This post was catalysed by my friend Dale, who sent me a web link for BrewDog Beer, featuring a pair of taxidermied animals fashioned as beer bottle covers. The point they’re making with the bottles is that they’re beer is so finally crafted (and presumably unique) that they can afford to create these one-offs to sell them. “We want to completely redefine the genre in the UK.” At £500 and £700 per fuzzy bottle, they’re certainly doing that.
We’re absolutely in love with bizarre things. (I’m using we in the broadest sense – you may well not be.) Collectors of natural history artefacts been obsessed with things like bezoars (a lump of material that forms – like a pearl – in the stomach of an ibex, meant to counteract the effects of poison), cats with two heads, chickens with no heads.In the mid to late 16th Century, Ulisse Aldrovandi (hailed as the “Bolognese Aristotle”) reawakened an interest in natural history as a topic of serious study. Like the other great thinkers and collectors of his day, he had a cabinet of curiosities, and contributed greatly to the ideas of ordering what he saw in the world around him.
He also wrote serious treatises on dragons and monsters (published in 1640, well after his death), which people took very seriously for well over a hundred years. There were dragons with two legs, others with four, men with faces on their chests, with ostrich heads sprouting from their necks. The science of the time was ill-equipped to tell fact from fiction.
Today, things are a lot easier to discern, using the a host of biology, genetics, endocrinology. We know that a six-legged fawn is not the work of Satan, not a monster, just a genetic anomoly that Nature, given leave to take its course, will take care of down the gullet of a wolf. Reality is in some ways pretty cut and dried. Boring, even, for those of us who like the romance of having the unexplainable in front of us on a daily basis. Wonderfully, the are artists out there who bring back some of the mystery that the Age of Enlightenment so cruelly took from us. Even if we (well, most of us) don’t believe it’s real, it’s entertaining to have it brought up as a possibility.
An artistic genre I’m particularly fond of is Steampunk, which re-tells the past as it might have been, had technology stopped with the steam engine. Everything is ‘modded’ with brass and wood, very ornately and, usually, excentrically. And you can’t get much more excentric than a wind-up alligator.
Except possibly a clockwork duckling. I’ve got to say, despite (or possibly because of) a background in biology, I find this somewhat disturbing.
Like Aldrovandi and his contempories, these works of art push the boundaries of the normal into the supernatural or, perhaps better ‘supranatuaral’. Creative taxiermy has, over the ages contributed a lot to people’s notions of what is real or, potentially real. A famous example is what is often referred to today as the “Nondescript,” a monkey that looks very startlingly like a human behing. It was mounted by Charles Waterton in 1828, and graced the frontispiece of his book Wanderings in South America.
Waterton later admitted that the creature was a remodelled to look like J.R. Lushington Secretary of the British Treasury, who ruled that Waterton had to pay duty on all the animals imported into Britain by him. (See Dance, P., 1975, Animal Fakes & Frauds. Sampson Low, Maidenhead, England) However, that didn’t stop many onlookers at the time to believe it was real.
That, I believe, is the major difference with today’s artistic licence with taxidermy-as-art (and, for that matter, the film Avatar, with its exacting attention to an alien natural history): nobody expects it to be real.
It would have been incredible to be in the 19th Century and see the emergence of the dinosaurs as real monsters that could be proven to have lived and breathed. Of course, the early reconstructions were every bit as fanciful as the the most elaborate hoaxes of the time. (Note the thumb spike famously misplaced on the tip of the nose.) Certainly, the desire of today’s society for the fantastical hasn’t diminished, even if science makes true mystery more difficult to come up with.
I’ve been enjoying exploring Ravishing Beasts, a highly informative and entertaining site created by Rachel Poliquin, devoted to the artistic (and often extremely strange) world of taxidermy.