by Brad Silk
Nature Versus Man is a literary and visual art trope that continues to inspire artists. It is well traversed in written work, paintings, and sculpture, but it’s not always explored in a humane manner. The question is, does this end justify the means? Does the materials used in work ever discount the work and can man-made materials truly replace natural materials in this exploration? Animal byproducts have long been used in the of making art: Tempera paint used egg and most canvases were stretched with rabbit skin glue–not a cute euphemism, it is an adhesive made from the refined collagen of rabbit skin. Both of these materials have largely been replaced by synthetic counterparts, but continue to be used. They have some debatable positive and negative attributes that determine the quality of finish, but my focus is more on the philosophy and ethical use.
I have been vegan for half of my life, but I have been living in a society that defines masculinity by specific standards my entire life. I have been taught and have grown to love aspects of macho-manhood, though it often seems hypocritical to my ethical standards. One of these passions is taxidermy. My love of taxidermy began in art school, where we had an illustration library with bones, hides, and animals to study and reproduce in our scientific illustration studies. It brought up a lot of traumas of facing a failing grade or dissecting a frog in my earlier education, but I also had a strange fascination with these lifeless creatures. So, I stole them: Freeganism before Oprah talked about it, aka the rationalizing out of guilt. Beyond the joy of decorating with dead animals, I later began an interest in the actual study of taxidermy. Though I have never performed it, I have gathered found dead animals and bones to attempt the practice–a process inspired by the sculptures seen at Alexis Bittar stores around New York City. My MOZ loving, vegan baked good enthusiast friend, Alyssa, who worked at the store for a few years, informed me that the taxidermy was all “ethically sourced.” There were blog posts about it and official press releases by Bittar that stated the pieces were all ethically made, but nothing which defined what that meant. So I searched out the taxidermist, Frank J. Zitz & Co., Inc., and asked him directly. He promptly replied in an email, “…a lot of these skins came from animals that died from natural causes in zoos, or they come out of old collections. A lot of it is synthetic and cast.” It does not seem that all of Zitz work is created with these pieces, but many of them are. While I do not believe in the harvesting of skins or furs through murder, nor the industrial system of zoos, it could be debated that the acquisition and use of existing materials may be more environmentally sound than the creation of new materials, man-made or not. I believe it is always best to repurpose the old, rather than manufacture the new.
Many artists use materials as a function of expression, they work in the media that best depicts their conceptual intent. I love it. This allows artists to expand on their philosophy and create work that truly connects with the viewer. The down side is that many artist simply define their work as “mixed media.” While it might be annoying to read a list of materials longer than their artist statement, it does not allow for the archival and ethically conscious individual the information they need. Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most dynamic artists of today, using explosives, florescent lights, cars, and basically anything he can to create the work he desires. Having only seen his work once in person, my memory is a bit hazy, but in remembering the textures of the fur used in his work is often matted and appears fake. Often they are even stated to be: the artist himself said that they are “realistically made, but they are completely fake.” Which is misleading as they are not real endangered tigers or a pack of taxidermy wolves, but they are made from sheep hide and sometimes real fur, painted and died
to resemble the replicated animal. When a material list is reduced to “Mixed Media” or “Life Size Replica” it creates the assumption that these are all faux furs or man-made materials. David Shrigley is another artist who uses whatever materials best represent his concept. His work is mainly sarcastic and blunt, but he is one of the only artist who work in dead-pan affirmations that are able to evoke a sincere reaction. His 2011 piece, I’m Dead, uses a taxidermic puppy which holds a sign reading, “I’m Dead.” There are earlier versions of the work which feature a taxidermy cat and dog, separately. I do not have information on where this puppy comes from or how the work came to be, but I appreciate the honesty in it’s materials. Would the work be less valuable or important when ethically made? What are the boundaries of ethics in the use of animals in art?
Not all artists rely on natural skins and furs to create their work. I came across the haunting work of Erick Swenson at James Cohan Gallery of New York, which use all man-made materials to provoke empathy and sorrow of watching an animal in its last moments. His work seems to balance the turbulent line of the artist’s own childhood passion for taxidermy and scientific illustrations. Though his work is all man-made materials, it evokes as much, if not more a visceral reaction than any artwork that uses natural pelts. Another artist who uses man-made materials in their art is Lisa Dillin. Where Swenson’s work is often morose, Dillin is playful. Her piece Bear hug Sleeping Unit is made of all faux fur. Her piece is interactive, when inside the bears pouch you can hear the soft breathing a grunting of a docile animal, giving comfort and joy one might get from their own animal friends. These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.
These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.
In both art and decoration, does the source of the material matter in it being ethical when there are realistic faux-furs and pelts being produced? The look and touch of a piece may severely alter the perception and damage its impact. Skins erode much faster and may prove more difficult to keep archival, yet we also live in a culture that allows leathers, fur, and skins to define luxury. Synthetic materials are inherently cold, they lack the warmth of natural fibers, which creates a distance between the viewer and the work. If there is not a visceral or emotional connection the intent might be lost, but at what cost. In researching the role of taxidermy in art, it became obvious that the materials are secondary to the artists intention and skill, which none of
these artists are lacking. Cai Guo-Qiang uses real hide and furs to create his work, which is no less intense and interesting than the man-made work of Erick Swenson. Lisa Dillin is able to make humorous and thoughtful work just like David Shringley, but without any natural skins. All four artists make wonderful work; the presentation is strong and the intensions are met, but the artists’ materials may alter the perception and value of these works.
There is no easy delineation of ethics in art, it is as complex as the art itself. Either way, we must all justify our choices and attempt to live our lives as humanely as possible… So, as it is in every other aspect of your life, the power is yours.