press & writings
Read a discussion on my work Thorn in Rachel Poliquin’s book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. View online. Published July 2012.
Read a discussion on my work in Steve Baker’s book Artist Animal. View online. Published January 2013.
Read a discussion on my work Sore 1 2002-03 in Giovanni Aloi’s book, Art and Animals (part of the Art &… series). View online. Published Dec 2011.
Pellerin, Anne-Sophie. Un troublant regard que celui de l’animal. ArtsThree, France, 2 May, 2011. Survey of artworks by Angela Singer, Jan Fabre, Fabien Merelle, Thomas Grünfeld, Claire Morgan, Mat Collishaw, Julien Salaud, Mark Dion, Christian Gonzenbach, Jörg Hermle, Wim Delvoye, Ivana Adaime-Makac and Marion Laval-Jeantet.
The Enchanted Palace. Kensington Palace, London. Hedge Row, Cabinet of Curiosities. View online.
Fantasy fashion fit for a princess, The Independent, London, 29 March 2010; Hedge Row, The Enchanted Palace. The Guardian, London, 10 April 2010; Enchanted Palace, London, Hedge Row. Wallpaper*, 24 March 2010; Angela Singer taxidermy art Juxtapoz, May 2010.
Read Steve Baker’s discussion of my work in his essay Contemporary art and animal rights in the book Considering Animals: Contemporary Studies in Human–Animal Relations View online. Published June 2011.
“…Singer’s conviction is that ‘people need to see animals in a new way,” and that “artists can provide the new visual language.’ The artist’s role is to “shock the viewer into a new way of seeing and thinking about the animal…”
Freeman, Carol. Reconstructing the Animal exhibition catalogue essay. Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania, Centre for the Arts, Australia. March, 2011.
“Through her recycled taxidermy she [Angela Singer] attempts to ‘make the trophy more controversial, give it greater presence and make it not so easy to ignore’. She also aims to make amends for the death of the animal. She does this partly by seeking out the histories of discarded hunting trophies ― including wounds, missing parts of the bodies and stories of the hunt, and then by reconstructing the last hours of that animal’s life. Singer conveys these histories through adorning remnants of the animal body with buttons or precious and glittering jewels, producing a juxtaposition of beauty of horror. One of the questions she wants the viewer to ask themselves is ‘Why has this taxidermy animal been altered to look like this?’ stimulating them to confront the suffering involved in their death and to interrogate their own feelings about and relationship with animals. Her work stresses the violence of hunting and slaughter by intensifying the animals’ pain. Singer’s work shocks: it is concerned with bringing attention to unnecessary deaths and exposing how mounted trophies trivialize these deaths.”
See my work Hedgerow, cover image of Joshua Kryah’s new book, We Are Starved. View online. Colorado State Center for Literary Publishing, June 2011.
Spoonfed, 25 March, 2010. Magic and Melancholy - Enchanted Palace, Kensington Palace by Tom Jeffreys. View online.
“Other highlights include the Privy Chamber, hung with exotic creations by acclaimed milliner Stephen Jones; an embroidered throne – the Seat of Power – in which one’s voice resonates around with royal might; Echo Morgan’s internally lit Dress of the World on wheels and her Cabinet of Curiosities, crammed with wonderful objects like Hannah Terry’s intricate Flying Machines and Angela Singer’s florally embellished stuffed fox; and The King’s Grand Staircase, down which veiled lanterns, autumn leaves, and a flowing Vivienne Westwood dress that seems to stride purposefully onwards of its own accord. Elsewhere, one of Lady Diana’s dresses is given a white feather halo, glass vitrines display children’s shoes and booties and kid gloves and bonnets, and little baby footprints mark a path across the floorboards. A tiara sparkles, a feral child hides among jewels and pelts…”
Modern Painters, March, 2009.
The Right Stuff by Steven Connor. View online.
“Some artists, like Angela Singer, deliberately use taxidermy to open up wounds and exhibit the damage done to animals in effecting their apparent rescue from time. Here, the visible wounding and careless repair of the animals is part of the effort to make restitution for a larger violation. But the “questioning entities” that taxidermic art brings about may have questions to ask of that art as well as of the traditions from which that art may claim or feign to distance itself. In no other arena of art, perhaps, do violation and restitution lie so close to each other. As Klein writes, “[t]he struggle with nature is therefore partly felt to be a struggle to preserve nature, because it expresses also the wish to make reparation.”
‘Autoportrait avec humain: en accompagnant les autres animaux de l’art’ (trans. B. Sibona), in Notre animal intérieur et les théories de la créativité, by Steve Baker, edited by Bruno Sibona (Paris: L’Harmattan, Octobre 2009), pp. 71-89. ISBN 978-2-296-101118-0. View online.
Reforma newspaper, Mexico City, Mexico. 16 August 2009. Animals with a double life: Thomas Grunfeld, Angela Singer, Daniel Firman, Susan Bozic, Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir and Mark Wilson by Jesus Pacheco. View online.
Taxidermy seems to be living a new life. Contemporary artists around the globe have been incorporating it in their work to create pieces of art that stimulate, astonish, and encourage criticism or debate. With increasing frequency taxidermy can be found in contemporary photography, in strange sculptures or in installations that are as confronting as they are amazing.
The first works to incorporate dissected taxidermy animals were by American artist Robert Rauschenberg, at the end of the ‘50s. Today, taxidermy has been used as a vehicle for experimentation about and reflection on a range of subjects affecting contemporary culture.
The German artist Thomas Grünfeld has found taxidermy to be an ideal tool to create hypothetical animals, such as Misfits (Unadapted), to stimulate debate about the possible results of genetic manipulation.
There are some artists who pursue an objective that is quite opposite to that of the taxidermist, who takes a lifeless animal and tries to give it the appearance and the sensation of being alive. In the case of the English artist Angela Singer, she seeks to expose the work of the taxidermist and open up and expose the animal. Her objective? To again make the aggression inflicted on the animal visible.
In this interview, international artists Grünfeld, Singer, Bozic, Firman, Snaebjornsdottir and Wilson tell The Angel how they have given a new sense to taxidermy through their art.
Angela Singer: Horror and Beauty in Union
Angela Singer (1966) was surprised each time she visited the houses of friends, and even bars or restaurants, to find that the walls had animal heads on them. Her surprise was not directed so much toward the lifeless animal as the indifferent way the majority of people responded to the animal presence.
“It seemed to me very disturbing that an enormous dead animal in a room could be ignored in that way”, she says. “It gave me the idea to use old hunting trophies to explore the human-animal relationship. I hoped to be able to make the trophy more controversial, give it greater presence and make it not so easy to ignore.”
Thus was the beginning of the ideas behind Singer’s work, which for her is always about the ethics of the human use of animals for our own intentions.
How you have you obtained this mixture of pain and nature in your work?
