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A dark fascination with taxidermy

Posted by Joanna Chard on 31st March 2011

Recent years have seen an unexpected rebirth of taxidermy as a resource for artist such as Alma Haser, Polly Morgan and Susan Bozic. Even fashion designers have jumped on the stuffed animal wagon, with Louis Vuitton’s windows displaying dead giraffes and Reid Peppard making rodent neck wear. So what is it exactly that we love about our stuffed furry friends? In traditional taxidermy, it is the animal that is put on display in a life-like state; but the taxidermic equivalents by contemporary artists focus more on the animal’s arrangement. At a time when humans are rethinking their relationships to animals—as pets, as part of our industrial food system, as key partners in our world ecology– taxidermy has great possibilities for raising questions, sometimes quite uneasily. As a familiar sculptural form that carries a rich network of historical values, contemporary taxidermy can help us reconsider these relationships.

Reid Peppard reinvents the mouse trap

Polly Morgan –one of the artists mainly responsible for its current revival – stuffs dead animals and mounts them as corpses, rejecting the resurrectionist approach of traditional taxidermy. With reference to 18th and 19th century curiosity cabinets, Morgan’s works emphasize the imminent decay of the animal’s body, often precisely by means of the visible splints and supports with which they are propped up. In a series entitled ‘Still Birth’, a stuffed chick is suspended by a balloon within a bell jar, preserving the moment between death and decay, and making a poignant reference to the bird as still life.

Polly Morgan 'Still Birth' (red), 2010

The photographic portraits of Alma Haser’s series ‘Stateless’ present us with a more traditionalist approach to the medium of taxidermy. Her depiction of a rough-legged buzzard presents us with a bird that couldn’t be further from death. Unlike so many of its taxidermied brothers and sisters, this animal stares out of the image defiantly focused. No relation is drawn to the animal’s bodily preservation in the Wollaton Hall History Museum, where Haser found her subject. The resulting confusion between life and death brings a quiet mystery.

‘Rough-legged buzzard', by Rise Art artist Alma Haser

The use of taxidermy in art today comments on a variety of conceptual issues, some working with a surrealistic bent and others as a means to explore our relationships with nature and the threats facing animal species due to human activities. Their work participates in a broader scholarly and popular movement that is rethinking our relationship towards animals and the environment.

To see Alma Haser's limited edition prints for Rise Art click here.