Saw an interesting lecture today by a writer/cultural historian named Rachel Poliquin about the history of taxidermy and its legacy in contemporary art. She’s curated an exhibit that just opened in Vancouver, where the museum has had sitting in its basement a collection of old taxidermy that no one wanted to see for 50 years. So Poliquin got a grant to refurbish and re-purpose this creepy, abandoned old collection.
She didn’t mention the fact, but could’ve, that the most famous symbol of the excesses of contemporary conceptual art and the art market is Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a taxidermy tiger shark preserved in a tank. It’s interesting that this is so, that an art-form (or whatever it is) so strongly associated with archaic old Victorian practices became the signature of 21st century conceptual art.
One of Poliquin’s points I especially liked was that a shoe or an upholstered arm-chair is, essentially, taxidermy. Abstract taxidermy, maybe. We make a lot of things out of animal skins. When they look enough like animals, we call them taxidermy.
What kind of sign is a taxidermy animal? Is it indexical, iconic? A taxidermy fox is often taken to represent the fox species, and so is an iconic sign of the larger group and concept. But it is also indexical, a representation of the individual animal that it was. In fact it is presented not as a sign but as the thing itself.
Here’s a bit of the handiwork of my favorite taxidermist, the Victorian Walter Potter:
I’m looking forward to Rachel Poliquin’s book Taxidermy and Longing which will supposed be published by Harvard UP in 2010. Here’s her website.