Monday, July 17, 2017

Wondering about human animal interactions: Wunderkammer

Silhouette of Boxing Kangaroos by artist Rod McCrae at Everglades House.

Our interactions with animals range from compassionate to cruel, but the truth is that the majority of human animal interactions are unseen and overlooked. 

The impact of our behaviour on biodiversity, the wellbeing of the environment including the climate, and the animals we use every day can be extraordinary yet often goes unremarked on. Our minor habits can have major consequences for other creatures, whole species even.

Last week I had the pleasure of viewing a confronting exhibition by former children’s book artist and taxidermist Rod McCrae called Wunderkammer (“cabinet of wonders”). McCrae explains his title thus:
“Wonder seems like such an outmoded notion in our technological age where everything is so readily explained by the scientific method. Wonder however does exist in the human imagination often triggered, yet not fully explained, by an object. Rachel Poliquin’s The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (2012) puts it thus: “From early cabinets of wonder to philosophical repositories, collections of curiosities never really displayed knowledge, rather they acted as warehouses of raw potentiality.”
One of the questions this exhibit raised for me is whether we see animals as mere curiosities – when we pay attention to them at all.

Taxidermy is a fraught art form for me because, historically, many animals were killed as trophies, only to be stuffed and preserved as curiosities by those wishing to tame and control nature or at least cram it into a museum in an ironic, obsessive attempt to document every living species before it disappears off the face of the Earth.

But this isn’t ordinary taxidermy. There are signs throughout the exhibition insisting that the animals were ethically sourced: “No animal has been harmed to make this work in the first instance; the skins are the result of death by natural causes, medical euthanasia, hunting, culling and food production and have been traded on, sometimes multiple times before they became part of this body of work. The skins of the antelopes and the baboon are the byproducts of trophy taking.”

These aren’t animals arranged like trophies. Rather they are displayed in a way that raises questions like what do we mean by humankind's dominion over animals? What responsibilities does that entail? What does stewardship mean and have we got it wrong? Why do we often see animals as waste?

If you have an interest in human animal interactions, this is a relatively small but very powerful exhibition. You can read more about the work here

The Gardens at Everglades House.
The original owners shifted a 40 tonne boulder to create this pool.
You can catch Wunderkammer at Everglades House, part of the historic house trust, in Leura (about a two-hour train trip from Sydney) til August 27 (its a very beautiful spot for a picnic).