Second Life: New Exhibit Explores Taxidermy, Animal Bodies in Fine Art

Using stuffed animals in art isn’t a new technique – 19th century ornithology expert John James Audubon was also an accomplished taxidermist, and he drew many of his iconic birds of America from his own models posed in the field. But the artists in Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s new exhibit “Second Life” are taking the repurposing of bio-materials to a new level.

“The famous reference point for me is [artist Robert] Rauschenberg’s piece from the late 1950s called ‘Monogram,’ and it’s of a ram on a platform with an inner tube around him,” said KMAC’s associate curator Joey Yates, who curated the exhibit (photo of Rauschenberg’s “Monogram”). “It is one of the first occurrences of a working contemporary artist appropriating a piece of taxidermy into his work. That’s become a jumping off point for a lot of artists.”

“Second Life” opens with a member reception Friday (7- 9 p.m.) and to the public Saturday, and runs through August 31 at the museum, 715 W. Main St.

Yates has assembled works from 23 artists, including Audubon bird prints and a butterfly print by British artist Damien Hirst, the artist whose iconic 1991 installation “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” which consists of a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, caused a stir when gallerist Charles Saatchi later sold it to a collector for somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million.

The pieces in “Second Life” include mixed media works that incorporate ceramic casts of taxidermied creatures, animal skeletons, video, various actual pieces of taxidermy worked into tableaux and sculptures, and even a wall of 1,000 insects – bright, five-inch grasshoppers and very large, colorful cicadas – arranged into a decorative pattern reminiscent of a complex, beautiful tapestry.

Those bugs on the wall are the work of Jennifer Angus, a textiles expert who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On a research trip to the Golden Triangle area of northern Thailand, she learned about the Karen tribe’s practice of sewing hard beetle wings onto the fringes of shawls.

“I must have missed the field trip to the Natural History Museum. Other than butterflies, I never thought of insects as being beautiful,” Angus said. “Up there in the mountains, they were just using what was essentially in their backyard in place of beads or sequins. What was really beautiful is that when a person wears the shawl, these hard wings actually tinkle and make a noise.”

Those beetle wings captured the artist’s imagination, and she delved deeper into research, finding other uses of insects in Southeast Asian textiles. Angus likes to say that patterns are her thing – fitting for a textiles designer. And one day, she thought, why not arrange insects into patterns on the wall?

“I had that aha moment, because from a distance it looks like a pretty fancy wallpaper. You get up close and you realize ugh, insects,” she said. “Literally, I’ve seen people take a step back as they realize what it is, because there’s this tension. It looks like it could be a home, an interior, but what’s the one thing we don’t want inside? Insects.”

“So it’s a kind of compulsion and repulsion, a tension at work,” she added.

Yates says that kind of tension is inherent in this kind of work, and part of the point of the exhibit is to work through it.

“A show like this, I feel like ambivalence is sort of a proper response,” he said. “There are complexities involved in an exhibition like this and I think that’s okay to deal with those complexities and confront what those complexities might be, and our relationships to animals, and how we either identify with animals or what we think an animal’s identity might be.”

Angus says she welcomes questions, too, about the dead insect specimens she buys from dealers who sell primarily to collectors.

“I think it’s fair to ask how many insects died for this art,” she said of the insects, none of which are endangered species, that live in precarious tropical rainforests. “We can have a discussion about the environment.”

“I always say they’re ambassadors for their species,” she added “They have a significant afterlife in my art.”

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