Art historian Giovanni Aloi and Cecilia Novero talk about Aloi’s new book,
Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces and Art in the Anthropocene
CECILIA NOVERO: I am glad to have this chance to chat with you about your new book, Speculative Taxidermy, the first in-depth theoretical study of the subtle ways in which taxidermy has come to play a crucial task in contemporary art.
As the book’s title suggests, and the book makes clear, speculative taxidermy unfolds as a statement. Accordingly, speculative taxidermy may be viewed as endowed with the power to engender political “realities” and “possibilities” that are not immediately—visibly—graspable (obvious) in the taxidermy animals, but that are nonetheless constantly and elaborately at work in every surface, every skin the artist and viewer encounters.
As you show throughout the book, certain taxidermy in contemporary art morphs into a speculative type of questioning. It is an act rather than a “product” because the objects it produces are at once the product and the result of complex negotiations between disciplines and discourses.
Such connections have in time come to powerfully sediment in taxidermy animals and while the discourses that inform these objects irradiate through them, they also come undone through their return. I would dare say that albeit “materially”—in and through matter—speculative taxidermy operates by ways of “immanent critique.” I believe that immanent critique has found an appropriate site in the arts, since—as you well demonstrate in your book—at least the emergence of new registers of realism, perhaps including the Avant-Garde’s use of disparate materials, and the Neo-Avant-Garde’s sense of self-reflexivity. Here I see many affinities between your material approach to speculative taxidermy and the practices of material consumption in the Avant-Garde/Neo-Avant-Garde, I engage with in my own book.
I find both your book and its title programmatic and provocative: not only does the monograph dissect how taxidermy as material practice has operated as and within the disciplinary discourse of above all natural history; the book also interestingly shows how scientific paradigms heavily relied on Greek and Renaissance classical art which, as you eloquently illustrate, science implicitly adopted. The title itself encapsulates the discursive “nature” of taxidermy by adopting the polysemic term “speculative” in juxtaposition with the “crafty” material art of taxidermy, conjoining the two as inseparable, like nature and culture in Donna Haraway’s idiom natureculture. As it is known, Haraway uses this term to surpass the idea of a separation and opposition between nature and culture and to recognize that the two are sides of the same coin. Indeed, as the subtitle then clarifies, speculative taxidermy involves taxidermy’s migration into the arts at a time of acute ecological vulnerabilities, and from within this conjuncture, namely the Anthropocene, the title is again both programmatic and provocative because it sounds as an injunction: speculative taxidermy demands; it requires a thinking that must unfold and become with the specimens, over and over again.
The book then argues that such thinking and rethinking starts by taking individual animal surfaces—specific skins, whether real or indexically represented—seriously. The injunction is an encouragement to engage with care and attentiveness—as Thom van Dooren would have it—when encountering taxidermy specimens. To me, this invites to engage in careful acts of close reading, readings of matter—matter which, as Serenella Iovino and other new materialists maintain, speaks its narratives and weaves its texts.
In order to take animal surfaces seriously, and to show how speculative taxidermy emerges from the reconfiguration of taxidermy as a practice. You start by engaging the history of realism in the visual arts, and the emergence of new—socio-political—registers of realism that had recourse to what were deemed non-artistic—rough—materials. I refer here to the book’s initial “hook”, the story of Degas’s Little Dancer, and how the work caused a sensation because of the perceived inappropriateness of the materials used by the artist.
I think that the explicit adoption of Michel Foucault in your book provides a potent and indeed unique framework less perhaps for your analysis of the critical aspects of taxidermy than for your argument about the productive aspects of speculative taxidermy’s biopolitics; your book owes its originality especially to your ability to swiftly move across disciplines, such as art history and cultural studies, and theoretical paradigms. Beyond Foucault, these include Object Oriented Ontology and New Materialisms, for example. Adding the art historical perspective—specifically, your important dissection of the changing paradigms of realism within this discipline, as per above—to the theoretical imprints of your book breaks with each discipline’s canons. In itself this too is a statement. Most important however: thereby you manage to proceed “genealogically”—as per Foucault’s lesson. This means that the close readings of the select contemporary speculative taxidermy animals have a place in your book that is and has to be contiguous—in the same chapters—with the unpacking of the various discourses that inform them. Only through this act of clever layering can you show with great acumen how speculative taxidermy manages to unhinge itself from natural history taxidermy, and in the act produce what I would call a surge of political energy, libido, and possibility that opens up alternative aesthetics for the future.
