Friday, 7 June 2013

Lovely Bones: ‘inappropriate’art and animal remains

I was recently asked to show some work at a University in the north of England, by an academic I'd met at a conference on anatomical collection. He’d seen my presentation “Making myself a Monster”, which I’ve posted in its entirety earlier in this blog, and wanted me to show work to his History of Medicine students that would challenge and stimulate them to think differently about the body and its forms of representation. I duly set off with a number of pieces, which ranged from drawings of anatomical specimens to boxed assemblages and life masks.

Within an hour of hanging – and before, in fact, many of the pieces had gone up – I had a call saying that the head of the school had decided that the majority of the work was 'inappropriate', and requesting that it be removed. A number of pieces that were rejected featured drawings of teratological specimens, and in that case I can understand their concern – the venue is in close proximity to Alder Hey, and the echoes of that scandal continue to be felt in the public conscious. However most of the work deemed 'inappropriate' was not human anatomy, but contained, among other ephemera, specimens or drawings of dead animals. The content of these artworks ranged from an entire animal (cat, mouse, bird) to some with small bones in amongst the other found objects that I use in assemblages.

Why should some people - who happily eat meat, wear leather or fur, and set traps for mice - object to being confronted with animal remains on display in a gallery? Why is the notion of animal framed and re-contextualised as art so much more disturbing than the chewing and digesting of them, wearing them, shooting them for sport, or killing them as pests?  There is a disturbing dualism at play here; sentimentality at odds with a brutal indifference. Furthermore, there is the sense that their own dislike of the work has had to be re-framed as a moral issue, with the offended parties casting themselves as gatekeepers of propriety: deciding what is best, on behalf of others who will then have no opportunity to see the work that they are being saved from. As Steve Baker says in his book ‘Artist/Animal’,
“…accusations of offensiveness lump together aesthetic distaste and moral outrage, as they often do in public responses to contemporary animal art…” 

So why do I work with animal remains? This is not something I've ever asked myself - or indeed been asked. If I had to make a statement of some kind, I would say that I find something beautiful and compelling in the bones and skins of formerly living creatures - the static remnants, preserved by nature, decayed, decomposed and dried, so redolent of their former life but transformed by death into something else. I don't kill things, but pick them up as I find them. Sometimes, if the little corpses are still too fresh to keep, I bury them in my allotment and use the bones after the earth has done its work. 

I am not alone in seeing beauty in decay. 

The problem I have with working with remains is not the fact of their provenance, but that, while beautiful, they are very powerful objects, containing so much emotional resonance in relation to the awareness of mortality. Bones are hard to work with. Bones are bones, skulls are skulls, and their effect as representations of death makes them such striking objects in their own right that using them as art materials creates difficulties in the same way as working with text; decorative and beautiful, but difficult to divorce from its meaning - difficult not to read. People read the language of bones in very specific ways.

I take several approaches to this problem: one is simply to present the animal remains as I found them, laid out and boxed whole, a record of the transience of life and the structure of remains. Another is to reconstruct them into other, still beautiful, objects: wearable objects, such as fascinators, or rearranged into new work, to use the bones and fur and skin as materials in the same way as I would use other found objects such as buttons, paper ephemera, shells, or broken watches. The symbolism of the Vanitas pervades all this work, so perhaps in essence I'm not really changing the narrative of the remains. Other artists have worked with remains more directly: painting or drawing on them, covering them with other materials. I have been experimenting with painting or drawing the remains, and using this work - a step removed from the original material - in the boxes instead. Or covering them with gold leaf, or fur from a different animal, or paper - text or music notation - to force a shift in appearance, and therefore meaning.  

In which case, why use animal remains at all? Why not casts, or papier-maché, or something else entirely? I suppose there is something intrinsically 'authentic' about the remains – their organic nature, a reference to death and change – perhaps it all just comes back to the Vanitas, a reminder of our mortality which is often hidden or disguised in contemporary life. A group of my teenaged art students were horrified by my recent description of 'Hello Kitty' (the first work to go from this exhibition).They asked if I had an obsession with death. I said no, merely an acceptance of the fact that I was going to die, as all living things must. When I added that they too were going to die, one girl said she was going to tell her mum. I pointed out that her mother was going to die as well...

I suspect my career as a teacher will be as short as my exhibition – but that is in itself a reflection of the way that death is denied in current culture: the 'disneyfication' of the reality that life is, oftentimes, short and brutal and remarkably lacking in talking cats and rainbow coloured horses.

    None of this really explains why I like to use this material. But I'm not certain, in the end, that I really need to. The work speaks its own language, at a visceral level, to those who not too hampered by their conservatism to read it.

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