Stylish Breed ran from January 15 to April 7, 2012 at the Hyde Park Arts Center. The exhibition included collages by artist Megan Greene and sculptures and photographs by artist Elaine Bradford. In this piece I focus on Bradford’s work. My intention is neither to promote nor condemn her work, but to discuss the ethical territory that it gets into by incorporating taxidermied animals. Her pieces have stuck with me long enough after the end of the exhibition that I felt the need to explore them in greater depth. I apologize in advance to those of my friends who will be offended to see animals displayed this way, and I hope that my friends who find this display totally innocuous will be willing to consider this use of animals in a new way.
Walking into the Hyde Park Arts Center, a mixed-use gallery and studio space, I do not expect to be confronted by dead bodies mounted on the wall. And yet as I make my way down the hall on the way to class, taxidermied specimens in bright crocheted regalia appear to be looking at me through permanent glass eyes.
In reality, humans interact very frequently with dead bodies, every time we sit down to eat one. The encounter with the dead animal body happens, for some, three times a day, but there is a distancing mechanism in place: the body must be fractured, objectified, and re-labeled. This is the nature of the butchering process. Once complete, it facilitates a kind of willful ignorance. We consume the part without having to think about the whole.
It is much more rare, however, to interact with a dead body that is recognizable. This is the territory of funerals for humans and museum exhibitions, in regards to animals. This is not an interaction that we expect in an artistic space. The contexts in which we find the lifeless body, and in which we find its presence acceptable, have a lot to say about our culture’s view of the dead and the dignity that we afford them.
Much of art practice involves taking materials that have little inherent worth or meaning (traditionally paints, stone, metals), and making them into something valuable and significant. The art of the last century is remarkable for shifting its choice of materials away from those intended for such a practice, and shifting its set of meanings to statements about and within art practice. Bradford’s use of taxidermied animals evokes the tradition of using ready-made materials: in most cases, this involves some sort of commercially or mechanically prefabricated object, such as Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, with the intention of re-contextualizing the object as art or as part of an object of art. What is unsettling is that the work implies that the the animal body is a kind of prefabricated object, and thus is available for whatever use we desire.
As someone with a vested interest in the well-being of animals, obvious acts of animal cruelty strike me in more salient and visceral ways than they do other people. Walking into the space, my concern is not that the work is an obvious act of cruelty, but that the ethical tension in the work will be completely lost on the other viewers: that in a society in which we freely fragment and consume the animal body, the bodies on the wall will not be recognized for what they are. That the use of the animal as an art object may be novel, weird, or shocking, but that the use of the animal in the first place will not register as strange or problematic at all.
The origin of the animals in the exhibition is unclear. It is doubtful that they were specifically killed for use in this installation. Most likely, they have been reclaimed and re-appropriated. The nature of their lives, and any suffering they may have experienced, is a mystery, and so while the use of their bodies is offensive on one level, that use cannot be criticized on the level of direct cruelty. I place it on a secondary, indirect level as a set of gestures that, while not cruel in and of themselves, still reinforce principles that are present in a society that tolerates extensive cruelty. For instance, the internet is awash in images of companion animals in absurd costumes and situations (such as the Pit Bull kissing booth), experiencing mild to moderate levels of distress that we find humorous. The situations seem mostly harmless at the outset, as we don’t exactly worry about a dog fearing for its reputation the way a human would. While not overtly cruel, the gestures are actions taken out of the belief that animals are here for our entertainment and subject to our whims. If they are ours for use in scientific experimentation, then why not artistic experimentation as well? The animals are dead; as individuals, they cannot experience pain. But how harmless is their presence?
It would be impossible to do what Bradford has done with animals using the bodies of humans. To my knowledge, you will never see the deceased human body re-appropriated into an art piece, although some have claimed that shows such as Bodies: The Exhibition seek to do this.
