From the earliest cave paintings of animals in Lascaux, France to philosophical treatises by contemporary thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, our fascination and symbiotic connection to the animal world has been questioned, analyzed, revered and debated. Post-colonial reassessment and the current environmental crisis have added more fuel to the vast amount of material surrounding the study of animals and their relationship to the human world. In recent decades the ethical legitimacy of taxidermy collecting and collections have come under increasing scrutiny and re-evaluation in museums around the world, in how specimens were acquired and how and why they are displayed for contemporary public consumption.
By Fern Helfand
”Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.“
Because of a life long connection to photography, one of my first thoughts upon encountering taxidermy displays is the uncanny parallel that exists between the hunting of animals and the taking of pictures. Photography has always shared terminology borrowed from gun and hunting vocabulary to describe itself. So much so, that it is difficult to even talk about shooting photographs without delving into the commonalities
of the language. For example one loads a camera, or at least used to, aims and shoots a picture. However on another level I see taxidermy specimens to be like photographs in so much as “…it turns them into objects that can be symbolically possessed. … All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality …”2 When I encounter a mounted animal I see it as captured in time just as I would see a photograph that has frozen a moment that can never be relived. I wonder about the story of how the animal came to be displayed in it’s current location and the circumstances of its life, in the same way as I would think about a person, or animal caught in a photograph from some mysterious time in the past.
In 2003 I visited La Grande Galerie d’Évolution in Paris, France, in search of fabricated tourist environments; a theme which had interested me for a number of years. Upon entering the grand 19th Century edifice, I was completely fascinated by the close encounter with a contemporary yet exotic taxidermy parade juxtaposed against a colonial era background. This impression along with words from the novel I was reading at the time, Zarafa , by Michael Alin, a recount of the real story of a giraffe and it’s handler’s voyage from Africa to Paris in the early 1800’s, have always stayed with me.
It was during my 2008 visit to the Beijing Museum of Natural History and my close encounter with another exotic yet totally different taxidermy experience that I decided to pursue a body of work, which combined my interests of tourism, fabricated environments, photography, and taxidermy itself.
From the earliest cave paintings of animals in Lascaux, France to philosophical treatises by contemporary thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, our fascination and symbiotic connection to the animal world has been questioned, analyzed, revered and debated. Post-colonial reassessment and the current environmental crisis have added more fuel to the vast amount of material surrounding the study of animals and their relationship
to the human world. In recent decades the ethical legitimacy of taxidermy collecting and collections have come under increasing scrutiny and re-evaluation in museums around the world, in how specimens were acquired and how and why they are displayed for contemporary public consumption.
The six panoramas in this exhibition are montages of photographs taken in museums with very different approaches to display. They seem to fall into various categories outlined by Stephen T. Asma in his book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums , where he discusses the history of museum display from proud colonial trophy exhibits to contemporary eco-aware educational
approaches. I spent quite a bit of time in each location, trying to capture a feeling of the relationship between the viewer and the animals in the display. People appear as blurred moving figures in the deadly stillness of the animal exhibits. Ironically however, there still is a powerful sense of the alive in the appearance of the animals as they in turn look back at their visitors with a twinkle of artificial light in their glass eyes. All of
these museums are located in the heart of large busy cities, where visitors are exposed to ”wild animals” in situations that reflect their natural environments in very idealistic ways, or in fictitious groupings of animals that could never exist in reality.
I chose to focus on the eyes of the thirty faces that confront the viewer on one wall of the exhibition. The images progressively blur and become black and white as one looks beyond the center of the face towards the periphery of the picture. My intent in emphasizing the black and white of traditional photography is to signify the photographic process itself and my ideas around its connection to taxidermy, nostalgia, and death.
The wall of images that were taken in the storage spaces of two local museums also confront the viewer with direct gazes of animals who have been stored away in dark basements. I have to admit that I was fascinated, excited, and terribly conflicted as I moved around, held, and photographed the animals. On one hand it was amazing to be able to be in such close contact with all of these animals, feel their fur, look into their eyes and even talk to them, yet at the same time to experience their final stillness. The storage areas seemed to be so filled with their invisible stories that it almost felt difficult to breathe.
I have entitled my exhibition About Looking inspired by John Berger’s book of the same name in order to draw attention to the gaze; the gaze of the human, the animal and the camera, and the power that it can hold or bestow. To me this power exists on many levels; human or animal eye contact, an eye in the viewfinder of a camera or the scope of a rifle, the gaze of the tourist photographing a fabricated diorama of taxidermy animals set against the painted sunset of an African sky.
1 Sontag, Susan. On Photography, New York, New York: Dell Publishing Co. Inc., 1978, p. 70
2 Ibid., p. 14 - 15
Originally published by the Vernon Public Art Gallery in
About Looking, edited by Lubos Culen, p.19-20