“We encounter beauty in the animal and horror in the way in which it was killed, that’s through out my work. There is attraction and repulsion for me when creating these pieces. I want to show something of the violence, of the death of the animal, but to obtain this I must overcome my repulsion when tearing into the animal to dissect it and reveal the evidence of the death (hidden by the taxidermist). This ambiguous effect is something that I see in spectators of the work: first they are repelled by what they think are bloody organs spilling out the animal, soon they realize it is wax, jewels or buttons, and the work begins to attract them.”
By what are you inspired?
“The history of the death of the animal inspires much of my work. Frequently, old home taxidermy is donated to me because it is damaged. But other times hunters have donated their hunting trophies so I get to hear how they were hunted and how the animal was killed.“For example, my pieces that seem to be hung or crucified are inspired by the description from the hunter of the moment he cut open the animal and pulled the entrails out to drain the blood. When I do not have the history of the death of the animal, I can find tracks and wound scars that the taxidermist hid, like holes of bullets and parts missing of the skull.”With your work, you have given the stuffed animals some kind of a second life. What do you want for their second life? And what would you have wanted for their previous life?“I want the to stimulate questions in the viewer, the main one being, “Why has this taxidermy animal been altered to look like this?” If the viewer questioned what is their own relationship with animals I would be pretty happy. And for the previous life? A death that was not unnecessary, violent and cruel.”
Tier Werden, Mensch Werden exhibition catalogue, NGBK Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst e.V., Berlin , Germany, May 2009. Steve Baker.View online.
Jeu. Revue de théâtre magazine, #130 March 2009. P. 40-47.
Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilma, Animaux dans l’art contemporain : la question éthique (Animals in Contemporary Art: An Ethical Issue)
“The use of animals in entertainment, or in sporting or cultural activities is acknowledged as being problematic. One of the areas of animal use that is less well known is the use of animals in contemporary art. Art does not cease to be haunted by the animal, say Deleuze and Guattari…” View online.
Flair magazine, March 2009. View online.
Daniela Bonetto, Ooh la art: controversial art from Manet and Andy Warhol to Alex Soth, Angela Singer and Gregor Schneider.
“One of these is Angela Singer. A British artist and animal activist, since the mid 1990s she has explored the human animal relationship, calling into question the unnecessary violence humans subject animals too, and particularly commenting on the needless death of hunted animals. Her confronting artworks have a strong animal rights message and question the notion that people are superior to other species…”
Kiwis Against Possums: A Critical Analysis of Anti-Possum Rhetoric in Aotearoa New Zealand. Society and Animals journal, Volume 17, Number 1, 2009. Annie Potts. View online.
Singer juxtaposes the stiff carcass of a possum killed by 1080 with the vividness and gaiety of red beads and jewellery. The positioning of the beads at the mouth, paws, and stomach of the possum symbolizes the suffering and blood associated with death by this poison. The glamorous aspects of the beads contrast with the morbid positioning of the possum (note the awkward angles of her arms, paws, and claws); …Singer’s art draws the viewer’s attention to those inconsistencies occurring in human approaches to nonhuman animals; her work disturbs any complacency about the effects—in terms of suffering and pain—of hunting or poisoning nonhuman animals deemed pests.
DANSK magazine, Denmark. #19 Autumn 2008
New artists by Mads Arlien-Søborg. View online.
Antennae - Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, UK. Issue 7, 2008. Death of the Animal. Angela Singer: Animal Rights and Wrongs. Questions and Text by editor Giovanni Aloi. (View and download journal here.)
Angela Singer’s work calls into question the unnecessary violence humans subject animals to, as well as the notion that people are inherently separate from and superior to other species. For years, her work has blurred the boundaries between decoration and death, altering by using a process she calls ‘de-taxidermy’, the meaning of the trophy and the Victorian diorama.
Angela Singer is an extremely coherent artist. Over the years she has developed a solid reputation built on a body of work that fearless of aesthetic conventions has challenged us all to look at animals with different eyes. In her continuous attack to our preconceived perception and understanding of animals, Singer does not allow herself to work with living animals, nor have living creatures killed or otherwise harmed for her art. All the animal materials used in her art are old, donated and/or discarded as refuse.
Over her career, the concern with hunting and our moral and ethical approach to animal has clearly played a pivotal role. “Working with the history of each particular animal”, she says “I aim to recreate something of its death by hunt.”
As a result, her work is difficult but immediate; as abrasive as it is seductive. Her interventions on the taxidermied animal bodies are sometimes subtle, other times brutal, usually unpredictable and often arresting. At times her recycled taxidermy drips blood, at others the original animal skin has been stripped altogether to reveal the taxidermic support underneath it.
A keen animal rights activist, Singer has always effectively used her work, capitalizing on the abrasiveness of its botched forms, in order to raise awareness of animal sufferance as caused by human hands. Her recycling of taxidermy that was once trophy kill, is to Singer a way to ‘honor the animals “life.”’ Ultimately, for Singer, the main purpose of her works to” make the viewer consider the morality of our willingness to use animals for our own purposes.”
Giovanni Aloi: Recently, Anita Guerrini, Professor of Environmental Studies and History at University of California stirred up a range of reactions in response to a thread she launched on H-Animal (the online-resource website for Animal Studies Scholars). Her question was: “does Animal Studies necessarily imply animal advocacy? The point of Animal Studies seems to be to advocate a certain political point of view, and this influences the kinds of work that have appeared thus far. Is there room in Animal Studies for people who, say, think eating meat is not wrong? Or that experimentation on animals in some circumstances is somehow justified? As someone who has written about animal experimentation quite a lot, but who has not unreservedly condemned it, I am not sure that I have a place in Animal Studies as it is currently defined.” What is your take on this subject?
Angela Singer: As an artist concerned with the ethical and epistemological consequences of humans using non human life, I look to the field of animal studies to engage in discussion with those open to examining their practice from different perspectives, but discussion alone isn’t enough. We live in an era when so many animals are endangered; we all need an urgent wake-up to do what we can to stop the oppression, exploitation, domination and torture of animals. I acknowledge we all have to come to awareness on our own but that doesn’t stop me hoping for animal studies academics to call into question the aggressive cruelty with which scientists treat animals. I followed the Guerrini/H-Animal discussion with interest, in particular the marvellous response from Steve Best (academic and editor of the Journal for Critical Animal Studies):
“Of course theories are crucial for understanding the world, and a politics without reflexivity, study, and theory is no politics I want to advance. But I think it is pretty clear what the evil is, what the forces of destruction are, and what we have to do to fight, struggle, and resist the global juggernaut of capitalist, carnivorism, and speciesist omnicide.
“One may argue we are not obliged to give up theory, research, and writing in order to spend all of our time in political meetings, demonstrations, actions, and litigations. But can scholars any longer be as isolated from politics and advocacy as they typically are…It is with such concerns in mind that a growing number of serious scholars and academics are forging a new path within animal studies, a critical animal studies. This is a distinction with a profound difference. Critical animal studies doesn’t shy from openly stating normative assumptions and commitments, it doesn’t run from the complexities of mediating theory and politics and politics and theory, it doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses when looking at the systemic forces of domination and that control life on this planet, it doesn’t believe veganism and animal liberation are accidental or superfluous to doing animal studies in good faith, it doesn’t seek only to “study” animals but to work toward their emancipation, and it doesn’t fear taking controversial positions.”
