in ignored, even ugly, animals and objects; in painstakingly curated clutter. The contents of their apartments can’t be replicated by a quick trip to Crate and Barrel and that’s entirely the point. Hollister Hovey, one of the collectors interviewed in the story that ran with the slideshow, writes a blog on the New Vintage movement; it’s definitely worth a scan.
The popularity of Ravishing Beasts may indicate there’s a similar movement afoot in Vancouver, where new construction dominates the skyline, and stark, contemporary design reigned long before it was fashionable everywhere else. But more than a desire to see something different, we think people came the museum to see a side of Vancouver’s history that deviates from the established, self-aggrandizing tale of the city at one with nature. Look closer, and you see a history of questionable colonial acquisitions and of nature tamed—just like anywhere else.
The exhibit draws to a close this Sunday, February 28. We now have a limited number of exhibit catalogues available for purchase at our visitor services desk ($15 a piece). Thanks to everyone who visited.
Image credit: cabin + cub
Ravishing Beasts, MOV’s latest exhibit, explores all-matters taxidermy—from its colonial past to its once-prominent role in museums to its present-day revival in design. In conversation with MOV, curator Rachel Poliquin (pictured left) discusses how the show came to be, what museums should do with their taxidermy collections now, and the rather sad stuffed fox she calls her own.
How did you first become interested in taxidermy?
It was at the Natural History Museum in London. I noticed some small brown signs throughout the public galleries that said: “These animals are from our historical collections and many are from the nineteenth century. As a result, many are old and shabby and may not offer as realistic a presentation of the animals as contemporary taxidermy could offer, but we feel it is more responsible to rely on these collections than to collect new animals.” It was the first time that I’d ever thought about taxidermy. The signs made me wonder what sort of things these animals were, lingering from another era. They once had been valued, and now they were being dismissed as something less, something lacking, something dingy—both physically and ethically. In other words, my interest in taxidermy started from a point of nostalgia and not from an interest in hunting culture, which is what most people think about when they think about taxidermy.
How did the exhibit Ravishing Beasts come to be?
When I realized that MOV had a collection of taxidermy that had been in storage for half a century, it seemed the perfect opportunity to explore some of my thoughts about taxidermy, about its historical value, its current relevance, and its strange emotional immediacy. I proposed the exhibition to MOV about two and half years ago, although the actual design and building of Ravishing Beasts has been about a year in the works.
Is all taxidermy created equal or do some pieces have more ‘value’ than others?
Because all taxidermy was once a living, breathing animal, I think that all pieces of taxidermy have value and should be treated appropriately. But of course, extinct species have an additional and very heavy moral weight to them. They are incredibly tragic and incredibly powerful cautionary tales.
Where did Lucky the dog come from? How important was it to have a preserved pet genre represented—and who knew some people have their pets stuffed?
Lucky came from an older gentleman in Quebec. He had Lucky stuffed about twelve years ago, but recently he went into a care home. The home didn`t want Lucky and his children didn’t want the dog either. Apparently, they read about my search for a stuffed pet for the exhibition on my website. The only stipulation is that they didn’t want the dog back.
Do you have any taxidermy in your home?
I have Rupert, a horribly stuffed fox in a stump. He was a gift. My guess is that he was run over by a truck and someone without any taxidermy experience decided to stuff him. His middle section must have been beyond help, hence the stump girdle.
You’ve suggested that taxidermy is more honest to animals than fashion or art. How so?
I am really not fond of taxidermy that manipulates the animal form—such as replacing their heads with light bulbs or sewing different parts of different animals together. There is something disrespectful or shock-mongering about this rupture and reconfiguration of the animal’s body. But having said that, leather shoes, belt, and chairs offer even less of the animal. Nothing, no semblance of the animal remains. I admit that I wear leather shoes, so I have really had to ask myself why these pieces cause me problems. I think it is precisely because they do offer some part of the animal, some sort of broken encounter, which makes death and desire incredibly present and potent.
What do you think of the work of, let’s call them whole-animal artists, like Julia Lohman and Damien Hirst?
