By: Michael Campos /
“I see it as a raw material to work with; with no soul left, the body becomes a beautiful ornament.” – POLLY MORGAN
Hybrid Animal Taxidermy has most likely been around since the practice of taxidermy itself. It doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to assume that a taxidermist would work with what they had in order to portray an animal in the way they’ve seen or read about.
In this research, I look at ‘the other side’ of taxidermy, taking a step away from the life-like dioramas of the museum and looking into taxidermy as an art form. By understanding the intersection of science and art, taxidermy is a unique art form/job/trade that combines the anatomical structure of an animal with the artist’s’ interpretation of how to position its ‘final form’.
The resurgence in the interest of taxidermy has greatly increased in the last decade or so. Notably, I personally had no ‘real’ interest in it until I began reading more about it and willingly opening myself up to the beauty behind the preservation.
Taxidermy as memento mori has become more prevalent in the art; whereas, museum diorama taxidermy celebrates the life of the animal in its natural habitat, hybrid animal taxidermy as art celebrates the afterlife of the animal and their relationship to non-animal humans.
Going from the early anthropomorphized work of Walter Potter to modern hybrid taxidermists such as Catherine Coan (Hybrid Animals, Canary Suicides), Takeshi Yamada (Coney Island Sea Rabbit), Polly Morgan, Thomas Grunfeld and collectives like Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART).
Hybrid Taxidermy as an artform has taken on new life. A life where once taxidermists never signed their work to now where they’re recognized for it.
In an effort to better understand the meanings behind Hybrid Animal Taxidermy, I believe it is necessary to understanding the artist’s interpretation of the animal itself and what they are trying to achieve by combining two or more animals to create a new one. By understanding the folklore behind an hybrid animal, it is possible to appreciate more the combination of art and science.
Combining the use of diorama and photography, the tangible hybrid animal as an artwork is potentially given a greater meaning because it is given ‘a new life’.
First, let me get this out of the way: I don’t like the term “Botched Taxidermy”.
It might be only a personal choice but I feel that the word suggests the art was unintentional and they were ‘trying to make the best of it’ when in reality, everything was done with a direction in mind. The Autumn 2008 issue of Antennae is entitled “Botched Taxidermy”.
Steve Baker, who coined the phrase, provides an introduction on the world of taxidermy since his publication of The Postmodern Animal, where the term was born in 2000. Although his introduction is a reprint from 2003, I believe it is still valid in his arguments however, my personal opinions on the term is very much cemented in place. There is a “positive sense of botching” as he writes, it’s just difficult to get over the inherent “wrong-ness” the word indicates.
In any case, the images below are examples of different types of ‘botching’ or as I like to call them Hybrid Taxidermy. Perhaps my initial thoughts on the term ‘botched’ are ruined by Reality TV. Actually, that’s almost definitely the case here.
Next, I want to address the title here.
I’ve titled this “Beautiful Ornaments” after stumbling upon the beginning quote by Polly Morgan.
Her work treads the edge of ‘uncanny valley’ but instead of the valley being human vs robot, it’s about life vs death (Marbury, 64). To me, this is the first step from alive to taxidermy. We are all aware that the mounts and pieces are dead and have been dead often for years if not decades (freezing is nice). Morgan realizes the death of the animal and helps remember it through her pieces. This same frame of mind is often used during museum diorama and even more so during the photography of the diorama itself.
The banner photo (the museum diorama at the very top) is used as a transition from the ‘normal’ display of taxidermy. I feel that it’s important to have a grounding of what taxidermy is understood to be as a display before going into taxidermy as an artistic form.
Museum taxidermy, I believe, is incredibly important to not only natural history as a subject but also to understand the form of the animal’s body.
Carl Akeley is known as being the figure who elevated Museum Diorama into the artform that we see it as today. Walter Potter, on the other hand, created anthropomorphized dioramas around the same period but at the time those were considered a ‘side-show’. As Mark Alvey writes, “A “stuffed” panda in a diorama is more real than a photograph, and yet somehow less real than an example of the same species at the zoo. Through skin, film, clay, and bronze Akeley illuminated different aspects of these creatures, some purely physical, some less tangible.” (42) The relationship between a panda in a diorama to a living panda in a zoo is an interesting takeaway considering often times a panda would sometimes only be seen in a museum diorama.
The photograph of a diorama can sometimes elevate the perception of the animal from taxidermy to living depending on the expertise of the photographer. By photographing a diorama, the photographer is making it possible to for others to experience the animals in the third person. By doing so a diorama can often be mistaken for a “real life” photograph, with everything ‘right’.