GA: Where does your interest for animals originate and which is to you the most interesting?
AS: The privatized notion of love is very odd to me. I felt love for every animal I ever knew, saw or otherwise encountered from an early age. That adults such as our local butcher, who had a cat that sat on the shop counter, could feel love only for a specific animal, usually an adored pet, was something I found hard to comprehend. I was and am very moved by the injustice of speciesism.
GA: Is there a specific event that triggered the production of work concerned with the killing of animal?
AS: As I mentioned, from a young age I made the connection between the dog I loved that lived with us as a member of our family and the dead animal flesh on my plate. I felt killing of animals to be as wrong as killing of humans and to my Mother’s annoyance subsequently refused to eat meat. It was this family dog that was my first personal experience of killing. My parents decided to emigrate from England to New Zealand, instead of giving the dog to my aunt as was promised my parents had her killed. The dog was not sick, just inconvenient. It was an unnecessary death. In New Zealand we lived rurally, the killing of animals, mostly by hunters, was a weekly occurrence. Witnessing animals being routinely hunted, killed and butchered made me determined to challenge a culture in which hunting is readily accepted.
GA: Have you ever taxidermied an animal yourself?
AS: I am not a taxidermist. I do not taxidermy the animals I work with, I recycle old trophy kill taxidermy that is often donated because it is damaged. The process is what I call ‘de-taxidermy’, a stripping back, layer by layer of the animal and the taxidermist’s work. I have put some effort into learning correct taxidermy practise so I can subvert it. The taxidermist has put effort into making the animal look alive, I often do the reverse.
The process begins with my removing fur, feathers and skin, then the ‘stuffing’, sometimes the final step is to sculpt a mixed media form and flesh. Depending on the age of the taxidermy the animal may have a form inside; if it is very aged it might contain shredded clothing or sawdust and toxic surprises such as arsenic. Taxidermy is shaped into serene poses; we sentimentalize nature to keep from thinking about the human assault on it. In stripping back the taxidermy and exposing the bullet wounds and scars I make visible evidence of the aggression we inflict on animals.
GA: In 2003 you curated ‘Animality’, an exhibition addressing questions about morality and our relationship with the natural world. What were the criteria for inclusion of works and how successful do you think the exhibition was in fulfilling its aim?
AS: With the Animality exhibition I set out to explore the connections between our understandings of animals and the cultural conditions in which these understandings have been formed. I invited artists whose works radicalise the use of animals and animal imagery, whose work might generate debate. Contemporary artists working with the animal occupy varying ethical positions, to reflect this some of the work in the exhibition was from animal advocates, some wasn’t. I didn’t want a predictable show nor did I want to be guilty of being dismissive of art that deserves consideration. There was critiscm of my inclusion of Catherine Chalmers; her responsibility for the death of the insects and mice she uses drew very strong emotional reactions. Interestingly I saw a form of speciesism; those that did accept Chalmer’s use of insects objected loudly to my use of a (seemingly) dead skinned deer. That Chalmer’s art in particular sparked heated discussion around the ethical issues of the show made it for me a very successful exhibition.
GA: What would you answer to John Simons (author of Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, 2002) claim that “When I see a work of ‘botched taxidermy’ … I do not see an epistemological problem. I see a dead animal”.
AS: My answer would be to prefer he saw a question. Why is this animal dead? What am I asked to see other than its dead body? Engaging directly with botched taxidermy should invite the viewer to reflect on the wider cultural and ethical implications of animal art practices. When I look at the flawed dead animal of botched taxidermy I don’t see an animal separate from myself; there is permeability to the boundaries separating other species from us. The body intensifies my emotional engagement with the work. Far from repulsing me, it draws me closer because it’s not beautiful, not sentimental, not what animal art is meant to be, not what the animal is meant to look like and I want to question why.
GA: Has your commitment to animal rights changed since your involvement in the mid-1990?
AS: No it hasn’t, it remains strong. In the mid 1990’s I was very involved in the Animal Liberation, Victoria (Australia) anti-vivisection campaign. When I moved to New Zealand I spread my involvement across a number of animal rights groups. As in Australia I am supportive of direct action especially when it involves freeing animals (I’m not the fearless type, nearly getting caught or arrested gives me the he bees). It was natural that something I am passionate about should become a major theme in my art. I think of my art as inserting dead bodies into art galleries and forcing audiences to engage with unnecessary death.
GA: In your recent work ‘My Dearest, Dearest Creatures (2006)’, you have left behind the subject of trophy in order to focus on the Victorian diorama. What does this shift represent?
AS: The diorama works came out of my concern for the recent rise in the popularity of taxidermy. The last period when taxidermy was fashionable was the Victorian age. It wasn’t a good time to be an animal.
Unlike traditional taxidermy diorama, where the emphasis is on the serene animal in natural settings, I used botched animals in un-natural settings, frozen in the moment of being killed or having just been killed. For these works I deliberately turned away from the magnificent trophy animals we have deemed worthy of respect and turned my attention to the animals normally considered unworthy; rats, stoats, sparrows and rabbits, animals we choose not to have in our homes; animals that collectors of taxidermy are not pursuing.
GA: Taxidermy and botched taxidermy have become increasingly popular in contemporary art. Do you think that too much exposure may reduce the shock factor attached to the almost unbearable sense of realism that the early works possessed?
AS: As long as people don’t want to question how humans use animals, don’t want to think about animals, they will be shocked by the art of those that do because what they see is too real. Botched taxidermy embraces reality; it is not attempting to escape it. By seizing and holding the viewer’s attention with art that is often un-beautiful, the viewer is forced to consider animals that look alive but are not, forced to question how and why the animal died. Botched taxidermy will never be easy to ignore as long as the artist expresses their truth and the work remains honest; shock for shocks sake is pointless. The aim should be to create botched works that are transformative, that shock the viewer into a new way of seeing and thinking about the animal.
GA: Your most recent work, Brand New Wilderness (2007) strikes a relatively new balance between the abrasive presence of the dead animal and a certain beauty rooted in the use of colour and composition. Is it part of a new strategy?
AS: Sometimes a soft voice finds more listeners. The element of beauty certainly increases the audience for the work and I’ve been careful to make sure the animals aren’t insipid. Wishy washy art that lacks substance is currently endemic; I see it as escapism from the harsh realities of our time. It’s cowardly.
GA: What do you consider to be the most extreme piece of botched taxidermy you have created and why?
AS: Sore, an old trophy head stripped of its skin that has had a new ‘flesh’ carved by myself from blood red wax. In Sore, reality and taxidermy have been manipulated, forcing the viewer to do a ‘double take’ of the artwork. Sore came out of a conversation I had with the hunter who shot the trophy. He explained that after he shot and skinned the stag the antlers were sawn off. Antlers contain a blood reservoir, when cut blood spurts forth drenching hunter and stag. I wanted to achieve an animal form inspired by the way the stag died but never seen before in nature. Frightening and difficult to look at Sore is a powerful work that asks questions about power. Why do humans need to constantly reassure ourselves of our supremacy over other species through the exclusion of that which is not?