At one point you suggest that speculative taxidermy –the focus of which is the material surface of the skin and its “organization”—is indeed at the crux of the contradictions that characterize the latest stage of the Anthropocene. You mention the rise of virtual reality, growing social/financial instability and the proliferation of eco-catastrophic narratives (139). I will want to hear more about this “crux” and how speculative taxidermy finds its location there.
I apologize for this long preface, the only purpose of which—I hope—is to map out for the readers how I have read your very rich book, and thus what I bring to our conversation.
So, let’s now talk about the political impulse behind this book, a book that is invested in turn in identifying taxidermy in contemporary art as the medium of a political aesthetics.
As you show, politics is linked, first and foremost, to the materiality and commodity fetishism that mark speculative taxidermy—the animal skins and these skins’ manipulation by the artist. You mention specifically, speculative taxidermy’s “aesthetic openness, irrepressible materiality and its problematic indexical relationship to the ‘real,’” as major factors that determine this medium as “political” (p. 139). Could you elaborate on first the political impulse behind the book, and second the politics you see at work in the aesthetics (surfaces, techniques, etc) of this medium?
GIOVANNI ALOI: Thanks for this thorough summarization of Speculative Taxidermy!
The political impulse behind the book stems from a general discontent with the current state of animal studies and art history. I am more specifically referring to a process of reduction that I have already addressed in 2014 with an infamous paper titled: “Animal Studies and Art: Elephants in the Room”. There I addressed the predominant moralization which has begun to pervade the discipline since around 2010. The potential productivity of vegan and animal rights contributions has emerged as a polarizing entity. Animal rights and vegan ethics have become the baseline of discourses that had a different art historical and philosophical root. As I explain in “Elephants in the Room” some of these baselines are not compatible with the discourses of contemporary art.
Taxidermy, especially, has become an easy target. From an exciting and culturally ripe subject in early animal-studies, this controversial medium has now almost exclusively been understood as the result of colonialism. Animal studies seems to struggle with the difference between Victorian taxidermy and contemporary takes. The field is rapidly becoming very polarized, and to a majority, terms like empathy, compassion, and ethics have rather simplistic meanings. The presence of animals in the gallery spaces is generally condemned without consideration of specific circumstances. Similarly, the presence of visible animal derivates is frowned upon regardless of its origin. This should be a cause of concern to a serious academic field of enquiry.
Speculative Taxidermy essentially proposes an urgent call to slow down in our thinking and judging. It demands a deeper and thorough engagement with the histories of materialities and the naturecultures inscribed in the materialities of animal skins. Speculative taxidermy essentially is a tool through which to think and rethink human-animal relations. Many animal studies scholars have asked if the presence of taxidermy in the gallery space is at all necessary. In my book, I recover a genealogy of materials in modern and contemporary art to demonstrate how materiality speaks; how taxidermy is essential in the gallery space only if the artist stages an intentional and/or political relational with materiality and its histories. In speculative taxidermy, the animal skin becomes an undeniable trace—the result of material, historical, biological, and metaphorical manipulations we cannot ignore. What is of paramount importance in this conception of the taxidermy skin is the metaphorical value which the actual malleability and resistance of the material poses for both, the artist who manipulates and the viewer who interprets. The skin becomes a storied interface; a platform for change.
That’s the type of animal-studies ethics I am interested in.
CN: In unpacking the politics of the material aesthetics of speculative taxidermy, perhaps you could also rehearse for us the roles that “realism” (in its different registers) and the “problematic indexicality” mentioned above take up in defining the politics of speculative taxidermy. In your book you speak of both as generating “ontological mobility”, the possibility to reconsider the categories that dictate the ethical priorities in our world.
GA: I’d rather avoid a rehearsal of what’s discussed in detail in the book. But I can say that my genealogy of taxidermy evaluates the mounting of animal skins as a phenomenon linked to artistic discourses involving photography, painting, and sculpture. Donna Haraway has notoriously emphasized the importance of photography in the development of taxidermy. However, her eyes have been firmly focused on the patriarchal agenda. My inquiry focusses on how taxidermists longed to accomplish the realism of neoclassical art of the eighteenth century without considering the ethical register inscribed in the classical canon. The materiality of taxidermy, not the skill is the issue. Neo classical art of the 1700-1800s had come to incorporate an unprecedented worship for transcendence and purity according to which all materialities should be synthesized into marble or bronze. I refer to this important prescription as transubstantiation.