Some of the contemporary art that is being done with taxidermied animals is amazing. Some is really terrible and seems to be just using animals because they are edgy and shocking. When done well, the creatures have such a presence, and often a highly troubling presence, which adds something so ambiguously powerful to the works. George Vergette’s Waning Light from the exhibition is a beautiful work that captures this troubling ambiguity while still respecting the animal. When done well, animal art can make us question the validity of the line between humans and other animals. It can make us think about ecology and conservation. It can make us question the contradictions in our relationships with non-human animals. When done badly, it just seems gratuitous.
As you mention, most of MOV’s naturally-history collection, of which these taxidermied animals are a part, has been in storage for years; some of it has never been on public display. What do you think should be done with it going forward?
I think there is great value in looking at animals, whether living, on television, or even in a taxidermied form. The more we learn and understand about the other inhabitants of this world, the more we can appreciate and respect the diversity of creaturely life. I have never advocated the making of new taxidermy, but I do advocate the respect of old collections. These animals are already dead. They can offer a visceral and emotional immediacy. They can tell stories about our past and future encounters with the natural world. And there is value in those stories. I would love to see them go on display in some more permanent way at MOV.
And what’s next for you?
I have several projects in mind that all have to do with the ways we encounter and think about the natural world. But I’ll keep them under my hat for the moment—in part because they might sound as kooky as if I said I wanted to curate an exhibition about taxidermy.
Ravishing Beasts is on view until February 28, 2010. For details, click here.
Image credit: Rebecca Blissett
Last weekend, MOV participated at IDSwest and our booth featured animals from our upcoming exhibit Ravishing Beasts. Specifically: a vole, a snow owl, and a dog by the name of Lucky—all three of them taxidermied.
We’d prepped for possible blow back (”Displaying a stuffed dog? Are you out of your mind?!”), and while there was a bit of that, more often there were double takes followed by incredible conversations, ranging from animal rights to the Museum’s new vision and how Ravishing Beasts fits within it. What a time.
Guest curator Rachel Poliquin aptly describes the exhibit “as a question show.” Don’t come expecting tidy interpretations. Most of the animals displayed are part of the Museum’s natural-history collection, and most are shrouded in mystery. We know little about many of them except that they were donated by Vancouver residents. But more on all that after the show opens on October 22. (Tickets to the opening night party happening on the 21st are now available. Click here.)
We’ll leave you with this: One section of the show looks at taxidermy’s resurgence in art and design (something the crowd at IDSwest was well aware). Other museums are tracking this trend, too. Currently, the MAK art museum in Vienna is hosting Furniture as Trophy, which chronicles the use of animal materials in interior design. There are medieval antler chandeliers, Le Corbusier’s famous leopard-skin covered chaise, and contemporary art pieces, like sculptures by Micha Brendel that use organic materials to explore relationships between medicine, science, and art. Absurd? Surreal? Beautiful? Offensive? That’s for you to decide. Click here.
Image credit: MAK Art Museum
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 magazine, The 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.
We’re about to dramatically shift gears here: Velo-City closes September 7; on October 22,Ravishing Beasts opens. The Museum goes from a look at local cycling culture to exploring the history and present-day revival of taxidermy. An unlikely follow up, you might say. Velo-City was a strong example of the Museum’s new direction and, to our minds, prescient; Ravishing Beasts explores our past, fitting elements of our collection into a contemporary context. The exhibit features taxidermy and other items from our natural history collection that have not been on public display since the Museum moved to its current location in 1968. Expect an eclectic and dramatic round up of exotic and local species alongside taxidermy-influenced artwork by artists like Vancouver’s George Vergette. Also expect interesting debate about the past, present, and future course of the Museum of Vancouver—and the changing nature of museum collecting in general—in the months ahead.
Interestingly, little is known about the provenance of many of the animals in our collection, only that they were donated by Vancouver residents. We’re looking to riff on that a bit, by asking locals to loan us their deer head trophies for a wall display we’re creating near the entrance of the exhibition. To participate, send a digital image and the dimensions of the piece to Wendy Nichols, curator of collections: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s going to get interesting around here… Many more posts to come.
Image credit: Rachel Poliquin