I discovered that stripping back the skin of the trophy the eye becomes prominent and the work becomes about the gaze; who is the subject watching and who the object? Sore appears alive and stares accusingly at us. Can trophy kill protest against us in any other way than by accusatory gaze?
GA: Taxidermic manipulations are open to a variety of readings. How do you feel about the openness of your work considering that the underlying political message involved is at the core of your practice?
AS: The exploitation of non-human living beings by humans is one of the core issues raised with my work. I do not kill, have killed or taxidermy animals. I recycle old discarded taxidermy in my practice, much of it trophy kill. I subvert the hunting trophy but I can’t stop the viewer from subverting my subversion. I resist the temptation to have explanatory information at my exhibitions because I want the audience to come away with questions not obvious answers. I aim to create art that has enough depth to speak to a range of viewers, even those with very different opinions, that’s of enough interest to the viewer to think the work through and feel sympathetic toward it.
From what I’ve seen of political art, work that seeks to persuade viewers to take a specific form of action can be quite awful. It can also be sanctimonious and literal. Trying too hard to show the issue you’re addressing can lead to dull passionless art of little interest to anyone except those concerned with the same issues. For me the best art is difficult to ‘read’. Returning repeatedly to an artwork that does not give up its meaning easily is a great joy. A great infuriating joy.
GA: Botched taxidermy was the perfect vehicle for messages that art had willingly ignored till the 90’s. Do you think it has anything more to say that it hasn’t said already?
AS: The time for art offering only sensationalistic one-liners is gone. In our era botched taxidermy has this to say: that the exploitation and destruction of animals and our environment, is in the end all our fault. Until humans stop destroying our planet artists need to keep finding way to express this. For me I see no better vehicle than animals that have been exploited, hunted and discarded.
GA: What do you think of Damien Hirsts’ use of animals in his work?
AS: I get the impression from his comments that Hirst isn’t interested in the consequences and responsibilities of, and political and ethical issues raised by, taking life for artistic ends. While some of his comments suggest that he likes animals, his actions show he holds the conventional view that all non-human life exists for human needs and desires. He summed up his position with his statement that the, ‘idea is more important than the actual piece.’
GA: What will your next work entail?
AS: I was recently donated an ex-museum diorama of full size trophy kill. They have mini steel girders inside requiring a degree of strength to manipulate so I’m exhausted. They are making for unusual, confrontational works.
Angela Singer was interviewed by Antennae in February 2008 ©
BELIO art magazine, Spain. My Dearest, Dearest Creature. #27 Wildlife issue, August 2008 (bilingual edition Spanish/English) pg 25-36
Essay and interview by Amrei Hofstatter view online.
“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”
There is one particular moment in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey” that marks the ignition of human evolution, and ironically enough, it is one of the film’s most gruesome scenes. One of the ape-men – after their first encounter with the mysterious black monolith – leads his tribe in defence of their waterhole against another tribe, using a bone to beat an enemy ape to death. What makes this behaviour so clearly an indication of the human condition is not the fact that the ape-man has learned how to use a tool, but the objective of using it: as a weapon. Two entities confront each other while one of them has a considerable advantage over its opponent and the victory of the former is not decided by the survival of the fittest but rather by the superiority of his equipment. In this moment, killing has become what will serve as a stabiliser of social structures, a method to impose power and dominance and finally a method of entertainment in a pseudo-sentimental attempt to vicariously relive the sense of killing in its most natural form: to secure nourishment.
Our entire world is constructed of and based on the dynamics of duality. Everything we are is stabilised by the coalescence of one element and its counterpart, from the unification of two lovers to the gruesomely fascinating intimate relation of hunter and prey. But unfortunately reality stands in painful contrast to the romanticism of these supposedly mystic relations through literature or cinema. There is no interior monologue, no deep respect or rituals left directed towards the animals that are objectified, shot and killed during hunting sprees. Our modern civilisation is long and irrepealably disconnected from its origin as primitive tribes who hunt in need of ensuring their survival. Leaving the existential and debatable question if killing actually is “in our blood” aside, some actually do feel a deep necessity of re-connecting with our supposedly profound roots with nature, a connection which they, ironically enough, establish through killing.
But reconnecting with one’s former animal self through “sport hunting” is an illusion. Stepping outside on the street to stomp on a trail of ants most likely equals the actual threat and confrontation of “wilderness” of an organised hunting spree. And as the value of what hunters define as courage needs to be embodied by a physical object to be adored by their associates, the most important element of hunting is, of course, the gain of trophy. The so called “game animals” that are successfully hunted are prepared by a taxidermist, meaning they are forced into staged and exotic postures, their wounds are concealed, the animal is aimed to be perfectly “reconstructed”, condemned to an eternally frozen moment of artificial life. But instead of actually becoming an object of worship and respect, trophies generally tend to annoyingly merge with the furnishing, vegetate as some pitiful dust catcher and finally end up being thrown away by disgusted grandchildren who are rather ambivalent about this unwanted inheritance.
New Zealand artist Angela Singer works with this old, disregarded or donated taxidermy she often receives through local newspaper ads and has dedicated her art to what she describes as “honouring the animals life”.
“I source much of the old trophy taxidermy I use from taxidermists and hunters. With them I’m open about my motivations and the fact that my perspective is that of an artist with a deep concern for how humans use animals. Sometimes I have to convince them to let me have old, often damaged taxidermy that they were going to throw away; I show them photographs of my work and mostly they are willing to help out of curiosity and a fascination with what I will make.”
In a process that can be referred to as “reversed taxidermy”, she exposes formerly concealed wounds, tears away the flesh and skin in a ritual of releasing the animal of its frozen postures. She then adorns the bodies and turns them into…”an artwork; a difficult artwork that raises questions that viewers should not expect to find easy answers to.”
Now the first and therefore dominant emotional response to Singer’s art might be rather ambivalent. What the viewer is confronted with foremost is violence and death. The bloody connotation of hunting is concealed by taxidermy; Singer actually is the one who makes it apparent once again. The animal is turned from a disregardable accessory into some sort of precious but perverted death fetish, cleaning the way for nature to reclaim its presence through these formerly sterilised bodies. Singer’s adornments sometimes remind of relics, sometimes of distorted forms of still life, sometimes they just solely depict the pathetic tone of hunting and sometimes they mimic the natural physical reaction of a real living body to the entry of a bullet. The viewer ends up trapped between feeling both guilty of admiring the artistry and beauty of these pieces as well as being confronted with animal cruelty, an experience that causes a profound self-questioning about one’s relation with nature and the responsibility that it implies. An act that might mislead and make one transfer his disgust towards the artist herself. Could animal activists even accuse her of maintaining the animal’s objectification by equally exploiting the innocent body for her own seemingly selfish reasons?