Despite the high-quality hyperrealism taxidermy accomplished at the end of the Victorian era, the use of animal skin, where animal skin was representationally meant, excluded taxidermy from the artistic canons. Thereafter, and this is the last thing I can say about the importance of realism to speculative taxidermy, the indexical realism of the animal skin constitutes a rude awakening from the transcendence of classical sculpture and its deliberate muting of materiality and its immanent histories.
CN: I would like to ask you about Roni Horn’s photographic diptych Dead Owl. In the book, you examine this intricate work through the lens of Rene Magritte’s two paintings: The Treachery of Images and The Two Mysteries, to which you add Foucault’s own reading of Magritte, among other things. You argue that the interplay between resemblance and similitude in both Magritte and especially Horn short-circuits the anthropocentrism inherent in affirmative images. (p. 153) Could you elaborate on how this short-circuit happens in Horn’s specific work, and how Magritte’s paintings help to then individuate something specific to taxidermy animals in contemporary art?
GA: My interest in Roni Horn’s ability to produce non-affirmative, and yet realist, images stems from a general dissatisfaction with the aesthetic approaches frequently utilized by some animal-studies informed artists. Classical art has taught us to stand right in front of a painting, in a central position. Then, and only then, the central perspective makes us the center of the universe. But since the beginning of the last century, many artists, beginning with Cezanne and then Picasso challenged this very notion, placing the viewer in a world of uncertainty. During the last ten years, the surge of interest for Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “becoming animal” with its conceptions of “pure form” and “flight” has fueled an essentialist postmodern desire to fragment and blur the animal body in representation. This non-affirmative strategy was meant to bypass the objectifying finitude and absolute clarity of the scientific gaze. The main aim was to embody the unknowability of animals using “unrepresentability” as a shorthand. The results have been sometimes interesting and more often mixed. This was an early trope popularized by Steve Baker in The Postmodern Animal. In the early days of animal studies and art, this concept aimed at freeing the viewer from the metaphorical entrapments of symbolism—our anthropocentric inability to see animals past the representational meanings we ascribe to them.
However, this dismantling of symbolism only led to a disappearance of the animal in art. A form of protestant rejection to realism and beauty which, like Deleuze and Guattari’s work, ultimately distances us from animals. The animal vanishes, the body is shattered, but how can this new animal elusiveness become productive beyond reassessing the incommunicability characterizing our relations?
Roni Horn’s ability to create uncertainty for the viewer and suggest animal-unknowability through the simple juxtaposition of identical or extremely similar images reaches much further afield: it problematizes the photographic idiom through a line of inquiry that encompasses past history of disciplinary-specific representations that have vastly contributed to the construction of animality and nature.
Magritte’s and Horn’s representational enquiries are linguistic in essence—they reveal the sometimes subliminal or latent pervasiveness of language as it applies to images. Both artists unveil the power images have to construct reality as they point at the seemingly transparent ways in which we construct and consume representations of the natural.
Through the Classical age, natural history was a practice concerned with the meticulous examination, transcription, and cataloguing of animal and plant surfaces. This project relied on an intrinsically ideological process of synthetic purification. Realism became the prominent epistemological tool through which the knowledge of nature could be produced. As I argue, photography problematized the relationship between nature, science, and art. Roni Horn’s work with taxidermy birds wittingly leverages the shared idiomatic specificities of the subject and the medium capturing it, thus harnessing indexicality, the connection between the image and the real referent in the world, to challenge the affirmation of realism in painting. In so doing, Horn furthers Magritte’s original and to a certain point analogous concerns with perception.
CN: One of the goals of your book is to move beyond symbolic readings of taxidermy. You explain this, especially when considering Avant-Garde works, from Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 Object to Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-1959). In doing so, perhaps, you follow the lead of Walter Benjamin who, as I argue in my book, attempted to appraise Surrealism’s political potential (not their politics) as lying precisely in the materials of art informing the production of the Surrealist objects rather than in the objects’ being prone to symbolic forms appropriation and consumption. Your analysis of taxidermy readymade willfully forgets such abstracted readings. Instead, you rightly insist on recovering the material living histories of these objects, and the connections between humans and non-humans they have spun. I have wondered though throughout the book, but especially towards the last chapters, why the networks of human-nonhuman labor, in particular, play such little role in your analyses. Could closer attention to the labor-value link maybe help ease the impression that the book occasionally errs towards an overarching simplification of the animal surface in spite of the carefully distinct readings of the works it performs?
