Animal Bodies in, and as, Art
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Master of Fine Arts, Studio Thesis, 2020
In the Anthropocene, concerns for wildlife (natural) are overshadowed by the desire for personal comfort (human). The current infrastructure de-values the nonhuman to the point of eradication. One cannot be free from the inherent exploitation of nature and its resources while living within a man-made environment. Humans have destroyed animal habitat to such an extent that creatures are forced to live amongst the bustle. Unfortunately, the presence of these sentient other-than-human beings is not always welcome and, in fact, is often labeled an abject nuisance. My work and research seeks to advocate for the overlooked, often playing with ethical and moral lines. The moral and polemic implications suggested by my use of animal bodies and parts begs the question: “How much is too much? Or, how much is too far?”
I first began to question the ethics of taxidermy while volunteering at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. My objective was to create study skins that museum visitors would be able to see and physically interact with. A white pigeon was my first specimen that came from a man downstate who bred show pigeons. In training, I was taught to sketch and measure the specimen to ensure the accuracy of the form. I was surprised by the artistic gesture in the preplanning process. The skinning itself also felt familiar: it reminded me of very thin paper or delicate fabric, while keeping the plumage patterns relatively stable in their place with pins, felt like working on textiles. Galvanized steel wires were used to construct a body form that ran alongside the bird's wings and legs. The wire lived in the place formerly taken up by muscle. Styrofoam, excelsior, and natural cotton are bound tightly and air dry clay keeps the glass eyes in place, symmetrical, seamless and sturdy. Once the bird is sewn up using the baseball stitch, I would take a pin and spend hours placing each feather, especially the 24 flight feathers. This is a sculptural and artistic gesture from start to finish.
As much as I love the process, I also felt conflicted about the pigeon. Not that particular pigeon but the animal body I had used to make art with. I know the bird would have been put to death with or without my interference, I was far removed from its demise. Aside from the feathers, I experienced it like chicken breast meat at the market. For the next two years I spent at least one night a week in the lab, each time completing one study skin that was either to be included in the collection, or used for educational purposes and exhibit props. All of these birds were either hit by vehicles or struck windows and there was no short supply on the Chicago lakefront. The language used to explain to children at the museum for class trips was intended to be safe and easy to swallow. The answer to “how did it die?” was “natural causes.” This felt appropriate because animals get hit by cars or accidentally poisoned every day, however, the death may not be directly related to an individual's actions. The death is considered natural because it is normal practice and that doesn’t sit right with me.
After moving from Chicago, I took the position of resident taxidermist at the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur, IL. The center takes in animals that collide with vehicles, windows, electrical wires, poison, and rehabilitates them when possible. While I was there, over thirty of these “Ambassador Animals”--the lucky few whose lives could be saved, but not released back into the wild--served educational programs. The center specializes in caring for raptors, hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles. One aspect of caring for the birds is feeding them daily. Raptors are carnivores who hunt for live mammals and birds, but in the animal rehab field, it is considered unethical to release live prey into an enclosure to be hunted and possibly suffer in the process. The solution is to feed frozen and thawed quail, mice, rats, occasionally rabbits, and fish, a method similar to the use of frozen mice from pet stores as food for pet reptiles. Preparation and feeding are done by volunteers and require a few steps. Each evening, the appropriate amount of food is transferred from a deep freezer into a refrigerator to thaw for the following days meal prep. In the morning, a worker uses bone scissors to clip off the quail’s wings at the shoulder and feet above the knees. Then a large chunk of skin is grasped behind the neck and ripped down, pulling the skin and feather tracks off.
These parts are not usually digested by the raptor and therefore remain in the mew as waste that would require cleaning. Removing these parts prior to giving the meal is an efficient solution. The numbers can vary, but, in my experience, usually 1-2 dozen quail, and similar quantities of mice, were given out as food. Every day there were, on average, 24 wings and feet being discarded into the trash. I began to see this as material that could be used, in the same way any recycled pieces and parts of other material can be used to make art.
My work began with the preparation of several members of the Woodpecker family for a specialized display in the welcome center. One unforseen aspect of my time here was the opportunity to observe and handle the birds in order to understand their anatomy and natural behaviors which added to my visual catalogue of poses. There are two categories of taxidermy, live mounts and study skins. Live mounts are specimens posed to look natural and lifelike, sometimes with habitat included. Study skins are a method of processing higher numbers that can be stored in collections drawers. Study skins are posed to save space and make visual categorization quicker. The bird is positioned on its back, with wings by its side, feet crossed together above the tail, and the neck bent back with the top of the head or beak touching the table. For the exhibit of Woodpeckers that I worked on, the Director wanted to show differences in the size between various species by highlighting their wings and beak lengths. I designed and implemented a few changes to the traditional study skin pose by turning the bird's head to the right side and spreading out it’s right wing. I also included artificial glass eyes instead of cotton, and attached the body to a wooden dowel rod for easier handling.