“I’ve had objections to my work but never from that quarter; it’s my experience of animal rights groups that they do not object to depictions of animal death when those representations aim to be in some way beneficial to animals. The animal rights community can be quite effective in determining the intentions of an artist in creating a particular work of art. Observers mostly correctly interpret my work not so much as mocking objects, but more as a call for increased awareness around animal issues. Sometimes observers find my work disturbing and choose emotion over analysis; they don’t seek information and dialogue. Because I want space for the observer to think, react or whatever, I don’t give too much. Too much information risks a predetermined response from the observer that’s neither thoughtful nor genuine. I want the observer’s original thought on the work. They have to come to it themselves.”
What is so effective in Singer’s work and what actually ennobles her above other taxidermy art is that her drastic pieces achieve to provoke a moral questioning inside the viewer by emanating a real sincerity. As she is actually an animal activist in “real life”, the genuine concern about animals is truly apparent in her art. Her morals are backing her, obviously both aspects of her life feed off each other.
“As I was already involved in Animal Liberation it seemed logical to engage with issues related to the misuse of animals in my art making. They inform each other; a deep respect for animals feeds both.”
Cases like hers unfortunately are rare, and she agrees that it is rather unusual these days to see artists absolutely and genuinely dedicated to a political or social cause.
“Well political art hasn’t been very fashionable, not as fashionable as say irony. Irony and art world in-jokes are big with the art market so they are big with artists; everything is held to be ironic which doesn’t leave much room for serious content and expressing something about the world we live in. It’s a pity more artists aren’t interested in looking beyond the art world and their lives to connect with the larger world. There are signs political art is becoming a little more fashionable so maybe we will see young artists bring it into their art practice. Artists should make what they want to. It’s pointless for artists to make art about ideas they’re not passionate about. Personally I am drawn to art that has something behind it, something to communicate; art that takes on big issues and raises uncomfortable questions about meaning and significance. We live in a time when it’s important for artists to reflect on what matters most to us and create an art of engagement.”
Not just since Kant’s Moral Imperative, there has always been an ongoing debate if what we know as ‘moral’ is something that is actually established within an individual or if it in fact is imposed by society, if our actions and choices would be different if we would know for sure that we would have no consequences to fear. And yet, though religion with its false and outdated morals doesn’t serve as a sufficient social stabiliser anymore, we still tend to turn towards the spiritual especially when it comes to the display of affliction through religious iconography. As shortly mentioned above, a lot of Singer’s work – who is not religious in any way – strongly reminds of relics, especially series like “Brand New Wilderness” (2007), or “My Dearest, Dearest Creature” (2006). A relic can be defined as an item of religious or spiritual significance, reverentially preserved as a tangible object of memorial, something that has survived the passage of time, an object whose original culture has disappeared, but also an object cherished for historical or memorial value.
“Yes, some of my work does evoke crucified martyrs. I can’t deny it’s there but it wasn’t my intention to portray that. I don’t come from a religious background and I know little about the worship of animals. The crucified look of some of my works, such as the recent rabbit works, came out of studying how hunters hang an animal from a tree after they catch it (I don’t say kill it as the animal isn’t always dead), cut it open and leave it to bleed out.”
Relics are meant to reflect the spiritual power emanating from the supernatural and affecting the natural, establishing a contact between both realms in which the former, being something like a superior reality, nourished the later. Spirits are acquired by the faithful and transmitted into these objects that then turn into relics. This definition becomes even more curious when we observe Singer’s process of reversing the taxidermy. Her work is impossible to execute without a certain and undeniable degree of brutality. The staged frozen bodies are ripped out of their poses, formerly concealed wounds are opened, skin is torn apart, and it is as if these animals would have to revive their death for a second time, as if suffering yet once again would finally release their spirits as wild beings; a tribute to their true organic death, which unfortunately can only be mimicked by artistry and which “killer and prey” in this case suffer equally as placeholder for another person’s ignorance. The reference to martyrs becomes even more apparent in the fact that she mostly tries to refer directly to each animal’s way of dying. If an animal had been shot, she would expressively open the formerly concealed wound and adorn and therefore emphasize it in a both precious yet terrifying way.
“The brutality of deconstructing taxidermy is unavoidable; it jars the senses, it can be quite unsettling to break apart a fragile, vulnerable body. I don’t see any way around the process as I need to make the inconspicuous appear conspicuous. Sometimes I think, “I’ll write about this instead” but I don’t because my artwork can express this further than I can in words and our relationship with animals is more terrible than words alone can address.I feel a responsibility to load the trophy animal with significance, so it becomes valuable. When I think of responsibility I think in wider terms; we all have a responsibility to stop the exploitation and destruction of animals and our environment because what’s happening is all our fault.”
“For some artists the material they use isn’t important, it’s just a way to achieve the object. For me the material, the animal, is everything. Working with the animal body makes me want to investigate what it could have to do with me, with the relationships I have with animals in the world. It confronts me in the safe space of my studio with real everyday brutality, and that reality is disturbing. The animal challenges me to accommodate the frightening.”
By – even though unintentionally – giving them an almost religious or spiritual notion, Singer actually turns the trophies into what they should have been in the first place: pieces of art that truthfully depict the violent death of an animal caused by human hands, that reflect the vanity of the hunter and individually refer to the animal as the spiritual representative of nature as our long lost religion. Her art reflects one of the most profound paradoxes of our modern society and our connection with nature by being a paradox in itself: our deep anxiety of the uncontrollably organic, of death and decay that clashes with our profound desire to reconnect back with nature, by creating illusions of making the uncontrollable controllable and by following our selfish needs for pride.
“My art isn’t going to stop the unnecessary death and abuse of animals but it might draw attention to the way animals are used and abused by humans. My work is there to ask questions, I hope the viewer comes up with some answers. It’s not my job to change people’s minds on what their relationship to animals is, it’s up to them to use their brain and think about it and come to their own realisations. So just thinking about the work might be enough.”
- All quotes by artist Angela Singer, except opening quote from “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.
Angela Singer from the BIG BOOK OF ESSAYS Silver collection and DVD Silver collection. Real Art Roadshow, NZ. 2009.
For Singer, hunting in the 21st century represents a repugnant attitude to animals – one that maintains they are expendable, and inferior to humans. This stance is seen most clearly in ritualised hunting (fox hunting and big game hunting) where one of the purposes of the hunt is the trophy. For that reason, Singer has made the spoils of the hunt – stuffed or taxidermied animals – as well as hunting images the starting point for her work…Singer focuses on the outcome of the hunt – the mortally wounded duck, freshly shot, and about to fall from the sky. Her images concentrate on the brutality and senselessness of the hunt, the reality. And that’s not often seen in art.
“Artist and activist Angela Singer whose love of animals and commentary on their mistreatment has brought her into contact with hunters and taxidermists, reworking second-hand trophy kills to make them ‘more visible’ to her audience. Angela’s strongly held convictions have led to work that is both beautiful and terrifying.”
NY Arts Magazine, January - February 2008 Little Animals. Review by Anna Jackson view online.
