Petra Lange-Berndt – Object Hacking: Taxidermy as Living Ruin

Good morning everyone and welcome My name is Jo-Ann Conklin I am the Director of the Bell Gallery and I also curated the current exhibition which is called, Dead Animals, or the curious occurrence of taxidermy in contemporary art And I’m excited to hear what this eminent group of speakers that we’ve gathered together today have to say Each of them has contributed significantly to the literature of animal studies and art history and these are the folks whose work I read when I was researching for the exhibition And I’m just absolutely delighted that so many of them have joined us The exhibition and project wouldn’t have been possible without generous support from a number of people and I’d like to acknowledge the Alexandra and Steven Cohen Foundation, Brown’s Creative Arts Council Arts Initiative, and the Marshall Wood Fine Arts Lectureship A brief note about the program– each lecture will be– we’ll do three lectures before lunch and each will be about 45 minutes with a Q&A after If you’re asking questions, I’d like to ask you to use the microphones We’ll have folks passing them around for you because we are recording and we’d like to be able to get the questions down on the recordings as well And before I introduce our speakers, there were a couple of people I wanted to acknowledge Is Angela Singer here? She’s not Angela Singer is one of the exhibition participants and I suspect she’ll be around during the day I just wanted to mention her because it’s nice for people to know who the artists are and if anybody wanted to speak to her about it I’d also like to acknowledge Giovanni Aloi, who is with us in the audience from the Art Institute of Chicago But importantly for our talks today, he’s the founder of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture and it’s an absolutely fabulous online publication that is essential for anyone who is interested in animal representations And so Giovanni is right there Thank you So I’m going to introduce all three speakers so that I don’t have to leap up and interrupt things during the presentations Our first speaker today is Petra Lange-Berndt Petra is the author of Animal Art: A History of Taxidermy Art from 1850 to 2000 She’s also written on Sigmar Polke and has edited a volume called Materiality, Documents of Contemporary Art, which came out just in 2015 With Dietmar Rubel, she curated the exhibition Mark Dion: The Academy of Things at the Art Academy of Dresden in 2014 And in 2012, she conceived and designed the blog, Preserve, where you can read about a wide array of preserved objects from grizzly bear chairs to a bowl of rice that was solidified by a nuclear bomb that was dropped at Hiroshima So it makes for interesting reading Professor Lange-Berndt is Chair of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Department of the History of Art in Hamburg University and her current research is investigating collectivity and communal living in contemporary art Petra will be followed by Steve Baker Steve is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Central Lancashire He was a founding member of the Animal Studies Group in the UK And he’s written on contemporary artists’ engagement with questions of animal life in several books The earliest is called Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation, from 1993 His most well-known book is called The Postmodern Animal, which was published in 2000 And recently he has written Artist Animal, published in 2013 He also contributed to the Animal Studies Group anthology called Killing Animals An artist in his own right, Baker’s photographs from his Scapeland series have been shown in exhibitions, including Ecce Animalia at the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture in Poland And today he will reassess the term botched taxidermy, which he coined in his book, The Postmodern Animal And finally, we will hear from Stephanie Turner Stephanie teaches in the Rhetoric of Science Technology and Culture program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and has written about animals in visual culture Her article on photography of taxidermy

called “Relocating ‘Stuffed’ Animals: Photographic Remediation of Natural History Taxidermy” appeared in– I can’t say this word– Humanamalia, a journal of human/animal interface studies And she’s also curated exhibitions with Jyl Kelley She co-curated the exhibition Animal Skins: Visual Surface at the University of Wisconsin She is currently researching on representations of contemporary mass extinction So I look forward to each of these presentations and please join me as we turn the podium over to Petra Lange-Berndt Petra [APPLAUSE] Yes, thank you so much for introducing me and for inviting me It’s really very nice to be part of the symposium with so many people present who are passionate about taxidermy and animals How do I switch to this one? All you have to do is start that one Oh, yeah [INAUDIBLE] Thank you I slightly changed the title of my talk It’s now called Object Hacking: Taxidermy as Living Ruin Taxidermy is quite literally the incarnation of trophy culture, as one can see in this photo from 1870 The 19th century saw the emergence of the biological sciences, which were strongly tied with colonial interests of exploitation, classification, and reorganization of the world So it is no surprise that the arrangement of tanned skins in seemingly animate poses was perfected and institutionalized in this area Today, this violent story quite often is absent from public collections In most displays, taxidermied specimens seem to have no cultural history, therefore, the existence of the more controversial of these things in archives and private collections is forgotten But things continue to find their way into the public and artists, such as the ones meeting here today, have been acting as catalysts in this process For instance, in 1988, an installation by Haim Steinbach presented five foot stools constructed from the feet of a meanwhile protected species, elephants, covered with zebra skin The seemingly taxonomic series could be continued endlessly, and it is uncertain how many animals had to give