Meaningful? Morbid? … or simply a mixed bag to be sorted each on its own merit? (by Olga Norris)

Rabbits’ Village School, Circa 1888
Walter Potter: Rabbits’ Village School
It was popular during the 19th century, and gradually becoming a minority curiosity during the 20th, but then suddenly there has been a revival of the art of taxidermy – or a growth in the use of taxidermy in art. In the 19th century the amateur Walter Potter made sentimental tableaux which can excite responses through the vowels from ah to ugh. (Image above, more images and an article here)
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst: Away from the flock (from here)
Somehow not really seen as taxidermy (I don’t know the technical details of taxidermy as opposed to – or in addition to preservation in formaldehyde) the conceptual art of Damien Hirst burst onto the scene with a shark, halved cows, sheep, …. And now he is certainly not alone. A few years ago I saw and was intrigued by the work of Claire Morgan, which was when I started thinking about the use of taxidermy in sculpture.
Claire Morgan: Fantastic Mr Fox (from here)
This was followed by watching a BBC programme about Polly Morgan in the series What do artists do all day? You can watch here and here. There seem to be so many artists now working with taxidermy as part of their sculpture – there are links here and here to some of them.
I find that my initial negative reaction to most of this art gets in the way of my thinking about it. It has nothing to do with guts and feathers and fur, but somehow it feels disrespectful to the beasts if the quality of the work draws attention to the taxidermy rather than to the idea being explored in the piece. I thought of Hirst’s work as art first and considered the technique of presentation seriously only when I read that the shark had to be replaced because it was rotting. It’s the worth of the artistic expression which engages me rather than the particularities of technique in this case. I found that Claire Morgan’s work also engaged me, but perhaps that is because I saw and walked round it, observing, thinking, feeling – whereas the other work is simply represented in photographs and therefore not sufficient to make a considered enough judgement.
Shauna Richardson: Bulldog (from here)
And then I found out about the ‘crochetdermy’ of Shauna Richardson. She, with one tool, overwhelmingly one material, and lots of time achieves remarkable results. Here and here are more links about the crochet work. It certainly is extraordinary craft, as was shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition The Power of Making, but is it art? I certainly do not think it’s any less worthy of consideration simply because she does not use the body of the original beast. Like all work, I reckon that each individual piece should be weighed on its own merits, and not lumped in with however the technique of its making is considered at any point in time.
I’m curious to know what you think.


4 Responses to “Meaningful? Morbid? … or simply a mixed bag to be sorted each on its own merit? (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 snicklefritzin43 August 24, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Olga Many thanks for this post. Following the links I am intrigued and understand the title you used for the writing. Today and for many days to come I will be poking around to look at and think about how these “preserved” specimen are being used in works of art. Truly this is not a topic I have ever considered and appreciate your introduction on Ragged Cloth to this arena of artistic expression.

  2. 3 Eirene Mitsos August 24, 2014 at 7:36 am

    A lot of food for thought here, Olga. I find the idea of taxidermy distasteful because it’s disrespectful to the animals involved – the whole notion of preserving something that had life, and has subsequently been killed or has died and then displaying it seems to me to be part of the way people in the West approach nature – as something to be used for their own means, it’s all about exploitation.

    Having said that, I found Damien Hirst’s early work fascinating because it was truly conceptual: he had something to say about life and our mortality. I now feel that he had a good idea which he has been flogging to death ever since, and I have lost interest in his work as he has not said anything new in years. Similarly, Claire Morgan’s work (which I had not come across before) looks fascinating, visually exciting and so intricate. Mesmerising. I would love to see it for real.

    Shauna Richardson’s work is beautiful and interesting, but she does not use real animals, so it’s different to the work of the others as it’s representational.

    Thank you for this post, which has given me lots to think about.

    • 4 olganorris August 25, 2014 at 4:58 am

      Eirene, I largely agree with you about taxidermy, except that I can see a real purpose in Natural History museums having didactic models, just as zoos were necessary initially. I think that some works of art can use taxidermy to say something worthwhile – say like Claire Morgan, but I am suspicious that the process could become a fashion.

      I also agree with you about Damien Hirst’s work. I too think that perhaps he has run out of engaging ideas and that the art market has rather facilitated his inadequate repetitions.

      I deliberately wanted to include Shauna Richardson’s work because she presents animals in the way that taxidermy is used, and yet she works with textiles. But I also wondered if the use of the crochet could be seen as an artistic comment on taxidermy – or is it straightforwardly and honestly beautiful decorative work?

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