I have encountered a dead body in art gallery exactly once prior to this, in 2007 at the Renaissance Society’s exhibition “Meanwhile in Baghdad,” which featured works on the war in Iraq. Jonathan Monk’s sculpture, Deadman, (surprisingly, of a dead soldier) lay near the entrance to the gallery, and from the door looked alarmingly like an actual performer or even an irreverent student. There is a reason why Monk must cast his facsimile out of wax and rubber. There is a reason why Bradford can use actual flesh and bone. Our treatments of the deceased human and the deceased animal are radically different. One is categorized as a dignified individual and the other is not.
Perhaps with the exception of Lenin’s remains on display in Moscow, we do not tolerate viewing the dead for long. We preserve our dead, but we hide them in caskets underground. Even when the ashes are kept in urns, the body has been physically transformed and is unrecognizable. But the preservation and display of the animal body is widely accepted: hunting trophies are commonplace, as are preserved animals on display in museums. When the individual dies, it is painful for us to see him or her reduced to an object, particularly an object for display. This is what so many find troubling about Bodies: The Exhibition and its competitor, BodyWorlds. Others defend the shows by pointing out the educational and aesthetic value of the body. Nonetheless, the bodies must be made anonymous and unrecognizable for their presentation to be tolerable. Likewise, our tolerance for the preserved animal body depends on this anonymity. There are some people who taxidermy their pets (you might recall the scene from the 2001 film Amelie, where Amelie’s distraught neighbor has had her eternally faithful dog preserved), but this is unusual. When we approach the deceased body, there is a tension between the individual that is gone and the object left behind. In the case of the human body, we need dissimulation and anonymity to dignify the individual. In the case of the animal body, we need a recognition of the individual to redeem the object.
I admit my fascination with the beings on display at natural history museums; I find most animals incredibly beautiful. As someone who tries to recognize the individuality of each animal, it is saddening to acknowledge each death, but this is mitigated by the hope that viewing and studying these animals will heighten appreciation. One could say that Stylish Breed is no different from a museum exhibition, that the artist is simply displaying the dead, but in a more elaborate way. But the show concerns me because the educational element seems absent even if the aesthetic element is highly emphasized. There is something pleasurable about looking the animals in the exhibition, but that enjoyment coexists for me with tension that others may not experience.
Interestingly, Bradford brings her crocheted creatures back to life in a sense by photographing them in a natural environment. Placing them outside forces us to imagine them alive. We are invited to imagine the crocheted yarn as a natural phenomenon and marvel at the strangely configured animals as if they were oddities in a museum. But to read the colored yarn and disjointed body parts as a human imposition means considering the distress and discomfort that would come from being constricted and conjoined. Nonetheless, the only other group I know of that seeks to bring dead animals “back to life” to make a statement is the animal rights movement, in the form of protest signs featuring images of skinned cats and dogs with the imploring subtitle, “was this worth it for your fur coat?” or cows hanging from hooks above the line, “was this worth it for your hamburger?” The reasons for this visual resurrection are very different, but the parallel is still worth noting.
One success of the show is that it subverts the tradition of displaying animals as hunting trophies (which I view as a symbol of patriarchal, violent control over nature) by injecting an exuberant element of feminine craft into them. Although my ideal response is to reject the concept of the trophy all together, there is something to be said for taking a symbol of masculine conquest and turning it into something colorful and delicate, as well as unexpected and absurd. One is an act of destruction, the result of the hunt; one is an act of creation, the finished art piece. Unfortunately both are gestures of ownership.
I consider contemporary art to hover somewhere between “gestures of great meaning” and “weird shit on white walls.” In many cases, maybe the best cases, the work is some of both. Stylish Breed has a considerable weirdness factor, not because the act of costuming the animal is weird, but because the sculptures are such an extreme extension of something that is already commonplace. We are quite used to dressing up and displaying animals. Bradford does something very old in a new and strange way. The act of display here is not cruel, although it may be of questionable taste. Instead it feels symptomatic of a culture that does not hesitate to categorize the animal as an object, or even a material. But it makes me hesitate. I can accept Bradford’s use of animals in this way to whatever extent it prompts others to hesitate as well.