Monday, March 27, 2017

The Nature/Nurture Propaganda of New-Wave Taxidermists

            by John Kinsella

Window Shopping at the Taxidermist’s

The permeable glass — sieve-like — drains
the liquid light, a fluid more precious
than formaldehyde, the smell of life …
A grimace or a grin stretches like a trap,
and as a backdrop a deer dispenses
with its claim to needing a heart,
it’s only there from the neck up,
though its eyes are sharp, senses finely
tuned, nervousness held in check
through a familiarity born of sharing
a display case with a pack of wolves.
The window shoppers hunt amongst the grime
of the city’s unglamorous side, their prey
the glimmering skin, the combed and shining —
here they show their skill, knowing
where to bag the finest trophy.

I wrote the above poem in 1992 and it was published in my 1993 volume, Full Fathom Five. I am pretty sure I wrote it at the base of the Darling Scarp, though it’s actually ‘about’ a piece of taxidermy seen elsewhere, maybe in the northern hemisphere when I was twenty (though I am pretty sure it was triggered by seeing some taxidermy in a window in Northbridge, Perth). It is a poem-critique of a capitalist disrespect and abuse of the dead, and also, though only by implication as it is superficially ‘genderless’, of a patriarchy of trophyism.

Living in central Ohio in the early to mid 2000s, an excursion out into the region would take us past taxidermists’ shops — not rare in hunting territories. Some of the taxidermists prided themselves on ‘artistic flair’, ‘respect for nature’, and ability to deliver a ‘quality product’. If I recall correctly, at least one of these taxidermy businesses was run by a husband-and-wife team. Or am I wilfully misremembering? I don’t think so.

Taxidermy has haunted me since seeing, as a child, ‘specimens’ in the Perth Museum — what others might take as a point of inspiration, the seeding of a vocation, I took as disturbance. But though back then I was not a vegan, and not an animal rights activist, and in fact did hunt and fish, I found the ‘re-enactment’ side of the displays — the animating of the dead to give humans a sense of authenticity, to provide entertainment and ‘education’ in elements of the world that cannot be shown — hypocritical and dishonest.

To illustrate, to capture (again) the animals in a (faux) performative moment in their ‘native habitat’, was to mock their living, individual lives. To make the dead ‘live’, to make the temporariness of their lives (however ended or taken from them), quasi-‘permanent’, to arrest their being in such a manner, was grotesque to me. Their eyeballs seem particularly wrong. And in each case, little adornments of ‘place’ — a branch, a rock, a snake rising in the corner on real sand. It truly bothered me.

What brought this all back, suddenly, was seeing another article (one was run last year on that year’s instalment of the same taxidermy exhibition) on what we might term ‘new-wave taxidermy’. And though this is an interpolation, written after what follows, I would bring to mind Carol J. Adams’s question in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Continuum, New York, 2000), ‘Where does vegetarianism end and feminism begin, or feminism end and vegetarianism begin?’ And consider her observation a few lines later: ‘Our meals either embody or negate feminist principles by the food choices they enact.’ (p. 178)

So new-wave taxidermists are wishing to get away from the word ‘taxidermy’? This is ‘art’! So they’re trying to get away from the ‘stuffy’ version of weird men in back rooms playing with animal corpses? So they’re trying to get away from the idea of dead animal ‘mounted’ as ‘trophy’?

Instead, we have a ‘gender’-angled promotion (as extension of arts-capitalism, not as an act of liberty and liberation) in which some women (especially younger women, it seems) are territorialising the realms of the dead. A reconvening of the underworld in which Persephone reclaims the space of body articulate in the domain of Hades. There’s an absurdity in this configuring, but the subtexts of the gender issues around the new-wave taxidermy, as conveyed by promotions and ‘teachers’ wishing to ‘modernise’ practice, are playing into these tropes. Don’t worry: all of this will suit those ‘stuffy’ male taxidermists and death fetishists very well indeed. Their kingdom grows through the process.

We read that we’ve gone (in Australia) from one woman over a decade ago (officially?) playing with dead animal corpses, to over fifty in the here and now. And now, it’s nurturing nature morte — bringing life to dead nature. The women are placing the animals in ‘natural settings’; they are bringing life to what is dead. A new fertility — a reclaiming of the birth of death. This, of course, is withering gendering discourse. It is setting women up as clichés and prisoners of the incubator, with a femininity (anxiety) so powerful it can re-animate the dead (as Dr Frankenstein succeeded in doing, but failed, as his creator Mary Shelley knew he must; or horror struggling with right-wingism in H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction). This is a torturously constrained semantic display.

We read that to not understand this is because of our ignorance, because we don’t know how to read this new presentation of the living dead. We (male or female or non-binary) apparently need to be taught. We need to be educated in the aesthetics of displaying death, the rewriting of ethics through playing the ethics of gender (in)equality. The gender of the stuffed (!) animals becomes a variable in the display. Of the beauty of the fox (so hated in Australia) in its ‘natural’ environment (what, the Australian paddock, the Australian national park, or the vague ancestral memory of English fields?).

Such gendering of death-plays is destructive and demeaning, though probably not more than a non-gendered death display, but it’s not liberating in any way for humans or animals alike, and shouldn’t be claimed as such, outside the machinery of chromosome counts.

The abuse of dead animals to make nature ‘art’ is an abuse of the animal as subaltern — written into it is not only a politics of indifference and insensitivity, but a demeaning of women as process. Okay, if people are going to be exploiters of animal corpses — removing all sanctity and spirituality in death from their rights and rites, then they shouldn’t pretend it’s to do with redressing the grotesque and omnipresent social and personal wrongs of gender inequality and gender abuse. These are facts.