GA: I guess that beneath the pages of every book are many alternative versions of the same book someone else could have written. In this case, I very much cared that the focus should remain on art, art history, and visual culture. The works I explore gesture towards specific human-animal histories, specificity is only partial since it loses itself in the “salvaged” origin of the skins the artists I discuss use. Crafting new art historical approaches to animal presence in the gallery space requires balance in order not to leave art behind. It is easy to forget that artworks can unravel endless meaning, but that carefully managing how much we see and what we say about what we see, lies at the core of the effectiveness of an argument.
I dwell over this conundrum in my Elephant in the Room paper in relation to the analysis of Damien Hirst’s “butterfly paintings”. How far down following specific human-animal labor inquiries can an art historian go before the artistic thread is lost amidst too many considerations? So, in brief, essentialization is inescapable at least of the sake of expediency in the analysis. But essentialization is also key to our shared understanding of human-animal labor. Horse riding, for instance, is such a nuanced human-animal relationship; so much of it changes from country to country. One could write a whole book dwelling with all the very meaningful and peculiar differences involved in corsage, but would that lead to a meaningful book?
CN: Finally, I would like to ask you—a bit provocatively too—to speak to three separate yet interrelated issues you touch upon at the end of your book. First: the re-enchantment of art and the recovery of pre-capitalist tools (e.g. bougonia). Second, and perhaps more crucially for me, what you mention as the complexities that might arise in considering the irreducible and recalcitrant materiality of the animal-made-objects (Fudge) within the context of the dematerialization of analog (indexical) technologies that is being operated by digital technologies, on the other.
About the former: In my reading, while Suzi Gablik’s call for “placing interconnectedness [between communities and environment] at the center of the picture” has been crucial, the apparent stark rejection of “materiality, materialism, secularism” that she advocates has proven problematic. Thus, I could not agree more with Haraway, against Gablik’s choice of term and position. Haraway insists on the idea that, at the end of the day, we can’t reject scientific and/or secular knowledge and, indeed, more knowledge helps, not less. The ways we engage in knowing, with whom, how we respond and feel responsible towards the processes of knowing we set into motion is key. I am wondering in short whether re-enchantment is what we need in the Anthropocene, whether it is through re-enchantment that one can find new registers of knowing and relating. While re-enchantment can include the appreciation of indigenous forms of knowledge and practices, I prefer to think of the latter as such, rather than some mystical magic. This is also why I can’t share fully the proposal for “a sacrificial antidote to ecosystemic collapse” advanced in Cole Swanson’s 2015 Out of the Strong, Something Sweet if the latter is meant to function, again, as “prescientific enchantment”. I rather lean, once again, towards Haraway’s SF – an acronym that expands to include and mix the technologies of cat’s cradle games or string figures, speculative fabulation and science fiction….
GA: Let me fine-tune this point a little more. When I write about art, the issue never is to comply with what someone has already said in full. So, I don’t see myself “agreeing” with either Gablik or Haraway. In my work, I sample ideas and concepts that I find useful to unpack the specific work I discuss. This approach is outlined at the beginning of the book when I argue that every work of contemporary art should require its own especially dedicated methodology—every work of art should be approached from a specific perspective and with suitable tools. This is how Foucault approached his analyses of Fromanger, Magritte, Manet, and other artists. Privileging one frame of inquiry against others as “the methodology of choice of art in the Anthropocene” would only lead to a totalization of works of art. We need to move on from the modern conceptions of art theory.
In my view, Gablik and Haraway discuss very different things. I agree with Haraway that we should not reject scientific knowledge. But at the same time, the question is not one of more or less, but one of alternative knowledges. There is room for art that incorporates scientific knowledge at its core, but there should also be room for mythology—nothing in nature is magic any longer. Or to be clearer, our popular culture system has implicitly accepted science as the default lens through which nature should be observed—other optics are secondary. This is one of the main issues—we need to recuperate a sense of wonder and owe for the natural world—a science should not necessarily be the only privileged or essential point of access. And when I say wonder, I don’t invoke a return of the sublime—we know the pitfalls involved.