Violence and brutality aside, if you were ever unsure of how ridiculous hunting can seem in modern terms, Angela Singer spells it out. Singer has explored the notion of the hunt and its trophies for a number of years and while her subjects explicitly reference the idea, her process pointedly undermines the esteem of hunting for trophy.
Trophy hunting in New Zealand does not have the social prowess as in Britain, but is still very much a red-blooded sport. It represents a regressive urge to connect with the natural and instinctive animal self and is emblematic of macho stereotypes of man-as-hunter. But Singer’s stuffed animals are not pumped with the bravado one might expect from classical trophies, quite the contrary - her animals are openly passive and often appear pathetic, thus highlighting the grotesqueness of human manipulation of the animal world.
In a kind of reversal of taxidermy, Singer tears and rips away at flesh and maneuvers her subjects out of the forced poses in which they were once cast and presents them in less exotic situations. The apparent helpless and docile nature of the hunted, exaggerates the blatant cruelty of the killing. She embellishes the bullet wounds in the animal’s skins, which previously had been carefully diminished in the ritual of taxidermy and often decorates them with gemstones and jewelry. In Squeak a sparrow perches on the side of a goat head eating at the evidently infested site of the bullet wound. Bugs and maggot-like worms swim freely from the hole, highlighting the organics of death and decay. In other works her subjects are lamented with decorations of funeral flowers.
In her recent series Troubled-Over Phantoms Singer cloaks taxidermy animals in pvc skins. Many of them are birds presented on perches, dressed up in little coverings, not dissimilar to the sheet-over-the-head ghost costume. Although somewhat comical, they do have a surprisingly ominous presence and raise serious questions regarding the ethics of interactions between human and animal.
For some, her works may appear to be as cruel as the sport she comments on, but Singer is an animal activist and as such, all of her materials are sourced secondhand -a quest evidently not that difficult given the now unfashionable nature of hunting trophies. Through the years, Singer has found that even the proud hunters loose interest in their trophies. So abortive is the exploitation that, like many objects, over time hunting trophies become objects invisible to those that live with them.
SOMETHING’S GONE WRONG AGAIN
(Adapted from a paper given at the Research Centre in Creativity, London Metropolitan University, ‘Something’s gone wrong again: art, animals, ethics and botched form’ explores the challenges and potential of the animal’s botched body’).
Text by Steve Baker. Download full text, Antennae: Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, UK. Issue 7, 2008.
“…That sense of an empty or subverted trophy is also explored in the work of the New Zealand-based artist Angela Singer. Since the mid-1990s she has been making a series of works that address the turning of taxidermic meaning even more explicitly. Motivated by a commitment to animal rights, Singer talks of her work as “recycled taxidermy”, and says: “I think using taxidermy is a way for me to honour the animals’ life, because all the taxidermy I use was once a trophy kill. … The very idea of a trophy animal is sickening to me…”
NOTHING MAGAZINE #20 August/September 2007. Interview By Ella Mudie
1. In the nineties you worked as an animal activist and you continue to be concerned with animal ethics. How do you source the taxidermy for your work?
I recycle old taxidermy that’s mostly unwanted and donated. I advertise in local newspapers, some comes from rubbish tips; word of mouth brings a lot to the studio door.
2. You’ve described your art practice as a form of “de-taxidermy.” Can you explain this a little further?
My work goes against correct taxidermic practice by emphasizing aspects the taxidermist down played. For example, where a gun shot in the skin has been concealed I highlight the wound. By ‘stripping back’ the taxidermy to the underlying mount and cutting the animal out of its serene pose, I create a more realistic form. To make an animal more noticeable, I sculpt a new ‘flesh’ or I might decorate the animal with jewels and funereal flowers.
3. How did the hunting trophy become a recurrent motif in your art practice?
Hunting trophies are ubiquitous in New Zealand. Homes, sports clubs….both public and private places. What was interesting to me was that when questioned about the trophies the owners had all but forgotten they were looking down on them, they had become invisible. I wanted to challenge that culture by giving the animal back its presence, making the killed animal more confrontational, less easy to ignore.
4. When did you move from England to New Zealand? How has living and working in New Zealand shaped your recent work?
When I was eight my family immigrated to NZ, my 20s were spent in Australia and London, I returned to NZ in 1995. This is when I began working with old taxidermy. In England I never saw hunting trophies, I grew up on a housing estate, trophies were the ‘stuff’ of the upper classes. Not so in New Zealand. Hunting is not opposed here as sport and entertainment. Preserved dead animals are not considered offensive.
5. Your sculptures also reference the Victorian fashion of creating dioramas from taxidermied animals. Do you see any parallels between the Victorian age and our own?
The Victorians felt, in the move from rural to city living, the loss of connection to the natural world and sought to bring nature into their homes through taxidermy diorama. Our society is also suffering from the loss of connection to the wild.
6. Do you find people are generally understanding of your work as a critique of animal cruelty? Have you ever received negative reactions to your sculptures?
Recently I created a taxidermy installation in a shop window as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and had more contact with viewers than usual. Most got the work but there were a few who thought I was killing animals in the window!
7. What are you working on next?
I’m making a series of recycled taxidermy sculptures for a September show at Roger Williams Contemporary.
Existence: Life According to Art catalogue, Waikato Museum, Hamilton, NZ, 2007.
Leafa/Janice Wilson. Editor Dr Gaby Esser-Hall
“Hunters have always made a point of making trophies of their largest kill, regardless of the species. Sharks, fish, deer, wild boar and many other stuffed animals adorn the walls of hunters’ homes and garages the world over. But what happens to these taxidermed trophies once the hunter passes on and the kids can’t bear the sight of their newly inherited deer’s head or duck? If they are lucky, they make it from the second-hand/hoko hoko shops to the studio of Angela Singer. The artist appears to have a close kinship, a kind of morbid posthumous relationship with these stuffed animals. She restores a dignity stolen from them earlier by the hunter. Her work Garden retrieves material intended for use as garden manure into an object representing beauty with pretty shiny beads and flowers inserted on the resting lamb’s back.”
Killing Animals. Eds. The Animal Studies Group (2006) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-03050-8 ISBN 0-252-07290-1 view book online.
Art & the idea of the animal
The Idea of the Animal catalogue, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Melbourne, 2006.
“…New Zealand artist Angela Singer explores the atavistic notion of the hunt, and its trophies. Like some women’s taste for fur, the hunt represents a regressive desire to reconnect with the instinctual animal self, particularly as a means to release repressed notions of conventional gender roles, in this case, man as primordial hunter. Singer uses taxidermy to present the pathetic (and actually quite bathetic) results of these primitive urges which, apart from what they imply for the animal, are so out of pace with contemporary notions of decorum, representing instead a striving for instinctual authenticity that approaches kitsch. Singer’s animal trophies evince an almost unbearable sense of realism as antlers are sawn from heads, and skin and fur ripped away from flesh….Contemporary mythologies of the animal are somehow fused with this sense of imminent mourning, along with a renewed curiosity in animal alterity.”
