Truth in Taxidermy: A Precarious Balasana?

The question of authenticity in taxidermy and display is reoccurring. In the process of reviewing how the manner in which taxidermy displays are postured/presented is reflective of the social beliefs, values and norms of the time period during which they are made, as well as how such displays are participatory to understanding of relationship to the natural world, I happened across the recent work of Patricia Piccinini. This sculpture is entitled Balasana:

Balasana is composed of a taxidermy albino wallaby, one of Piccinini’s extremely realistic figures (made of silicone and human hair), and a Turkish carpet. ‘The Balasana’ is a yoga posture commonly known as ‘The Child’s Pose’ and can be used in partnered yoga, with another person arching over; it is a balancing posture.Here, the artist seeks to express a ‘balanced’ relationship between humanity, nature (and perhaps too, artifice). Most overtly by choice of this posture, placement and context, the artist expresses friendly reciprocity: a beautiful wallaby and child, safe and happy in their shared repose.

How different the posturing of a contemporary artist to ‘natural’ displays from the time of the Victorians! Consider Rossendale: a hawk with slain rabbit in talon, foxes and polar bears with teeth bared and certainly the Tiger and Boa locked in mortal combat!

There are numerous examples at museums the world over of animals in unrealistic postures (Rossendale is in good company).

The presentation of animals expresses at the least several things (doubtless the reader can think of more):

1.    the knowledge of the taxidermist regards the natural habits of the animal represented,

2.    what is either perceived to be or is, the desire/understanding of the eventual recipient of the display,

3.     the general purpose and intended placement of the display,

4.    social attitudes, conceptions (or misconceptions) regarding the natural world and the animal being represented.

These factors are all closely related. In observing taxidermy displays from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, attribution of motivation is debatable. Misleading posturing perhaps shows a lack of understanding for the animal’s natural behaviour, it could reveal a desire to convey social values (such as humanity’s mastery over savage nature) or could simply be a way to make money and garnering return visitation of a sensation-seeking general public.








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4 responses to “Truth in Taxidermy: A Precarious Balasana?

  1. A great example of a specimen that has been mounted by a taxidermist with no idea of the natural habit (or indeed morphology) of the animal being presented is the Horniman’s vastly over-stuffed walrus. Image

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  3. David Craven

    I think the “social attitudes” point is particularly worthwhile. I wonder if it reflects our view of ourselves?

    If we see ourselves as ‘above’ nature, not part of it, then the savagery of the natural world contrasts with our own peaceful and harmonious existence (!).
    But if we see ourselves as part of the natural world, as we should, then reflecting a more peaceful side of nature is again trying to reflect on our own idealised view of our psyche.

    It’s also fair to say that how we view nature is shaped, and progressed, by the media available. If taxidermy is all you have then you can make the natural world as exotic and exciting as you like. But with natue documentaries that empathise with animals to the point of anthropomorphism (and I’m not entirely opposed to such a view), then the taxidermy becoems more incongruous.

    Going back to one of my earlier posts, the ‘awe and wonder’ factor was at one time key. Today though, where a new display would think as much about an environmentally conscious message, we are inclined to show the natural world in more harmonious terms. After all, if you think your CO2 emissions are killing a family of lovely, cute, cuddly, fluffy polar bears, you may think twice. But if you think they are threatening a vicious, bloodthirsty killing machine, would you care as much?

  4. David Craven

    Incidentally, before I get pulverised, some of the points made there may be a little tongue-in-cheek…

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