their lives for this furniture This work makes the most obvious point, that massive killings were necessary to produce a scientific norm Additionally, Steinbach demonstrates that this unfounded annihilation did not occur solely in the name of science Taxidermists around the world prepared thousands of similar superfluous lamp bases, umbrella holders, ashtrays, and flower pots Colonization was accompanied by environmental damage and the terrors of the hunt Since the early 20th century, since the moment when taxidermy had actually lost its importance for zoological research and scientists behind the scenes were increasingly focusing on the living animal, artists as varied as Joan Miro, who you just saw, Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Grace, or Mark Dion have been reassessing this technique and putting forward alternative body models, often by taking up taxidermy or other forms of preservation themselves, as I have discussed in my book, Animal Art, from 2009 In this talk, I would like to take these processes of making seriously by investigating the materiality of animal bodies And with this, I am addressing what has been termed, [SPEAKING GERMAN] in German Marxist debates, meaning an aesthetics of production and an investigation of labor that does not point to the fabrication of consumer goods From this perspective, the possibilities of material should be set free and enable the material to talk as [? Gunther ?] [INAUDIBLE] already phrased it in 1969, anticipating current debates around this issue As for instance, physicist and philosopher Karen Barad has more recently written, “to engage with materials also means to formulate a critique of local centrism and the predominance of written language as a tool to generate and communicate meaning.” I would therefore like to propose a methodology of material complicity by discussing works by artists Tessa Farmer and Annette Messager, who have been taking matters into their own hands in order to investigate societal power relations I would like to ask, how are animal bodies produced?

Are there languages beyond those of philosophy, beyond the official and sanctioned system of the written knowledge game? What does it mean to marginalize form and to give agency to the material, to follow the material, and to act with the material? And what does this mean for the animal question? I will address these fields in three sections, fox’s, feathers, and fever In 2007, a red fox, a common sight on the streets of London at night, made an unlikely appearance in the central hall of the Natural History Museum that you can see here This is the entrance hall and we turn left into one of these niches A still life, this fox was the focal point of artist Tessa Farmer’s installation, Little Savages Unlike the other mounted animals one encounters in this cathedral of science, which demonstrate the educational function of taxidermy, this fox stands out It merges with its surroundings Its boundaries are forced open by a multitude of animals and insects that are nesting in its skin, forming cocoons, mangy tangles, or excesses This animal, famous for its cunning intelligence, is upsetting the order of nature as introduced by the public part of the museum Farmer’s unruly creature, with its infested fur and disintegrating body looks clearly like every conservators nightmare And it is full of surprises After zooming into the details of a beetle or bee, one suddenly becomes aware of an even smaller body, torturing the former and [INAUDIBLE] of an unknown world One spots something that normally has no place within taxonomies of natural history museums The agents of this change are a swarm of tiny insectoid fairies, carefully hand crafted out of plant roots and bee wings These mischievous creatures that are linked to buzzing and scurrying insects and their behavior are incredibly small, almost invisible, easily slip under the radar of human perception, and lead their lives in secret And they are, by no means, fair These hybrid life forms, in order to survive, constantly enslave or fight animals such as bees, wasps, or ants that appear within a compound, a network, colony, or swarm In which way does this installation comment on the Natural History Museum, an institution that wants to preserve nature? When the Natural History Museum opened an 1881, mounted animals were the main attraction, promising an encounter with paradisiacal unspoiled nature The skillful arrangement of tanned skins and in seemingly animate poses, however, has long attracted controversy Quite different to the Museum of Natural History in New York, today, most of these displays made out of fragile organic materials, a legacy of the Victorian era, have been replaced Visitors are guided through multimedia information rich environments, like the Earth Hall on the left or the world of dinosaurs, that are barely distinct from our everyday experiences of digital technology The history of nature’s condensed into a specialized app while mounted animals are, in fact, a rarity But the taxidermied bodies were not deaccessioned Rather, these crafted objects can be described as an infection of the past At a certain moment in the museum’s history, they needed to be locked away in order to establish new narratives about ecology and sustainability, but they nonetheless persist out of sight In the course of the 20th century, the once fashionable content of the institution, an unimaginable number of bodies were removed from the main building, neatly archived, and put in storage, mostly inaccessible to the public One could claim that with the disappearance of these things, large areas of the institutional history were made invisible As philosopher Jacques Derrida influentially argued, an archive shelter’s memory in order to forget it Hunted down to order in Africa, Australia, and Asia by late 19th century British companies like Rowland Ward, these mounted animals are, at present, arranged taxonomically in the language of scientific globalization in brightly lit store rooms The architecture of this off-site archive, the place from which order is given, is very different from the public part of the collection that is housed within the neo-Gothic architecture of Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum that you saw earlier If, as Derrida says, the structure of an archive determines its content, the museum’s taxidermy collection is now determined by what art critic Brian O’Doherty famously refers to as the economy of the white cube The white cube model, with its tendency to conserve,

proclaims a universal, timeless exhibition space, which is at odds with nature and its processes Temperature and humidity are controlled to constrain the inherent life of materials Living beings are turned into objects, frozen consumer products, and surrogates of reality The Victorian version of taxidermy, similar to hyperrealist sculpture of Duane Hanson, is defined by static bodies, with their clearly defined boundaries and empty course And these objects have come to seem unsuitable to express the dynamic evolutionary rationale that defines the Natural History Museum’s approach today, an understanding of organisms as dynamic, in constant exchange with one another Nonetheless, so much could be learned here I have been told that this archive cannot be made public for conservation reasons The Natural History Museum is bound by its duty to keep things for posterity However, when Tessa Farmer visited the site during a residency at the museum organized by Birgit Ahrens, she came up with a revised version of what a taxidermied body could look like today The result, Little Savages, enables its audience to reflect on the history of institutionalized taxidermy, the conservation and preservation of nature, and its rhetoric It thus forcefully demonstrates that taxidermy is not just about the presentation of nature, but skillful handicraft, a complex cultural and aesthetic artifact that can be questioned as such Taxidermied bodies tell the story of our engagement with nature and its histories as we imagine it Let’s switch from fur to feathers and take an even closer look Judith Butler concluded in 1993 in her famous book, Bodies That Matter quote, “Feminists ought to be interested not in taking materiality as an irreductible, but in conducting a critical genealogy of its formulation,” end of quote And one artist that has been investigating the materiality of taxidermied animal bodies has been Annette Messager, who, so far, has been strangely absent from the current debate, when actually, her practice is central for today’s artistic research and related institutional critique In 1971, Messager decided to lead a double life, combining the two main rooms of her Paris apartment, left, with different identities and practices In the living room, she worked as artist, which you can see below In the bedroom, in her role as collector, she assembled over 50 so-called albums For some of these, she wrote diary-like narratives and compiled handwriting, like this one in album number 24, The Best Signature Obviously, Messager, parallel to the writing of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, multiplied her concept of a double life into a polyphonic authorship Quote, “Since some years, there have been many Annette Messagers: Annette Messager, Collector, Annette Messager, Practical Housewife, Annette Messager, Trickster, Annette Messager, Artist I find my identity in this multiplication This allows me to carry out different occupations at the same time.” end of quote But the artist did not only employ traditional techniques of notation, but also countered the [INAUDIBLE] alphabet with a system of her own In her living room, she was preoccupied with languages coming from the materials used, designing a feather alphabet among other things Messager’s writing samples were conducted with a fountain pen and the feather alphabet is pointing to the history of this writing tool, to the quill Until the middle of the 19th century, these writing and drawing aides were supposed to be a medium by which, following neoplatonic philosophy, form was given to ideas Such relics had an important role within the cult of artistic genius They are pointing to earlier centuries, in which the profession of the writer and French homme de plume– men of the feather– as well as that of the Illustrator was imagined to be a masculine one But what kind of narrations are being put forward by the feather alphabet? Which stories do feathers tell around 1970? Well a number of feminist artists at that time used others to investigate the sensuality of their bodies Here, you can see Rebecca Horn turning herself into a hybrid creature with a feather finger and a cockatoo mask Annette Messager is not using this material in order to emphasize or to explore her own physique directly Following the upheavals of 1968, she had been conducting field research and had been questioning institutional structures by employing, for examples, strategy of inventory or classification And as I would like to argue, by using down feathers for alphabet, she is hoping for no less than to find anonymous and non-acoustic languages, which

are beyond official discourses In fact, the feather alphabet is the beginning and end of a complex ensemble called The Borders, dating from 1971 to ’72 Here, you see it installed at the Centre Pompidou in 1999 This work consists of several glass cases, small installations, as well as narrations and myths In the scarcely lit room, this image is way too bright There is only one light– dim light bulb– and the walls are painted in a pale purple I would like to focus on the three central glass cases here in the middle and explain the function of the feather alphabet, which you can see here, on the back Within the semi-darkness, visitors, while moving closer to the first vitrine, called The Promenade of the Borders, catch sight of a row of mounted sparrows that are provisionally attached to rusty mechanical devices So this is the first glass case and here is like an enlargement of what you can see In her stories, Annette Messager describes how she is looking after the sparrows in her apartment, how she is naming and teaching them using the alphabet But there is more to it Even though in her sketch of the apartment the two identities of the collector and the artist are separated spatially, in the end, they deal with similar concerns It is the goal to subvert the encyclopedia as well as the museum, two foundation stones of enlightened Western science The arrangement of the birds reminds of the display of taxidermied specimens in the Natural History Museum in Paris, which you can see on the right, there In the 19th century, this institution was the European center for biological sciences as well as a popular place of leisure and education But it had been closed since 1965 and had lost its status long ago As you all know, the institution only reopened in 1994, in evolutionary order In this context, mounted animals were connected to the colonialist attitudes of France and the expeditions and the trophies they produced were already regarded with high suspicion by the surrealists In this tradition, another glass case from Annette Messager’s The Borders comments on the promenade It displays collages And I found out that the images used– such as the ones on the right– belonged to an influential French taxidermy manual called The Art of Taxidermy that first appeared in 1921 that had been reprinted three times until 1968 with odd revisions [INAUDIBLE] Around 1970, this publication still preserved a concept of the animal body that dated from the previous century and this is what catched Annette Messager’s attention In the 19th century, in order to cope with the vast amount of bodies killed and collected during colonial expeditions, a practice inspired by the demand for specimens created by newly founded public natural history museums, techniques of taxidermy were revised You can see the workshop of the collection in Paris in a painting dating from 1903 called The Laboratory of Zoology Especially when more elaborate support structures were used, as we heard yesterday, bodies looked more lifelike and were more durable than those made in previous centuries Around 1900, taxidermists began presenting themselves as artists, a claim justified by the highly skilled working processes And you can, for instance, see a polychromous plaster of the extinct dodo on the left here Similarly to the myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who managed to turn ivory into flesh and bone with the help of Venus, the rhetoric of the god-like creator was evoked The taxidermist here stages himself as artist The painting shows how this protagonist is mastering the seamless representation of mostly white animals His work and that of his colleagues, on the right and in the background, is approved of by a craft, a tanner with beard, and science, the museum’s director It was the aim of the institutions of natural history to produce paradisiacal bodies that would last eternally According to American zoologist and conservationist, William Hornaday’s manual from 1891, quote, “10 years or 1,000, just as the taxidermist chooses.” These two images, from a French manual by Pierre Francois Nicolas, dating from around 1800, are visualizing this desire

The corpse of a cat is skinning itself in this French tradition that Annette Messager also encountered in her manual Wires are placed through the hide that appears lifeless and [INAUDIBLE] is used to literally upholster it But obviously, this technique was in need of a strong symbolic support The authors of the Art of Taxidermy parallel this technique with creation myths of the arts, and even praise it as animation The resulting objects were claimed to be equal to a living animals image As you can see in this engraving, the powerful techniques of preservation– in this case, we see wet specimens as animating bodies, or to be more precise, re-animating something that was already dead Taxidermy is defined as nothing less than a powerful form-giving process which rules over life and death and helps to overcome the materiality of corpses by stopping their processes and preserving their shape However, this rhetoric is not only to be found in taxidermist’s manuals and writing and in prints– it’s only to be found in manuals and writing and in prints If one looks at this caricature, the things themselves point to the failure of the attempt to animate dead bodies and to turn them into images of themselves Additionally, taxidermy in this colonial content meant fetishizing the concept of a primitive wilderness that was thought to be vanishing or lost As Donna Haraway points out, once domination is complete, conservation is urgent Taxidermy is neither the presentation of something preexisting, nor simply conserving nature Following historian of science Hans-Joerg Rheinberger, these bodies should rather be defined as three dimensional models, fabricated out of materials that promise authenticity Taxidermists are producing nature in the controlled environment of the laboratory And unlike the traditional image of the godlike artist favored by institutional discourse, the taxidermist, like an art conservator, is actually only successful if no visible trace of their work is left in the final product As you can see earlier in her collages, as well as processes of making, Annette Messager comments on this tradition by interpreting taxidermy not as animation, but as torture And if one looks closer at her specimens, not her photographs, it is clear that she did not follow the rules at all The artist didn’t keep her birds in good order, something which is easily missed in the semi-darkness of the room Their feathers are ruffled, a beak is broken, legs have fallen off One sparrow has, obviously, a broken neck or eyes are too large These violations prevent the repetition of norms and point to the techniques and materials being responsible for creating the effect of our natural body that is seemingly being preserved without loss Death is the foundation for something that allows to study life But if one dissects a stuffed bird, there’s nothing natural to be found, only metal, wool, sawdust, or tanned skin Another collage of Messager’s finally points to the internal corset of this type of taxidermy, the wire structure Furthermore, it is connecting these internal wires with the mechanisms the sparrows are mounted on Taxidermied birds turn into living dead on [INAUDIBLE] Cartesian machines covered with a natural shell, similar to those singing robots fashionable in 18th and 19th century France, to which feathers were glued And you can see an example on the right And indeed, Annette Messager is leading her pension– so these are not her children, it’s a pension with borders– by applying very strict rules In the second central vitrine, The Recovery of the Borders, here in the middle, the birds were ordered to stay in bed In several rows, they are lying on their backs, but one can hardly speak of recovery The birds seem to fall apart, only barely protected by knitted bits and pieces These attempts to keep an order, however, stress the violence that was inflicted on these tiny birds Actually, the occupations of the living room are described with words that point to the processes of skinning and mounting So you can see [SPEAKING FRENCH] for instance Messager, the artist, is doing nothing less than assuming the powerful role of the taxidermist, a term that is nowhere mentioned in writing But it is important to notice that she didn’t label her bodies as being natural or authentic Other elements of the installation indicate that all materials used were taken from her flat

They are sourced from the household Opposed to the surrealists, Messager only conducted fictitious urban walks in her narrations Instead, she was preoccupied with the topography and social space of her flat Using thin and flexible wire, she recreated the birds from small soft feathers, sourced from cushion fillings or dusters This way, she’s questioning how the institutions of science produce their model specimens and the general order of things Annette Messager’s artful feminist science points to the practice of domestic preparation, an occupation only seldomly carried out by women, but common among naturalists and ornithologists until the end of the 19th century, who were in exchange with the emerging official institutions At first glance, Messager’s manufactured birds seem to be counter to the concept of taxidermy But regarding techniques and materials, artificial birds and zoological objects of knowledge are more alike than one might think On a regular basis, one can read in manuals how to simulate, for instance, a real specimen by assembling it from single feathers, even from different species And this trick could still result into an object on display in a public collection Authenticity is not rooted in factuality, but a preserved bird is only true to nature as long as the authority of the institution that is framing it is not questioned by its audience But it is exactly Messager’s goal to raise these doubts By knitting around 1970, a technique associated with the social history of the housewife, she opens a field in which feathers are not only resonating with the profession of the taxidermist, but also allude to a branch of applied arts that had been predominantly practiced by women Especially in 18th and 19th century France, [SPEAKING FRENCH], feather workers, manufactured naturalistic looking wings or fashion accessories and some businesses even provided taxidermy in conjunction with refurbishment services for millinery trimmings Annette Messager is combining the roles of the feather worker and the taxidermist Contrary to statements that she wrote down, claiming she would only repeat structures in some sort of litany, she is practicing something else In the safety of her two bedroom flat, she is researching the histories of taxidermy, reevaluates them, and finally uses this technique and historically related materials as critical tools in order to question the conditions for discourses and ideas to appear in the world Arriving at the third glass case, here in the back, it becomes clear that Messager is not catering to the Victorian stereotype of the angel in the house In the so-called Punishment of the Borders, she’s finally torturing her specimens, tying the tiny sparrows to metal constructions The animals appear as they are leftovers and they’re carelessly assembled bodies threaten to fall apart Messager as artist, feather worker, and taxidermist is not giving birth to formed life So this goes against the eco-feminism of the 1970s that proclaimed an essentialist link between femininity and an empathy with nature Instead, this installation could have reminded visitors of politics of the day 1971 was a year in which numerous actions of French feminists took place that demanded a change in the laws concerning abortion, a practice that was still illegal at that time The sparrows from The Borders appear lifeless, but they are not simply abject matter Instead, the installation is staging a central quality of corpses that are supposed to be stopped by preservation These artful bodies seem to lead an undisciplined life of their own and this includes the possibility of infestation and decay The creation myths of godlike animation is redefined as simulation of material processes, a material acting on its own, displaying its resistance to its artistic processing Messager is trying to set her feathers free, to get rid of the fixations and orders of art, zoology and connected bourgeois cultures And for me, it was this moment that is interesting, where the anthropomorphic field of objects and things is being left and artists are being complicit with the material with the non-human By playing with multiple identities, in French, the pseudonym is called nom de plume The artist demonstrates that even natural materials, such as the feather, do not have a primary or principal state of being There’s no apparent truth to be found To make this point, she’s finally displaying the feather alphabet on the wall behind the third glass case Feathers are presented as construction kit,

but this kit is neither neutral nor universal The bodies to be assembled from this material are not arbitrary Histories connected to the substances used stay present as resistance to the artistic aesthetic processing But as Hans-Joerg Rheinberger has described it, the resistance of the material, the limited possibilities of construction, the resonances built within a certain historical situation are not the only possible ones What do The Borders tell us about the animal question? Annette Messager’s investigation into the materiality of taxidermied birds has a resonance with Tessa Farmer, who is also mainly working at home Here, you see the installation, A Prize Catch, from 2009 Both artists are opening bodies to their surroundings and stress that mounted animals are temporary assemblages, a complicated network melange that draws both human and non-human elements into the debates Taxidermied bodies, as other artifacts, do not only exist in the physical sense They are not stable, but in the age of dematerialization, immateriality, inter and trans materiality, or mutant materials should be seen as epistemic configured things as constantly flowing transversal chains of diverse stuff, spaces, stories, and fantasies about nature and human-animal relationships With this observation, I come to the last part of the talk, fever Like insects, fairies keep death alive when they break down the corpses, stealing and remodeling the flesh, causing the desired unity and wholeness of the body to fragment, erode, and threaten, ultimately, to disappear completely Similar to Annette Messager’s explicitly feminist investigation, Tessa Farmer’s handiwork is not only about grasping and not knowing the physical world, but also, in the sense of Walter Benjamin, connected to dream work and the weaving of memory, sourcing social and collective structures of material culture and fantasy The stories about nature, birds, foxes, social insects, or fairies Farmer remembers or invents lead afterlives in her installations Similarly to Messager, she performatively assembles a shifting identity when she acts as artists, taxidermist, [INAUDIBLE] or storyteller, creating what Donna Haraway famously has called material semiotic knots The central difference to Annette Messager’s project, however, is that her work raises awareness about the animal body and ecology Knowledge of the world demands tactile flair, crafting here is a way to claim responsibility for our environment While activists rejected zoological finery at the end of the 19th century because species like the egret in the US were nearly eliminated, to craft here means to care The fox used in the Little Savages was bought at an auction in London and recycled And if the artist, who has been a vegetarian since she was little, engages in mounting animals for other pieces, she uses roadkill But most importantly, together with the fairies, it is social insects– the ants, bees, wasps, or hornets– that play the central role in Tessa Farmer’s revision of taxidermy Farmer’s installation reminds its audience that this technique does not have to produce aesthetic ossified understanding of animal bodies, mimicking Victorian rhetoric, but can, instead, expose narratives of invasion and loss Actually– and this is my central point– in taxidermy, there is not just frozen death, but ongoing life Since the 19th century, authors writing on mounting animals express the fear that skins might become infested by pests As a result, hairs and feathers fall out so that the epidermis, the skin, becomes visible and the audience is confronted with a dynamic biology of decay with a quote, “successful ecosystem of unwanted organisms in an entirely undesirable place,” as Mark Dion has described it in the glossary of the catalog for our exhibition, The Academy of Things Due to these unavoidable lawless tendencies of organic materials, many of the bodies in the stores of the Natural History Museum in London, for instance, are kept together only through the use of bandages Seams are coming apart and eyes are popping out of their sockets Reflecting on the condition of the materials held by this archive, Little Savages updates the concept of the taxidermied animal body, discounting its status as a model of unspoiled nature and instead presenting a physique that is immersed in the evolutionary web and full of parasites The work makes the process of infestation public But the critical reference of Little Savages

is still broader, in that it frames taxidermy as a virus that is itself causing archive fever By demonstrating that the trophies of the Natural History Museum will not last forever, the installation addresses psychological depth, the annihilation of memory– more precisely, the memory of colonial victory To visualize this point, I show Mark Thompson’s wonderful performance, Immersion: Self Test with Queen Bee, from 1974 to ’76, which was only finished in 2012 And the fairies play a crucial part in this reassessment, as shown by Farmer’s stop motion animation, called An Insidious Intrusion, which accompanied Little Savages at the Natural History Museum The skeletal, winged, and strangely sexless creatures have mutated and formed half-mythological being and half-parasitic wasps, laying eggs in their hosts and hatching from them They are invading the museum, infiltrating its objects, collections, and archives Farmer’s practice demonstrates that in the 21st century, taxidermy does not have to insist on forming its organic material Instead, Little Savages as The Borders calls for an approach that follows the material and its processes If taxidermy is the incarnation of trophy culture, it has been producing spoiled trophies The materiality of an artwork is never completely absorbed into the representation And in this case, the teddy bear effect of mounted animals, the inherent problem of anthropomorphism starts to dissolve and enables us to become aware of a micro world that often operates below human perception Insects that share our homes and beds actually make up the majority of life forms on our planet and play a crucial role for biodiversity But most importantly, the insects in Little Savages thematize a concept of nature that is not about peace and harmony, but about the change from a static to a dynamic concept of the world They point to the chaotic struggle of life as it was discussed in evolutionary theory from the early 19th century onwards The once clear distinction between animal and human became blurred, unstable, and even obsolete in this web of complex relations that Charles Darwin famously described in 1859 Farmer’s reassessment of taxidermy should therefore be understood at a conceptual level as a miniature world that consists not of stable materials alone, but of transitions, something that indicates the swarm intelligence of a decentralized, serf-organized system, collective consciousness, communication in secret, conspiracies, and plotting And it is important to know that Farmer’s fairies mirror the behavior of one social insect with whom they have not a hostile but a symbiotic relationship, ants In Farmer’s works, ants often form uncanny and intelligent networks, but they are quite different to those swarm metaphors of the engineered present of network 2.0 or the contemporary attempts of entomologists to describe the communal signals of ant populations in analogy to the language of computer science, since in Farmer’s artwork, their actions can neither be decoded nor controlled Despite this critical angle, the artist is not using organic materials, the homemade and the handmade, in order to create a nostalgic version of taxidermy that romanticizes a pre-industrial world The current revival of taxidermy is fueled by an alliance of the oldest and newest technologies– in this case, the processing of hides, dried insects, and digital media Farmer’s practice is quite different to the overwhelming spectacle of some of the contemporary displays in natural history museums She shows that it is possible to intervene and to institutionalize practices by simple means, using our hands After all, the term digitalis comes from the Latin, meaning off the finger and Farmer is constantly searching the internet using the touchpad of her phone while crafting her assemblages Similar to the public craft of the code of the Linux system, this work is constantly evolving The artist does not consider it finished or fixed until it is sold or permanently installed And it is interesting to note that Annette Messager, so far, has installed The Borders differently each time it was exhibited as well To come to an end, installations such as Little Savages are unsettling because they point to death and the concept of the ruinous body, which reminds us that nature has been long ruinous itself Floods, earthquakes, or climatic changes continually remind us of the power and complexity

of our environment and our inability to control or predict it But damage and decay are capable of generating their own patterns of order, except that there are no fixed positions, only shifting ones For these reasons, bad taxidermy that one can encounter in institutions of natural history should not be deaccessioned or repaired, but could be described as dynamic construct and time machines in the sense of artist Robert Smithson’s Ruins in Reverse Bodies, still in the process of becoming, opened to unhasty examination and new tiers of meaning, where the planes of time are allowed to implode When we gaze upon ruins, we are prized away from the logic of chronologies and delivered to the waves of currents and time Like ruins, memories are incomplete Through the simultaneity, damaged specimens enable new modes of assemblage The trash heap of civilization is also a vehicle of unofficial history In this case, Little Savages reveals mounted hides as material reminders of exploitation and colonial violence Broken in half, decomposed, they embody the state of being between worlds rather than unambiguous situations and power relations To remove ruins from public view is to erase the visible triggers of memory and one could argue that a body without traces of age is like a mind without memories The processes of decay and aging remind us that our own fears of death are being projected onto artifacts which, as proxies for ourselves, have to be saved in an almost magical act In this sense, one could claim that Tessa Farmer and Annette Messager stress the taxidermied animal body as a living ruin Their works embody the point where a form given to an animal hide, the man-made, starts to dissolve and the material begins to speak in languages that are, at times, beyond our comprehension But as sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel posits already in 1907, ruins could be places where nature and humans collaborate Seen this way, ruins would neither give cause for melancholy nor be confined to a role as grieving monuments, but would symbolize our power to act They urge us to take the fragments and create a new assemblage in the spirit of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who speculated, in A Thousand Plateaus, about seeking, instead, a new relationship to matter which is characterized by motion, flux, and variation, a matter flow that can only be followed Nature as a dynamic metabolism that orders organisms in their habitats, in the complex network of an ecosystem, there’s nothing but constant change To translate this theory back to an engagement with materials of art, to be complicit with stuff means to deal with a world in which we are enmeshed rather than over which we have dominion Works like Little Savages or The Borders ask us to keep negotiating and revisiting these environmental, social, or material inhabited networks While traditional artistic values such as freedom, self-determination, and self fulfillment have long been adopted by managers, in a post-Freudian industrial world, we should debate how enmeshed we are with the environment In that respect, collections featuring taxidermy are not demonstrating ruinous states so much as a permanently makeshift state in the form of an endless building site In this fermenting compost, with its continual new hybrids of practical and theoretical knowledge, it is evident that publics have non-human elements And I hope that I could show that contemporary art practices provide material for developing questions that might lead to new strategies and modes of perception, enabling us to consult, for example, fur or feathers and to respond better to their statements, objections, and proposals In short, to be complicit with materials and to be able to tell their histories Thank you [APPLAUSE] Do we have any questions? Thank you for a really wonderful presentation Just sort of a footnote almost, or as an overview– I was reminded of, when you mentioned that the Museum of Natural History in Paris closed in 1965, that’s also the year that Joseph Beuys did his wonderful performance with a dead hare, explaining art to a dead hare And in a way, you come back to this animation of a dead animal

and how that eventually brings institutional reform too and the validity of something like a museum, I think there’s a sort of a larger– OK Yeah, it’s maybe interesting that he performed it in a gallery and the audience couldn’t join, so they were left out and they had to gaze through the window to see him perform I mean, it’s quite a different artistic role, I would say, than that of Annette Messager, where she is actually not there in person and just sets up this very elaborate conceptual installation And it’s not investigating her own body or her actions In that respect, it’s very different from the shamanistic practice of Beuys and his use of materials, where he’s always– you have to read his writings in order to understand what kind of cultural meaning he’s ascribing to his materials, even though he’s giving them some kind of a stage and maybe he’s engaging with the hare on a specific level But I think it’s still quite a difference in the two approaches But thanks, it’s a nice coincidence Do you have more information about the closing and reopening of that museum? What went into those decisions? Oh, it closed down It was damaged in the Second World War and then it closed down, I think, after the Second World War And it was just not open to the public until the ’90s because it had completely left The public collection was not there It was not up to date with the scientific research And then it was kind of left to rot for a bit, which was highly, highly interesting, of course, for artists and for photographers And then, as you all know, it reopened and Mark Dion– I don’t know if he’s already here– he conducted a really nice interview with a curator in the ’90s when it reopened about those processes So people then felt it needed to be revamped completely and all the old specimens had to be rearranged in this kind of Noah’s arc progress and this kind of evolutionary narration So in a way, they destroyed the old order of things and replaced with a new setting, which was completely different from the old one But still, you can find a lot of the old specimens in there Yeah So I’m just curious about the role of the natural history museums to reveal their own history and to make that evident for the public in a way that’s vital and, to me, more vital than what they’re doing right now But perhaps– so I’m just curious, is there a discourse within these museums about that? Oh, definitely I mean I did a workshop with the Natural History Museum in London in 2012, for instance, on taxidermy and colonial practice and we had all these debates But that institution, for instance, is very large, so you might have some people who are interested in these things and that might not be the opinion of the educational department or those people who are kind of advertising the museum to the outside So there was a really nice program– and Tessa Farmer’s work was part of it– curated by Birgit Ahrens, who is a art historian and a curator who had a job, a post just for curating contemporary art into the museum But then, after 70 years, the post was scrapped– and that tells you everything about it– for no particular reason and then she left But I know, for instance, at the moment in Berlin, the Natural History Museum, they have received a large grant and they have now a program, a similar program, for four years– no, sorry, two years– and four curators are coming in and curating interventions So I think the awareness is kind of growing, but still, I feel, you know– where’s the engagement in the public collection to tell people that these exhibits are not timeless, but they are crafted things They are applied arts, at the least, or art and they need maybe little signs where the maker is mentioned or the year in which it was fabricated For instance, there are some really interesting– just one thing I always wanted to engage with In the Berlin museum, there are lots of specimens from the National Socialist area You know, there’s a really famous gorilla specimen, which, you know, you can place into the racist discourse of that time, but that’s not done But I think this is just, you know, you can point things out like that, I think, in almost every museum of natural history and I think it should be done Yeah, I mean I just feel like the history of natural history is so critical to understand– Oh, definitely And that’s why I think with so many artists have been acting as catalysts Because they are not in the institution,

they come into the institution and then they are a bit more free to address things because they also will be leaving the institution again But I think this kind of catalyst is apparently working quite well to initiate maybe debates And again, these objects are more art and craft than anything else, which is why, for instance, the curator for Mammals at the Natural History Museum in London doesn’t like taxidermy It’s too artful for him And there’s nothing left for science You can extract DNA from bones, but with taxidermy, it’s quite lifeless for them Well, thank you for an interesting talk And I’d like to pick up on one of the phrases that you used You said that in taxidermy, there is not only death, but ongoing life And there’s really a fascinating illustration of this in terms of molecular biologists using taxidermy In the early 1980s, a taxidermist, Reinhold Rau in South Africa took tissue from an extinct zebra called a quagga and this was the first DNA to be sequenced from an extinct animal And as a result of the studies made on this taxidermied specimen, it was found that the extinct zebra wasn’t a separate species, but was actually a subspecies of the plains zebra And that, in fact, has led to a research project in South Africa called the Quagga Project, to rebreed this extent quagga And that’s now in the fifth generation of animals and the animals that are resulting from this are looking very much like the taxidermied specimens of an animal that went extinct in the 19th century Oh, wow Thank you very much for that I wasn’t aware of that, so thanks a lot So the one curator I just mentioned is wrong, I guess Thank you Thanks