Criminal Animal web project. view online.
“Recycling old taxidermy and meat industry animal waste is central to Angela Singer’s work. For her installation Ghost Sheep at Blue Oyster Art Project Space & Gallery, New Zealand she created a ghostly floating flock of sheep. Working with 240 damaged skins, donated by a skin processing factory, she shaped the shorn and preserved flesh back into ghostly sheep forms….”
Animal rights and wrongs (Haunted by the animal) by Steve Baker. Tate: The Art Magazine, London no. 26, Autumn 2001. view online
“The animal ‘haunts’ because it can simultaneously be vividly present and bewilderingly absent. In the taxidermic constructions of contemporary artists such as Jordan Baseman, Mark Dion, Angela Singer and Neil Hamon, for example, the uncomfortable illusion of ‘liveness’ is no simple thing. For Singer, recycling taxidermy that was once trophy kill, the process is a way for her ‘to honour the animals’ life’. Cultural theorists such as Lippit and John Berger have argued that in important ways the animal is already lost to the contemporary world, and much of the most compelling animal art is now certainly open to being read as a form of memorial to that loss…”
Something’s gone wrong again: Art, animals, ethics and botched form.
Animality catalogue, Blue Oyster Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand 2003.
Postmodernism’s identification with the impure, the fractured, the difficult and the damaged is well known, but why is it that there seems to be a kind of rightness about things going wrong, and how does it connect with our thinking about creativity?
In recent years, particularly since writing a book called The Postmodern Animal, my own work has been primarily concerned with the ways in which artists stage, or engage with, the idea of the animal in the contemporary world. And in this regard it’s relevant to note that the moment just over a quarter of a century ago that saw the rise of postmodernism was also the moment at which the animal rights movement as we now know it became more active and more visible.
The wrongs addressed by that movement, of course, were ones to be put right rather than to be indulged, and this may explain why the animal advocate Carol Adams suggested a couple of years ago that it may be an increasing problem for the animal rights movement that it is, in her words, “a ‘modern’ movement in a postmodern time”. In exploring that tension between the idea of wrongs to be put right, and a sense of the rightness of things going wrong, I want to avoid characterizing it as a clash between ethical and aesthetic perspectives.
My concern in The Postmodern Animal was to describe a range of recent artworks in which the image of the animal takes an unconventional and sometimes startling form. It was an attempt, the book said, “to characterize those instances of recent art practice where things … appear to have gone wrong with the animal, as it were, but where it still holds together”. The collective term I proposed for these works, which I regarded as both descriptive and provocative, was “botched taxidermy”. The term wasn’t to be taken too literally: some pieces did use taxidermy, others presented the imperfectly preserved animal body in different ways. But all of them botched the body, or got it “wrong”, in one way or another.
The problem with art’s more straightforwardly realistic, or beautiful, or sentimental representations of animals is that our very familiarity with them renders the depicted animal effectively invisible. Worse still, for much of the twentieth century the animal in art was regarded as the most kitsch of subjects, undeserving of serious attention. In stark contrast, these works of botched taxidermy — however little else they had in common — had the great value of rendering the animal “abrasively visible”.
It was their wrongness that gave them their edge. In botching the body, in calling into question the categories and the boundaries of the human and the nonhuman, the pure, the perfect, the whole, the beautiful and the proper, they held out the promise of an art, to borrow Adam Phillips’s tantalizing words, in which “the idea of human completeness disappears”, and whose difficult effect might also offer what he calls “good ways of bearing our incompleteness”. Botching is a creative procedure precisely because of its openness to getting things wrong. Instead of offering answers, these works of botched taxidermy were, I suggested, “questioning entities”. Phillips, again, praising “the fluency of disorder, the inspirations of error”, argues: “We need a new pantheon of bunglers”.
I’m not insensitive to the peculiarity of the position I appear to be adopting here. A recent British newspaper headline, quoting Sean Gifford, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who’s been disrupting Paris fashion shows that have prominently featured furs, read: “There is nothing creative about skinning an animal”. I agree with this, but would still want to argue that works of botched taxidermy, some of which prominently feature skinned animals, are indeed creative.
It was not my intention to engage in direct ethical judgements about these sometimes highly contentious works. Some of the pieces, such as Jordan Baseman’s sculptural pieces using animal skins and basic taxidermy techniques, seemed to me to be defining images of the 1990s that help us to think through our inevitably contradictory relation to the other-than-human or more-than-human world. Works by some other artists were undoubtedly more problematic. But it seemed important to defend these works, regardless of what I thought of them individually. I wanted to defend them in order to observe them, to allow them space to be, to trust their integrity, to see what they might have in common, and how they might work beyond their makers’ varied intentions and varied engagements with animals.
It hardly needs saying that this is not a culture that trusts art, or trusts artists, to operate with integrity. And that lack of trust shows this culture at its least creative: you can’t have an untrusting account of creativity. The difficulty is that this necessary trust has to sit alongside, and somehow to accommodate, the fact that artists have sometimes harmed animals in making their work, whether (to cite three notorious examples) in the construction of devices to zap thousands of flies, or the invitation to gallery-goers to decimate goldfish in kitchen blenders, or the liberties taken with the life of a genetically modified rabbit in the name of art. The seriousness of the work cannot excuse or justify the harm. In that sense, the artist Sue Coe’s maxim, “life before art”, has to be right.
But that is an argument for another occasion, because the criticisms of botched taxidermy are of a different order. I’m aware of three principal objections that have been raised to this kind of work: first, that critical responses to this art gloss over the contentious fact that many of the works consist of real, damaged, animal bodies; second, that the works are unremittingly ugly; and third, that they’re ethically irresponsible. The difficulty is therefore both with the look of this work, and with how the significance of that look is to be interpreted.
The first objection is plainly put by John Simons, who has written: “When I see a work of ‘botched taxidermy’ … I do not see an epistemological problem. I see a dead animal”. More a than anything else, it was the need to address this uncompromising complaint that in fact prompted the present paper. But it is the third objection — the accusation of ethical irresponsibility — to which I need to attend most fully.
It is articulated most forcefully by Anthony Julius, in his recent book Transgressions: The Offences of Art. Its central concern is to explore the “transgressive aesthetic” that runs through what Julius calls the “taboo-breaking art” of recent times. Rightly identifying the limitations of a formalist defence of this art, the particular and distinctive strength of the book is its insistence that both the form and content of this art should be taken seriously.
As it happens, Julius discusses a few of the pieces I had called botched taxidermy in The Postmodern Animal. One is from Damien Hirst’s Natural History series (the animals preserved in formaldehyde); another is from Thomas Grünfeld’s Misfits series; and a third is John Isaacs’s Say It Isn’t So, in which the body of the mad scientist is a modified tailor’s dummy whose odd farmyard-animal-like head is in fact the wax cast of a frozen chicken.
