AMERICAN TAXIDERMY

This project is partly art historical, partly visual.



I shifted the direction of my thesis after getting pretty sick earlier this year. I knew, originally, that I wanted to tell stories through animals. Sickness got me stuck on ideas of blood and guts and the future, and those ideas got me pulled into stories and things regarding the same.

There’s a novel called The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. It’s a sci-fi steampunk story about love and storytelling set on a zeppelin, and it has some great quotes. My favorite is:

“There are no new stories in the world anymore, and no more storytellers. There is nothing left but fragments of phrases that signaled their telling: once upon a time; why; and then; the end. But these phrases have lost their meanings through endless repetition, like everything else in this modern, mechanical age. And this machine age has no room for stories. These days we seek our pleasures out in single moments cast in amber, as if we have no desire to connect the future to the past. Stories? We have no time for them; we have no patience.”

The quote is a spin on one of Mark Twain’s:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”


If you opt to break down a story to one of “the seven templates” -- overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, rags to riches, rebirth, and the classical tragedy and comedy-- then it’s probably true that there are no new stories. But regarding rags to riches, poverty is a monster. Rebirth or redemption is an internal quest. I could go on.

I don’t want to digress too much, since Twain’s argument devolves into semantics,  but what about Palmer’s? His quote is pulled from a fiction, to be fair, but I believe it deals with genuine fears about modernity. Is there no room for stories today? Are there no storytellers? Perhaps not; but fiction does tend to hyperbolize our own realities, and it’s worth asking whether the kind of sentiment once predominately woven into stories has, increasingly, found its surrogate in “single moments cast in amber.”

Single Moments Cast in Amber


In The Dream of Perpetual Motion, preservation is a recurring theme. One character is cryogenically frozen, one casts herself in bronze, and two are dismembered, composite bodies made in pursuit of perfection.

Unlike Palmer’s protagonist, I don’t believe that our society’s fixation on eternalization is a product of modernity. Certainly, modern technology enables this fixation to manifest in more ways than before, but the ideals that spur these preservative innovations are longheld. Today, the bodies of the deceased are embalmed with formaldehyde and faces are surgically tightened. These examples, at least, have utility: embalming gives families time to make funeral arrangements, and plastic surgery helps people to conform to today’s beauty standards.

But far prior to the industrial revolution, with purely aesthetic and narrative rationale, Western Visual traditions have fetishized the instant.

 
Right: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Apollo and Daphne,  1622-25.
Left: Unknown Artist,Terme Boxer, c. 330-50 BCE


Hellenistic Greek sculpture (323 BCE to 31 CE), generally in contrast to prior Classical works,  provides wonderful examples of this fetishization.

The Terme Boxer, for instance, shows a quiet aftermoment of a Boxer after his match, his ear swollen with “cauliflower ear.”In general contrast to earlier classical works, sculptures such as this one-- characteristic of the Hellenistic period-- explored subjects outside of abstracted states and times. 

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a later work, also illustrates this well, portraying the exact instant at which Daphne, fleeing from rape by Apollo, becomes a tree. Her father answered her plea that he "Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life."

I mention these two examples of sculpture to instance, in separate periods of Western art history, a continued interest in eternalizing specific moments of a given narrative.

But this brings me to a more contemporary, and less-often discussed (academically, at least) example of memorial sculpture: Taxidermy. I mentioned earlier my belief that memorial sculpture, within the Western cannon, has an aesthetic and narrative rationale. Taxidermy certainly has the former, but what does it offer in terms of narrative cause/meaning? For the over-mantle headmount, the taxidermy object serves as evidence and narrative ending.  I’m particularly interested, however, in how taxidermied pelts relate to narrative rationale within museum spaces.




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