Taking this thought a step further, how does the photograph of a hybrid animal taxidermy affect the perception of the mount itself?
Since most hybrid animals are seen in art galleries instead of museums, the mounts/items themselves are given deeper meaning because they are curated around a similar function or storyline whereas the museum tries to mimic real life. I’ve personally never been to an taxidermy exhibition in an art gallery so my experience is only with the photographs of the exhibits.
This also brings up the idea of taxidermy as trophy especially regarding the act of hunting the animal. Most hybrid animal taxidermy is done with specimens that have either died of natural causes or through an unavoidable death (read: roadkill). Since these animals are no longer hunter, their (after)life as a trophy mount no longer holds the meaning that hunting did. By ‘reviving’ an already dead animal and creating either a new creature or merely ‘fixing’ its flaws, it now becomes a trophy in the sense of bring back to life instead of saving in order to tell a hunting story.
To quote Gary Marvin in his chapter entitled Enlivened through Memory Hunters and Hunting Trophies, “However, such relationships cannot be immediately discerned in what remains of the body of the animal itself. Without the enlivening presence of the hunter, such objects are mute and can probably be viewed only as dead animals. The significance of the trophy, the fact that it is displayed at all, is revealed only when hunters speak about them” (Alberti, 205).
The hybrid animal taxidermist now strives to reveal the significance of the animal not by speaking about them but by letting the artwork speak for itself.
Divya Anantharaman is interesting taxidermist in that she was featured in a VICE video entitled, “The World’s Hottest Taxidermist” where she actively hunts/traps the animals she uses in her art.
Already the title of the video is sensationalized and it should be noted that there seems to be some disagreement on the part of the artist in the way the video was edited. In the clip she traps a woodchuck then mounts it. While some disagree with the hunting/trapping aspect of this particular clip, one should not forget the history of taxidermy and it’s relationship with trophy hunting.
She specifically states on her website that she hunts/trap for meat and not trophy and uses all parts of the animal in a ethical way.
In any case, this seems to be a different direction than most taxidermists who make it a point to only use animals that have died from natural causes or unavoidable death.
She uses those animals as well but I think it’s incredibly important to note that hunting/trapping is also an option for her. (it’s not a bad thing!)
Her work in particular has begun to garner more recognition though not on the level of Sarina Brewer or Polly Morgan yet, which is why I think it’s important to understand her relationship with taxidermy at the moment.
Sarina Brewer is often regarded as the “grande dame of the Rogue Taxidermy movement” (Marbury, 28). The collective and movement, Rogue Taxidermy, was founded by Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus, and Robert Marbury in 2004 and they all continue to help shape where the art is going. The photograph here, Aurum, is a take on the mythological Chimera is seen as an omen for disaster and this particular take on the animal combines several different parts to create a new form.
In this video you can get a glimpse into Brewers workshop and see a brief creation of a squirrel/chicken hybrid.
The video itself is short but I think it gives great insight into an established artist and her intentions when it comes to taxidermy. To quote a friend of hers in the video, “It’s pretty amazing that we can give her a chicken, then all of a sudden it’s a griffin.”
Thomas Grünfeld has been around taxidermy for decades and is most well known for his Misfit series, one of which is pictured here. I chose to highlight this piece because the seamless transition between the two combined animals is striking. In comparison to the previous two, an polycephaly and a mythological Chimera, this calf/bullmastif hybrid evoke a great sense of ‘uncanny valley’ that pushes one to try to comprehend what exactly is going on.
By creating a hybrid such as this, the artist makes the viewer attempt to understand something that isn’t possible and therefore creates a work that pushes the boundary of nature.
Divya Anantharaman’s Polka Dotted Polycephalics and Sarina Brewer’s Aurum both utilize mythology is different ways. Ananthamraman’s work deals with a real, albeit rare, genetic mutation that gives the animal two heads instead of one. Although it isn’t mythological in the folkloric sense, it deals with the potential for things to go wrong.
To be ‘botched’. This reminds us of The Jackalope. It’s grounded in mythology the same that Brewer’s Aurum is a reference to a Chimera. The difference being that a Jackalope can potentially be a reference to the ‘shope papilloma virus” which causes cancerous growths from the head of a rabbit.
It no longer seems like such a stretch that an animal that may look like a cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit could exist, however it most likely was suffering from a disease instead of somehow being bred.
In any case by creating an interpretation of what the mythical creature could have looked like, the artist gives the lives of the animals used to create the work a new meaning. Instead of the pelt/skin/fur being discarded, the artists are allowed to create a new creature that may have never existed and push their audience’s imagination to places that they didn’t know existed.