Julius seems to loathe these works, and is at his least persuasive in his interpretation of them. In them, he laments, “That most fundamental of hierarchies, which places the human above the merely animal, is subverted”. He specifically describes the pieces by Grünfeld and Isaacs as “counter-Enlightenment taunts”: “They present the monsters, the taxidermic aberrations, that a humanity unconstrained by moral scruple, basest when least confined, will produce … These man-beasts, minatory or comic, deny the divinity of the human form that is the premise of Western art”. This kind of hybrid, taboo-breaking art is an assault on its audience because, he writes, it “can force us into the presence of the ugly, the bestial, the vicious, the menacing. These are all kinds of cruelty”.
Isaacs is the only one of those three artists I’ve had the opportunity to interview in person. His account of the “force” of the life-sized figure in Say It Isn’t So is rather different. Its effect, he hoped, would be to “force the viewer from their intelligence” and to take them unawares, prompting a moment of perplexity and non-recognition, of genuine thinking. More generally, he observed that much of his work “comes from trying to fit together different information sources — art, science, whatever — and allowing them to cohabit, coexist, to form more of a question than an answer”.
A comparable point is made in an essay entitled “Lightness” by the late Italo Calvino, in which he noted that for Ovid “everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. And also for him there is an essential parity between everything that exists, as opposed to any sort of hierarchy of powers or values”.
This is, one might say, a collage principle. It is interested in things, it accepts things, in all their discontinuity and unevenness and unlikeliness, and this is what it works with, not knowing the outcome in advance. Collage is about putting the wrong things together: to the right effect. In his recent book Animals in Film, Jonathan Burt notes the extensive use of “a collage of effects” in the construction of apparently realistic animal imagery in film, adding the useful observation that “the ethical potential of animal films cannot necessarily be mapped onto their truth value”. A similar idea is borne out in Nicky Coutts’s striking series The Inheritors, where it often takes a moment to figure out what’s wrong, until it becomes apparent that those are human eyes collaged on to a variety of animal faces. It reminds me of the American artist Jim Dine’s wonderful comment: “I trust objects so much. I trust disparate elements going together”.
In the light of these benign botchings, my criticism of Anthony Julius in his book Transgressions is not that he complacently assumes the superiority of human over nonhuman life (though he does seem to do that), but rather that he doesn’t trust artists. He can’t do so because he doesn’t seem to grasp that positive sense of botching. And his concern with “moral scruple” — like Suzi Gablik’s concern back in the 1980s with what she called “art’s moral centre” — only reinforces my view that the integrity of the artworks I’m describing is not fashioned out of, and is not best expressed through, the language of morals and ethics.
Jacques Derrida’s essay “And say the animal responded?”, drawn from a long 1997 lecture and published for the first time earlier this year, opens with this question about the limits of ethics in the field of human-animal relations: “Would an ethics be sufficient … to remind the subject of its being-subject, its being-guest, host or hostage, that is to say its being-subjected-to-the-other, to the Wholly Other or to every single other?”. Derrida answers the question thus: “I don’t think so”. He continues to be wary, as he’s said before, of even a “provisional” morality.
In contemporary art, the integrity I’m talking about might be thought of as a working method, an intuitive way of operating, in which there is often a precarious balance of confidence and not-knowing, or of confidence despite not-knowing. My original account of botched taxidermy itself implied a certain resilience, or integrity, or even dignity, in the way these botched bodies held together, against the odds. But precisely because botched form sails close to, and reconfigures much the same formal vocabulary as the so-called “abject art” of the early 1990s, with its apparent reveling in meat, baseness, powerlessness, and hierarchies, and awful lot depends on the effectiveness with which those meanings can be turned.
The example I want to begin to explore in relation to this is the turning of the hunting trophy. The dead animal of botched taxidermy is not the dead animal of the hunting trophy, though each might be said to haunt the other. It was, I think, Jordan Baseman who first got me thinking about trophies. Talking about the pair of animal skins with modeled heads that comprise his stunning The Cat and the Dog, he described the effect of these wall-mounted bodily remains as being “exactly like tiger skins, or bear skins or whatever”. He also referred to them as “empty trophies”.
That sense of an empty or subverted trophy is also explored in the work of the New Zealand-based artist Angela Singer. Since the mid-1990s she has been making a series of works that address the turning of taxidermic meaning even more explicitly. Motivated by a commitment to animal rights, Singer talks of her work as “recycled taxidermy”, and says: “I think using taxidermy is a way for me to honour the animals’ life, because all the taxidermy I use was once a trophy kill. … The very idea of a trophy animal is sickening to me”.
In a work entitled Sore, which is also the Victorian name for a fallow deer, the skin has been removed from the trophy head, taking it back to the supporting taxidermic form, and a new “flesh” created by coating and carving red wax, iron oxide pigments and varnishes. Like many of her works, its look relates to the history of that particular individual animal. As the family that donated the trophy head to Singer had explained, both the hunter who shot it and the deer itself had been drenched in blood, because the antlers act as a blood reservoir and it spurts everywhere when, as happened here, they were sawn off.
Of her practice as a whole, Singer says: “I think some people fear the physicality of art that uses taxidermy. Taxidermy shrinks the animal, and botching taxidermy gives the animal back its presence, making it too big to ignore”. In contrast to the celebratory rhetoric of the hunting trophy, works such as these leave the viewer disconcerted, unconfirmed. And in this, at least, John Berger’s famous claim that “no animal confirms man” seems to be borne out here.
We come now to my rather odd conclusion, such as it is. Tom Robbins’s gloriously politically-incorrect novel, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, opens with a description of an aged parrot that “looked like a human fetus spliced onto a kosher chicken”. The book is full of botched bodies (both animal and human) which, though they include his own, seem in no way at odds with the placid philosophy of the central character, a maverick CIA agent called Switters, who sees true intelligence as always being “in the service of serenity, beauty, novelty, and mirth”.
His outlook is shaped in no small part by his enthusiasm for a book on meditation called The Silent Mind. Curious to read something of the sort, having never done so, I’ve recently been dipping into a collection of talks on meditation by a Japanese Zen master called Shunryu Suzuki. I make no apology for taking some of its ideas wildly out of context, but I’ve been intrigued to find in it echoes of a couple of the ideas I’ve touched on in this paper.
“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous”, says Suzuki: “first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy … to watch them, without trying to control them”. And calling into question the idea of failure, he refers to a Zen maxim he translates as “to succeed wrong with wrong” — the entirely permissible making of “one continuous mistake”. The striking thing is that this letting go of control, and toleration of operating continuously in the wrong, is explicitly characterized as “right practice”.
I don’t want to draw any firm conclusion from this, but merely to observe with interest this perspective — far removed from postmodern theory — that seems able to acknowledge a rightness in the practice of things going wrong. That it does so in terms of encouraging mischief rather than being troubled by transgression is also gratifying: a distant echo, somehow, of the botching that trusts (in Dine’s words) “disparate elements going together”.
Adapted from a paper given at the Research Centre in Creativity, London Metropolitan University, March 2003. Steve Baker is Professor of Art History in the Department of Humanities at the University of Central Lancashire. Author of The Postmodern Animal and of Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation