In recent years taxidermy has become popular as an art medium. Artists like Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan, Enrique Gomez de Molina, and Sarina Brewer have started exploring the artistic potentials in the practice of mounting animal skins. Some recent taxidermy art presents itself as Art (with a capital A), busily establishing itself as a serious artistic medium. One example of this direction in is Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On (2006), where 99 wolves leap through air only to smash into a glass wall. There is no mistaking that for something which could happen outside of a museum. Other examples attempt to erase the mark of the artist’s hand and present itself as natural, widening the category of traditional taxidermy by building brand new creatures which seem as if they were alive just a minute ago. The different ways artists deal with the new use of the otherwise established medium of taxidermy raises a series of interesting questions about the nature of the medium and sheds light on problems and potentials inherent to it.

Enrique Gomez de Molina, Paradise, (2010)

The art of Cuban Enrique Gomez de Molina, based in Miami, belongs to the naturalistic category of taxidermy art. His sculptures represent strange and wonderful creatures which never existed in real life, but have come to be after death. They dance through air and pose on pedestals as if they are mid-movement, about to draw their next breath. The sculpture Paradise (2010) is such a creature. The actual parts are no longer listed anywhere (for reasons you’ll find out beow), but it’s composed of what appears to be a bit of pheasant, a bit of deer, and the beak of a rhinoceros hornbill. The chimeric Paradise takes on the appearance of some sort of exotic animal which has been caught in a far-away land and skilfully mounted, but not that of a piece of art. Instead it gives off the impression of being an animal which could have easily existed in nature; it is strange, but not by any means stranger than the platypus – a very real animal which was thought by Europeans to be fake when it was first discovered in 1799. “It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means,”[1] wrote zoologist George Shaw when he received a badly preserved specimen of what appeared to be an otter with a duck’s beak.

It is often said that art imitates life (and vice versa), but the art of de Molina and artists like him adds to life by bringing something outside of the realm of the already-real into existence. It imitates something that never was. As such, the taxidermic process becomes a metamorphosis, giving life post-mortem, turning dead skin into new beings. These beings bring a quaint sense of wonder with them. They inspire a childlike joy at discovering the new, but also melancholy sorrow in the realisation that they only exist in death. There have been taxidermists before, who attempted to create lifelike new species to confuse or even trick their viewer,[2] but de Molina’s work is placed solidly on the side of the artificial in the way it is presented as art in a gallery. Even though sculptures like Paradise visually give the impression of belonging to nature, the viewer is not allowed to forget that they don’t – nor that they are made from animals which did.

Artist or mad scientist?

I first discovered taxidermy art and de Molina in 2014, and I was taken in by the somewhat bizarre combination of the beautiful and the morbid. De Molina reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein: a mad genius creating life from bits and pieces of various corpses. However, as I recently returned to his work to write about it, I discovered that the artist has, or at least used to have, more in common with the gothic doctor than I had expected.

In 2012 de Molina was convicted of illegally trafficking endangered wildlife and sentenced to 20 months in prison. When you go into the details of the case, it becomes quite gory; some of the animals were still alive when he chose them for his works, and were killed for their parts only after selection by the artist.[3] Much like Doctor Frankenstein, de Molina had broken not only natural laws, but also written ones to create his reanimated monsters. The main difference to be found between the real artists and the fictional doctor is that Frankenstein’s creature was shunned, whereas de Molina’s were celebrated and sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

The shady background of de Molina’s art raises the question of morality. If a sculpture like Paradise is the product of wrongdoing, is it wrong itself? And does it even matter if it is? It isn’t necessarily the case that art should be morally good – returning to earlier historical times, it often wasn’t made for reasons we today would define as especially selfless or righteous[4] – but for art to sell, it certainly seems it must at least look like it is.

Back in 2014 de Molina’s transgression wasn’t obvious from his online presence. His webpage was full of thoughts about the meaning behind the artwork, but made sure not to mention the legal troubles. Today many of the pieces, including Paradise, have been taken down from de Molina’s page. The ones that remain on it no longer list the year of making, and all writings on the page – other than a few practical notes about upcoming art shows – have disappeared. It is, however, clear that the artist is showing at American art shows again. He is trying to return to his craft, and the removal of problematic sculptures and statements from his page is probably part of that effort. At the same time the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, which is representing him, is trying to reintroduce de Molina as an ethical artist. This is apparent from their website, where it says that his goal by using taxidermy is “to bring awareness to the danger faced by a multitude of species: nuclear and chemical waste, overdevelopment, and destruction of rainforests.”[5] While the idea of partaking in a destructive practice in order to fight it is… interesting, it isn’t necessarily without merit. Regulated trophy hunting has been argued to help save endangered species through the money it generates, and there does appear to be some evidence that helps support this claim.[6] However, try as he might, wiping things permanently from the internet is not something you can just do, and a statement made by de Molina himself in 2010 continues to echo on YouTube, challenging his new image as environmentalist: “I guess I like to play God”[7] he declares with a chuckle in an interview with Thrillist. Does this statement imply his art is all just a question of enacting the ultimate power fantasy? In a way.

The History of Taxidermy

Humanity has been messing around with animal corpses since before the ancient Egyptians. The specific practice of taxidermy as we know it is, however, tied to a tradition of colonial ownership. Not counting mummification, taxidermy did not become a popular medium until European naturalists and collectors during the eighteenth century began to bring exotic animal specimens home with them from the colonies. Taxidermy was not so much art then, but a craft done in the service of natural science and the Empire: enabling these animals to be studied and admired in museums and private collections.[8] It was perhaps not thought of as a demonstration of power at the time, but taxidermy can certainly be said to have played a symbolic part in demonstrating European (and specifically British) sovereignty over both the colonies and the known natural world – creating physical manifestations of ownership, souvenirs of glory. Explained in Foucauldian terms, taxidermy is linked to a symbolic discourse of power.[9] From a postcolonial perspective, that discourse can be understood to express an orientalist view on the world, that is it a western fantasy of the orient as sub servant, exotic, and wild.[10]

It is an interesting part of the history of taxidermy that during the nineteenth century an increasingly popular demand for exotic memorabilia developed into a full-fledged Victorian mania for collecting anthropomorphic taxidermy. Dead kittens posed to look like children at a picnic were not, then, a specifically weird thing to put in your living room.[11]  Taken together with the widespread fascination of exotic, naturalistic taxidermy, the popularity of the bizarre recreations of human interactions can be read as part of an obsession with death and a perceived battle between cultured Man and Nature, which was in many ways inherent to the age. Returning to the theme of Frankenstein’s monster, Victorian taxidermy can be understood as an attempt to take control over death and fill the space left empty by God after belief began to dwindle with the advancement of scientific theories. Refusing the animal its death by keeping its corpse from decay, Man proved himself bigger than life, a master of nature.

In many ways, de Molina’s work seems to continue and take part in the discourse of colonialism and the Victorian fantasy of victory over death. His remark about playing God underlines the point, but a sculpture like Paradise certainly also looks like a specimen from vaguely defined colonies in the far south or east, with its combination of exotic materials and the impression it gives at first glance of having been simply preserved, not artificially created. An even better example is the more recent The Matriarch (2016):

Enrique Gomez de Molina, The Matriarch, (2016).

A singular, stunningly green Elephant head mounted on a wall. Beautiful, decapitated, and currently for sale, The Matriarch is everything that the inherently orientalist collector could dream of. With tusks recreated from bull horns and dressed in beetle wings and pheasant feathers, this gendered trophy represents the feminine power and grace of nature at the same time as it shows it defeated. Forget about the sports car, this mount is the ultimate power symbol for the millionaire patriarch who has it all. Admittedly, The Matriarch is only symbolically destructive of nature. Contrary to earlier sculptures, it is, as far as anyone can tell, made from ethically obtained animal parts. It has never seen a real elephant. As such, de Molina continues and supports a discourse of colonialism with The Matriarch, but on the other hand he also manages to demonstrate, that this can be done in a way that isn’t practically destructive. Whether practice and discourse can be this easily separated is another matter, though.

De Molina’s representative may say that he is trying to make the world a better place, but even without taking his intentions (which are questionable) into account, his art demonstrates a familiarity with traditional taxidermy and the cultural structures tied to it. That doesn’t mean that what he does isn’t art, but it does add layers of meaning to it, even if they weren’t consciously placed there. Supposedly de Molina’s work is about what we, humanity, do to the Earth, but it also, inadvertently, becomes about what the artist does to the animals he needs to make his art – and by extension, what he does to the Earth.

Brewer’s “Rogue Taxidermy” and the celebration of life in death

As a contrast to de Molina, the Minneapolis-based American Sarina Brewer is a good example of a taxidermy artist who takes a strong moral stance against traditional taxidermy. To form her own movement and break off from tradition, she came together with colleagues Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury to coin the term “rogue taxidermy” in 2004. They defined it as:

“a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy related materials used in an unconventional manner.”[12]

Rogue taxidermy does not adhere to the aesthetic traditions of taxidermy nor to its inherent cultural structures. Instead historical precedents to the movement are found in art history, specifically 1930s surrealism and pieces like Joan Miró’s Object (1936) and Victor Brauner’s Loup-table (Wolf-table) (1939/1947). Like early surrealism, rogue taxidermy poses itself as a countercultural movement and attempts to challenge the normalised. Especially important to Brewer’s definition of rogue taxidermy is that it must be “respectful to Mother Nature” and take its materials without causing destruction.[13] The animal must always be more important than the sculpture it can become. Hence, while de Molina was inspecting endangered animals to have them killed for materials, Brewer was scavenging roadkill for her sculptures.

Visually the styles of the two artists are often similar. Compare, for instance, de Molina’s Dancing Queens (Brown) (2016) to Brewer’s Noirssicist (2010).

Left: Enrique Gomez de Molina, Dancing Queens (Brown), 2016. Right: Sarina Brewer, Noircissist, 2010.

Both are part bird, part small furry animal. Both stand erect on round plateaus. Both are somewhat humorously sculptured as quirky creatures with small hands and curious beaked faces.

In other cases, their styles are vastly different. While de Molina’s works are almost always traditionally beautiful, Brewer’s approach to her art often incorporates beauty, but it clearly isn’t her main focus.  Instead her approach to art is ethical to the point that it sometimes becomes scary. The strongest example of this must be when she, to use as much of the animals donated to her, as possible, refuses to discard its insides, and creates “esodermy” sculptures: red, skinless-skeletons posed in lively positions – see for instance Jitterbug (2004). The intention behind works like that becomes clear from her writing. Mentioning “the desire to venerate animals after death” and insisting that “Everything she creates pays homage to the animal”,[14] it is clearly important to Brewer to be seen as someone who celebrates life rather than someone who rules over it.

Sarina Brewer, Bast, (2009).

Of course, if we’ve learnt anything by now, it should be not to trust what artists write about themselves when it comes to reaching an understanding of their art. Intention isn’t the same as truth. However, a sculpture like Bast (2009) symbolically fits with Brewer’s words about honouring the dead animal.  It is a sculpture of the type Brewer terms “Gilded Grotesque”. It is mainly preserved by mummification, a process which connotes holiness since the Ancient Egyptians, and it is named after a goddess of war who was also a protector of the Egyptian people. Bast, or Bastet, had the head of a cat and was also originally often represented in full cat form, sitting just as Brewer’s interpretation of her. To highlight the holiness of the figure, the sculpture has been gilded, as many holy relics before it, and white wings has been attached to it, connecting the imagery to Christian faith as well (arguably the pigeon whose wings it used to be, plays a much smaller part in the theme than the cat).

Bast is a celebration of the animal, and I do think that it is beautiful in its own way, but it doesn’t let its viewer forget about death. You might say that de Molina’s sculptures are “things that used to be alive” and that although we know they are not, they could be. Brewer’s Bast is instead just as much corpse as sculpture. With the tight skin stretched over skeletal cat-form it reminds us that although death is gruesome, it also carries a poetry of what was and a hope for what may still be. Mummification was, after all, an attempt to reach into the afterlife.

The varied beauty of monsters

The beauty of de Molina’s pieces and the occasional horror of Brewer’s may hold the key to understanding how they both interact with the unstable moral space combining life and death in the medium of taxidermy. De Molina’s sculptures upset the mind, once the viewer realises how they came to be, but they rarely upset the eye. On the other hand, Brewer’s sculptures are often very upsetting, even if the viewer knows that they were made as a respectful celebration of the dead body and what it used to hold.

In vastly different ways, the works of both de Molina and Brewer can be described as grotesque. The term, already used by Brewer to describe Bast, has come to define generally that which transgresses boundaries in a given cultural context. According to Geoffrey Galt Harpham, the grotesque is more the subversion or undermining of the familiar by the uncanny or alien, and it “can mean anything from a two-headed toad to a Higher Truth”.[15] Harpham characterises the grotesque by exaggeration, transgression, hybridity, ambivalence, and by the combination of opposites,[16] and ties it to the affects it causes in the receiver: fear, laughter, disgust, or astonishment.[17]

The very practice of taxidermy is grotesque because it forces together death and the image of life, it makes something “nice” of the corpse, which is normally utterly disgusting to us and would offend were we not so used to it. You probably only have to google those Victorian kittens, if you aren’t convinced that taxidermy is really kind of bizarre. But the naturalistic-looking mounted animal itself isn’t grotesque to most of us, probably because it’s been part of our culture for a long time. Except for when it’s done badly, the aged fox in the museum doesn’t really look like an animal corpse to us, just as leather rarely makes us think of skin.

Taxidermy as an art form can recreate the inherent transgression in the medium by making it new again. Brewer does this in her esodermy sculptures, by experimenting with mummification, and by drawing on inspiration from mythology and the carnival in building small griffins – such as Obsidian (2012) – and two-headed squirrels – see Franken-squirrel (2003). The grotesque qualities of her work may sometimes horrify at first, but the meaning behind them adds an inner beauty even to those sculptures which are monstrous to look at.

De Molina incorporates grotesque elements into his art by the very nature of the medium, as well as by combining different species to create new ones. As such, his sculptures are theoretically grotesque, but they are sneaky about it. He doesn’t revolutionise taxidermy, but uses it to make sculptures that look as taxidermy is supposed to look from a purely technical angle, and while they may share characteristics with the monster, they are more like as-of-now-unimagined animals. What is new here is the motif, not the style. Astonishment they can inspire all by themselves and sometimes laughter, but the feeling of disgust only appears once the circumstances surrounding de Molina’s works are made clear. The artist fighting for wildlife conservation is creating art that ends up taking precedence over life by actively and symbolically taking part in its destruction. Even if he has changed his criminal ways, a piece like The Matriarch is still all about putting Man above Nature.

Realising that from a purely moral point, de Molina’s pieces balance between beautiful and “bad”, the viewer might feel different about them. But, of course, what is “good” is also very much a question of opinion, or at least a topic for a lengthy philosophical discussion. In contrast to de Molina’s art, Brewer’s tends to celebrate life by recognising that it can only ever be secondary to it. While Molina is an artist on the side of tradition, Brewer appears to be against it, proving that there are other ways to go with taxidermy than the beaten path.

From the perspective of morality, following tradition might have served in de Molina’s favour at another time, but comparing the two in an age that is no longer ruled by colonial grandeur, and at a time when being respectful to nature is truly trendy, Brewer seems to be the morally superior of the two – the one who is most in sync with the beliefs of her period, but arguably also someone who will be defendable decades from now. Still, the popularity of de Molina is beginning to grow again, and there will probably always be a market for symbols of beauty and power. The two artists’ very different approaches to taxidermy shows that while the practice may be old, it is not intrinsically linked to the traditions in its past. The ways these artists each end up representing the grotesquely monstrous demonstrates that it is indeed a phenomenon linked with what we know and expect. Sometimes what we are drawn to and what we find monstrous is really all about how we see ourselves.

[1] George Shaw, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, or Coloured Figures of Natural Objects (London: Nodder & Co., 1789-1813): 208. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/40321089#page/236/mode/2up

[2] A neat example would be Rudolf Granberg’s Skvader from 1918, a bird/hare-combination, which has since become somewhat of a national treasure in Sweden.

[3] The United States Department of Justice, “Miami Taxidermist Sentenced for Wildlife Smuggling”, Justice News, 2nd March 2012. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/miami-taxidermist-sentenced-wildlife-smuggling

[4] For instance, art has often been produced for the purpose of religious or political propaganda, with the goal of making a movement, person, or institution seem good, powerful, and all-knowing. Seeming is very much not the same as being. See for instance Robert S. Wistrich and Luke Holland, Weekend in Munich: Art, Propaganda and Terror in the Third Reich (1996).

[5] Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, “Enrique Gomez de Molina – Biography”. http://bernicesteinbaumgallery.com/artists/enrique-gomez-de-molina-resume/

[6] Damien Carrington, “Trophy hunting could help conserve lions, says Cecil the lion scientist”, The Guardian, 5th December, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/05/trophy-hunting-could-help-conserve-lions-says-cecil-lion-scientist

[7] ”Enrique Gomez de Molina Art – Miami, FL”. Thrillist, December 23, 2010: 0.36. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPFErKGQWNw

[8] Paul Lawrence Farber, “The Development of Taxidermy and the History of Ornithology”, Isis, Vol. 68, No. 4, 1977: 550-51

[9] ’Discourse’ is meant in the sense described in Michel Foucault’s L’Archélogie du savoir (1969), as a network of statements which together structure a common and relative truth.

[10] As described by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978)

[11] Rachel Youdelman,“Iconic Eccentricity: The Meaning of Victorian Novelty Taxidermy”, PsyArt 21, 2017:  38-68.

[12] “Introduction”, The Taxidermy Art of Sarina Brewer. http://www.sarina-brewer.com/introduction.html

[13] “About the Artist”, The Taxidermy Art of Sarina Brewer. http://www.sarina-brewer.com/taxidermy-sculpture-artist-sarina-brewer.html

[14] “Gilded Grotesques”, The Taxidermy Art of Sarina Brewer. http://www.sarina-brewer.com/gallery/taxidermy-art-gold-leafed.html

[15] Geoffrey Galt Harpham, ”The Grotesque: First Principles”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1976: 467

[16] Geoffrey Galt Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature [1982] (Aurora: The Davies Group, 2006): 11

[17] Ibid.: 4

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