This is how I feel when I look at the Misfit series by Thomas Grünfeld. Looking at the photograph of the work above, the head of the calf almost appears to be smiling. I’m attaching an human sensation to an hybrid animal taxidermy. Referring back to Alvey regarding photographs, I think the animal here feels more real than it could be in real life. Just as a photograph ‘stuffed’ panda vs the panda in the zoo.
Sarina Brewer states in the video by MN Original, “I think of all of my work as a tribute or an homage to the animal.” This statement seems to be a common thread through many other taxidermists. The relationship between the artist and the art they create is more than just the creation of something odd or attractive; it’s about remembering the animal.
In the interview clip below, Divya Anantharaman mentions her thought on giving the animal a new life.
This is a similar work that she is talking about:
It’s seems that the artists are making a point to remember the animals in different ways, by understanding their mythology and creating a new form of their previous selves.
The “new life” we as viewers experience is through the photography of the animal. The positioning is curated much more than they could be at an exhibition.
Photographing a hybrid animal taxidermy in a natural history museum type display would be an interesting project to take on. Much like the animals in museum dioramas, we might only experience those and these hybrid taxidermy through photograph.
How does the manipulation of animals via taxidermy give the animal ‘new life’? Does the photography of the hybrid animal taxidermy lessen their appeal? Does the ‘sideshow’ aspect of the creations adversely affect their potential artistic value?
My trajectory over this course has taken me from understanding the portrayal of rabbits to their mythology to their hybrid taxidermy. The closest I’ve ever been to a Hybrid Animal Taxidermy was the time I bought a Jackalope as a gift for a girl. It was only in my possession for a few hours but that sparked an interest that I didn’t realize I had until a few months ago.
I saw a live, albeit incredibly brief, mounting of a Falcon for this research. I tried signing up for a taxidermy class but the only ones being offered at studios were for students who had already taken at least one course. I’m sure I’ll get my chance soon.
It’s funny because I really don’t like killing things and the artists that I’ve looked into and followed on social media seem to have the same feelings. I’d much rather push a cockroach aside then to stamp it out. I’ve taken a second look at roadkill in passing where before I’d only try to avoid hitting it again, now I wonder how damaged the skin is and can it be salvaged. I wonder if I can somehow help that animal come back to ‘life’ in a different way, which is what I’ve learned most taxidermists feel.
Over the course of this research, I’ve learned that taxidermy is becoming more about the artist and expression than it used to be. It’s also worth noting that many of the taxidermists I’ve researched tend to be women. It seems as if the ‘inherent’ masculinity of taxidermy as trophy is no longer at the forefront. The course that taxidermy has taken over the last decade or so is much more artist-driven. Museum and diorama taxidermy, I think, will always be around and is an art in itself though creativity is usually only limited to the stance of the mount.
- Alvey, Mark. “The Cinema as Taxidermy: Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 48, no. 1, 2007, pp. 23–45., www.jstor.org/stable/41552477.
- Alberti, Samuel J. M. M., ed. The Afterlives of Animals : A Museum Menagerie. Charlottesville, US: University of Virginia Press, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 22 March 2017.
- Baker, Steve. “Something’s Gone Wrong Again” Antennae Autumn 2008 Issue 7 (2008): 4-9. Web.
- Baker, Steve. The Postmodern Animal. London: Reaktion, 2008. Print.
- Crane.TV. “Death Becomes Her – Artist Polly Morgan.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 19 June 2012. Web. 08 April 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EP98cNdDLcU
- Frank, Eric. “Thomas Grünfeld: The Misfits.” Antennae Autumn 2008 Issue 7 (2008): 22-27. Web.
- Henning, Michelle. “Anthropomorphic Taxidermy and the Death of Nature: The Curious Art of Hermann Ploucquet, Walter Potter, and Charles Waterton.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 35, no. 2, 2007, pp. 663–678., www.jstor.org/stable/40347181.
- Marbury, Robert. “The Canon: Pioneers in Natural History, Taxidermy, and Art.” Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself. New York: Artisan, 2014. 17-25. Print.
- MN Original. “Sarina Brewer.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 22 April 2016. Web. 08 April 2017 www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwdWkX9NDZU
- Philby, Charlotte. “Death Becomes Her: Meet Polly Morgan, Britart’s Hottest Property.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 15 July 2010. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.
- VICE. “The World’s Hottest Taxidermist.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Nov 2012. Web. 08 April 2017 www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_9q3DSfW3o