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Why Look At Dead Animals?

A young male polar bear balances on top of a fridge floating like an industrial iceberg, a male lion free from its collar and chain rolls on a king sized bed, two Magellanic penguins have made a nest of plastic soldiers. This is the stunning, impressive and thought-provoking taxidermy art of Rod McRae in the setting of the National Trust’s historic Tasma Terrace.

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Rod McRae, Born Free, 2013

Often, it is taxidermy about taxidermy: The Dome of Doom, one of McRae’s smaller installations, refers to the nineteenth century displays of birds or butterflies in glass domes. The headless animals reminding the viewer that they were shot for their heads as hunting trophies, the cost of shooting a zebra… It is also about what humans are doing to other animals and their habitats.

It might seem an odd idea to use stuffed animals as art about conservation but all McRae’s animals have been ethically sourced. What does “ethically sourced taxidermied animals” mean? In the case of the polar bear it was shot by Inuit hunters and the skin sold to support their community.

For centuries humans have been looking at dead animals, mostly as a source of food and also, for information about the animal. Natural history museums are full of display cases of dead animals, there are many more preserved in storage for species identification. Displays of hunting trophies along with still life paintings that include dead animals amongst the food depicted made an art of looking at dead animals. Toulouse-Lautrec’s father would regularly sketch and then eat what he hunted. With the increase in human population this aesthetic interest in dead animals was unsustainable and most people now avoid looking or, even, thinking about dead animals.

Along with the environmental ethics there is a religious tone to the exhibition, the lion lying down with the lambs, makes it obvious and McRae has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize for religious art. Not that this is uncritical belief with McRae noting Christian hunting organisations on the zebra’s crate. (See Derek Beres ‘The Cult of Christian Hunting and America’s Gun Problem’.)

Rod McRae started as a children’s book illustrator and there are still some elements of that in his art with clear visual communication in the illustration of idea. Five years ago he started creating taxidermy installations to illustrate ideas about animal conservation.

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

Rod McRae, Serengeti, 2013

The original occupants of Tasma Terrace in East Melbourne, or Easthill as it was once known, would have had their own collections of taxidermy animals. The Victorian interest in exploring the natural world and collecting has come full circle with contemporary art reflecting the on its legacy.

Tasma Terrace was built in 1879 by George Nipper who two years after Tasma Terrace was completed he build the majestic Windsor Hotel and then went bankrupt. Tasma Terrace was saved from demolition in 1969 by the public and National Trust. The conservation of this piece of built environment creates itself parallel theme to the exhibition’s theme of natural conservation.

For more on taxidermy and contemporary art see my blog post or just enter ‘taxidermy’ in the search box in my sidebar. It is surprising just how many contemporary artists are working taxidermyfrom the gothic, bejewelled work of Melbourne-based Julia Devilla to New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who had an exhibition of faux-taxidermy at GOMA in 2014. There are so many that there is a book Taxidermy Art by Robert Maybury that covers many of the notable taxidermy artists that includes Maybury, himself, along with Rod McRae and Julia Deville.

Rod McRae and the National Trust presents Wunderkammer at Tasma Terrace, 6 Parliament Place in East Melbourne. ‘Wunderkammer’ has to be the most overused title for an exhibition in the last two years.

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012

Rod McRae, The Case of the Laughing Hyena, 2012

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

One response to “Why Look At Dead Animals?

  • Frog Pond | Black Mark

    […] But thinking now about the frog; since I have been writing this blog I have been noticing many animals in contemporary art, from taxidermy specimens to drawings of animals. Taxidermy animals in particularly figure prominently in contemporary art. For more on this subject see my posts on taxidermy and contemporary art, and Why look at Dead Animals. […]

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