I will be honest: as you know, I have been working at the intersection of art and science for fifteen years; only a few artists can make great work emerge from the encounter of the two. Cole Swanson’s interpretation of Bugonia, the ancient myth according to which bees emerged from the rotting carcasses of cows, is interesting because of its poetic and historical backbone; how it intermingles myth and science; its ability to draw unexpected connections between past and present human-animal relations and his ability to physically mobilize the viewer in order to pose important epistemological questions. I also see his approach as very much in line with Haraway’s speculative fabulation, but I have deliberately stayed away from the term because of the way in which multiple stories narrate and narrated in Cole’s work. Also, Out of the Sweet, Something Strong has nothing to do with sci-fi. I am somewhat suspicious about the emphasis sci-fi has been given in animal studies. But most importantly I have found Cole’s work interesting because it is accessible, like most of speculative taxidermy, it is designed to draw the viewer out of their comfort zone. Academia is worryingly elitist, and so can be the artworld. We need art capable of engaging and exciting; producing less anthropocentric art would be a great start.
So, it is not so much a matter of agreeing with Haraway or Gablik. In my book, I use Gablik as an access point and contextualizing tool, but, it seems to me that my considerations of Swanson’s project reach well beyond an abstract or perhaps even escapist re-enchantment. Cole Swanson’s “sacrificial antidote to ecosystemic collapse” is poetry, not a proposal, and neither it is scientific realism. I hope we still have room for poetry and mythmaking in art focusing on human-animal relations.
CN: Lastly and about the second point above in my previous question, namely the issue of digital technologies: Isn’t the thought that digital technologies affect dematerialization at risk of reiterating Berger’s and Lippit’s rhetoric with regard to the visibility and invisibility of animals and “materiality”? And shouldn’t we rather think that novel digital art too also engages with the meaning of materiality and information in the digital media and thus ought we not look precisely here, in these new media, for alternative material relations and possible sustainable futures?
GA: Both Berger and Lippit aptly demonstrate that representational media and animal representation more specifically have a direct impact on our conceptions of living animals and the non-human more in general. Digital media are no exception. But I would hate to generalize. It is not just the idiomatic, the epistemic essence of the medium, to define its potentiality in the context of human-non-human relationships. Works of art can be spaces in which specific mappings of human-non-human relations can unfold in ways that are thoroughly non-anthropocentric. New media propose new opportunities, but should never lose touch with the living non-human world around us. We are already thoroughly alienated by screens of all kinds in our daily lives. Alternative material relationships might be suggested by new media encounters, but we ultimately have to take our material relations outside the gallery space.
To conclude with a humorous note. I recently asked a colleague his opinion on an animal-studies conference I could not attend. His answer was: “Most of the speakers would not have known an animal if they had been thrown one”. This is the truth of much academic speculation in animal studies and animals in art. The literary animal, the cinematic animal, the digital animal, etc. They easily become cultural constructions entertaining ourselves in a philosophical playhouse.
Throughout my book, the materiality of speculative taxidermy constituted this undeniable animal-absence/presence which always leads the viewer to connect the representation with a set of events outside of the gallery space. There are positives and negatives to the ability new media have to engage viewers in new conceptions of larger-than-human worlds, but leaving the living behind is a risk we really can no longer afford.
CN: Thank you for sharing and expanding your insights on what will now surely become a staple book— and concept—in any approach to contemporary art with or without visible animals.
Notes on the Contributors
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art specializing in the representation of animals and plants in contemporary art. He studied History of Art and Art Practice in Milan and moved to London in 1997 where he gained a post graduate diploma, an MA, and Ph.D. at Goldsmiths University. Aloi currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. In 2007, Aloi launched Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture (www.antennae.org.uk). His first book Art & Animals was published in 2011; Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene was published in early 2018 by Columbia University Press. His forthcoming co-authored book titled Why Look at Plants: The Vegetal World in Contemporary Art will be published later this year by Brill and with Caroline Picard, Aloi is the co-editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Art after Nature.
Cecilia Novero teaches at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her research in the interdisciplinary Humanities spans the fields of Food Studies, Animal Studies, Environmental Humanities, and Avant-Garde Studies, with a focus on Visual Culture and German-speaking literature and film. Cecilia is the author of Antidiets of the Avant-Garde: From Futurist Cooking to Eat Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). She is co-editor of Otago German Studies with Dr. August Obermayer and Peter Barton. She is on the editorial board of the Animal Studies Journal and is a member of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (University of Canterbury, NZ). She has published in several academic journals and her essays have also appeared in edited volumes such as Gorgeous Beasts Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective (edited by Joan B. Landes, Paula Young Lee, and Paul Youngquist, PSU 2012) and Animal Life and the Moving Image (edited by Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon, BFI 2015).