Women have no ‘equal’ status in any real terms, and need to constantly push in every context to redress this. Taxidermy is not an effective medium for this — in many ways, it’s the endgame of patriarchy. And if it is to become a medium to dismantle patriarchy, then it needs to be textual and abstracted, and not literal: that is, no real corpses used in the process!

To use death as a metaphor of rights, especially within the faux fertilities of reanimation and ‘art’ (and ‘design’), is a furphy, an advertising ploy, and capitalism’s happy incorporation of women into its consuming maw in yet another profit-orientated context. I am reminded of an artwork I saw at this year’s student art exhibition at the Western Australian Art Gallery — a commentary on different aspects of gun culture, from a form of critique of gun violence to a personal romanticising (attempting to be the opposite) of a ‘farm girl’ holding her rifle, owning her own destiny.

The contradictory message of this artwork wasn’t generative or liberating (which contradiction can so often be), but entirely compliant with the patriarchy, entirely compliant with one of the many versions of self-empowerment and self-confidence that gun manufacturers sell to the world (I should say that there were some superb artworks against abuse and degradation of animals in the exhibition — across ‘genders’).

There is no ownership of destiny with weapons — no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ version. Guns kill. There is nothing outside this. Maybe the student sees this? If so, she needs to develop her critique — maybe she will, and in doing so offer new ways of critiquing the existence of guns in all contexts. Guns will always be weapons, and only weapons. Guns are patriarchy whatever gender we identify with.

And taxidermy is what the faux-animating of dead animals is. How and why people collect the dead is also a question. The fox shot by a farmer/hunter and brought lovingly ‘back to life’ by the artiste? Gender is part of all we do, and has implications in all we enact, but some gender resistances and affirmations bring positive change, and sadly some don’t.

In his 1996 preface to Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin, London, 1998), the translator Michael Hamburger — a very ‘direct’ translator of the poet’s German — said, regarding the act of translation and possible doubts about his method, that ‘freedom to re-interpret, recast and even omit has never been my way. I had probably been needled by Robert Lowell’s description of my kind of translator as “taxidermists”.’ (p. xii)

The unwitting and grotesque irony of ‘needling’ aside (always amazes me how even experienced poets who are constantly dealing with the polysemous might miss a slippage if their own politico-ethics don’t allow for a broader expanse of contexts and interpretations), Hamburger’s distress is with the fact of not only bringing a living poem into a death, but that the poem is killed by such ‘directness’ in the first place. He, of course, felt it was not the case, but likely is offering the poem a life in a different habitat that is equivalent to the one it possesses in its originating language.

Lowell’s use of ‘taxidermy’ is actually an example of an artistic view of taxidermy as a false art of ‘life’ — one only ever moribund, bound in its origins of death. The ‘artistic’ acts of taxidermy as aesthetic enactments of the dead, making the dead perform for the living human audience, are of this category error. What Lowell wanted were ‘translations’ that, above all else, lived in the language in which they were being remade (a fine example of this is Richard Howard’s translation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal).

Ironically, for all their literalness, Hamburger’s Hölderlins largely achieve this quality. But Hamburger’s final riposte to Lowell comes at the beginning of the last paragraph of his preface: ‘Gaps in Hölderlin’s fragmentary later poems have not been filled in with taxidermic stuffing.’ (p. xv) Does this defensiveness actually suggest that Hamburger well knew what his ‘needling’ represented in the discourse, and was using it to brutal effect?

In the making of metaphors, language can grow, but its growth doesn’t mean that cause and effect vanish for other uses of the word. Hamburger’s first use of Lowell’s reference is, of course, scare-quoted; his second isn’t. He has grown into his task of re-animating the supposed corpses of the English-language versions of Hölderlin’s poems. The dead poet, the dead era, the prophetic poet, the ‘modern’ audience as receptors, the leap across languages and a multitude of cultural variants, and the alienation of mortality, and the intimacy of dealing with the dead, all coalesce. In these usages, a form of rivalry and trophyism is afoot.

Taxidermy is about control, oppression, and hierarchy in its figurative as well as literal manifestations. And in the living world of media and textuality, as I was going to leave this piece at this point, another news item comes in — scientists-taxidermists at the Queensland Museum putting their ‘skills’ on show (‘hands on’) for the public during a science fair. Here we have the false claims of necessity and environmentalism — the notion that the dead are brought to life in their interaction with an audience (note the classic journos’ promotional ploy: ‘taxidermy comes to life’ — that headline ‘joke’ at the expense of the dead).

The museum’s colonial and imperialist urge cannot change — a museum that makes use of the dead is denying the rights (and rites) of passing from the corporeal to non-corporeal. A collection; a zoo of the dead. And note that ‘most’ corpses are brought in as roadkill or from some other apparently morally benign source. Most. Historically, naturalists have filled the museums of the world with captured specimens, killed to inform not only scientists but their customers, their audience, and ultimately their paymasters. Taxidermy is an act around which a language of euphemism, deception, dissembling, and gallows humour attempts to dilute ethics. Death is never entertainment! (Though, in the case of say, Jack White, entertainers can clearly be enthusiastic taxidermists and collectors of taxidermy — Meg White dabbled with less enthusiasm; so maybe taxidermists feel they can be enthusiastic entertainers).

And ‘science’ does not require this, no matter how it’s sold.

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