Working with these types of birds--Woodpeckers and Raptors--is a rare privilege afforded to those who hold special permits. In the United States, such species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act enacted in 1918. The statute makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell migratory birds. This essentially means that no person can have in their possession any living or dead birds, nor their feathers, nests or eggs. The classification of “migratory” encompasses all species except: Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows and European Starlings. In my creative practice, this single policy determines a line regarding which materials I can and cannot legally use. As an artist who works with a multitude of media depending on its color, texture, flexibility and content, this is a major restriction. Places like the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Raptor Center are eligible for special permits allowing them to use migratory birds, and their feathers, eggs and nests, for educational purposes. This is a strictly regulated law with the species’ best interests in mind. There are two exceptions. One is when there are situations in which the bodies are used to educate others. For example, when a life mount is produced by a natural history museum or a study skin for a scientific collection.
Another exception is made for game birds that are hunted for sport or food, such as pheasants, grouse, quails and ducks. However, in order to hunt these birds you must purchase a license from the state. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services) Within the taxonomy of animal lives deemed expendable sits mammals placed in the “pest” category. In urban environments, the term “pest” can point to a number of species, frequently including mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, fox, and even feral cats. It seems that the concept of ownership can determine the difference between a pest and a pet. Humans have a wide variety of domestic pets that they purchase and choose to feed and care for. Rabbits and mice, for example, that are sold in a store can become pets, while the rabbit in our backyard garden, or a mouse in our garage, is a nuisance to eliminate. Is it the manner in which a person acquires an animal that makes it domestic, and therefore a desirable, pet? At one time, I used white feeder mice skins to create jewelry and wearables. I felt as though I was carrying this out in a respectful manner because I was treating the animals gently and using high quality materials, such as rose gold and black velvet.
After selling an expensive pair of earrings, however, I felt immediate guilt. How was this different from wearing a fur coat? I started to reflect on my past sourcing of animal bodies and came to the conclusion that I never wanted to purchase an animal, or participate in the industry responsible for breeding them, again. Rather than selling the remaining jewelry, I created miniature vitrines and sold it in a sealed container, a sculpture designed as a statement about the use of animal bodies for personal adornment.
From then on, I decided to mostly use the bodies of vermin or other undesirable species that many object to. For example, a professor once gave me a fox kit found dead by the side of the road, having been hit by a vehicle. It was in terrible shape, its innards no longer inner. Vehicle strikes are sometimes labeled as a “natural death” because they are not intentional acts of killing. However, such deaths are still avoidable, the by product of current human infrastructure. Is this death any less tragic because the killed animal was not owned by a particular human being? Are the benefits of a fox living within the urban environment so unknown that its death is not a mournful event, but just a daily, unremarkable occurrence? With these concerns in mind, I created Death by Natural Causes. The piece critically speaks to the rigid parameters to which humans force urban animals to comply
After this work, I began collecting roadkill on a regular basis. Friends and colleagues started to send me messages when they saw something salvageable on the side of the road. This became my primary source for material and a regular part of my creative practice. Each object is made from an animal with history, family, and purpose. From now on, I only use an animal's body if it is intended to do them service. Animal skin innately receives an empathetic response from humans and by evoking emotion with material objects made from skins, art can raise awareness regarding the loss of other-than-human lives.
In the summer of 2018, I attended the Illinois Taxidermy Convention in order to learn how to better tan mammal hides. At the annual event there were demonstrations, hands-on workshops, lectures, a trade show, and a competition. I submitted “Death by Natural Causes” and a small life mount of a baby raccoon. The competition mostly consisted of deer heads, so my “fox box” stood out. Three judges rule on a set of rigid guidelines and criteria in order to determine awards. I entered my rogue piece into the “original art” category, which seemed to be a catch all for any work that didn't fit into a traditional category. After the rubrics were filled out and distributed, I was approached by one of the judges who was curious about my unusual entry. As I explained to him that I was an artist concerned for urban wildlife, he was quite engaged and said he had never seen anything like it. After our conversation he consulted with the other judges and changed my rubric score, leading to my being awarded second place. This interaction had the exact effect I was hoping for; my work was able to create an opening for the viewer to hear my message.
The viewers in this setting were mostly hunters and trappers who sold their work commercially. At the trade show I was astonished to learn that there were catalogues of foam body replicas, in a variety of poses, for every mammal and bird you could imagine. At the museum, I was taught to make my own body forms and was immediately dismissive of these “sculpture by number” approaches to taxidermy. One could purchase a head facing left, right, up, down, mouth open or closed--the variety was exhaustive. I began to see why some people view taxidermy as a skill or trade, rather than as an art form. In reality, there are several types of taxidermy and I was able to recognize that I was not practicing in the traditional field.
After the discovery of ready made forms, I felt compelled to make a sculpture in response. I constructed a two foot tall abstract form, somewhat resembling a figure. If others in the field were going to buy and assemble all of their parts, I was going to make something totally outside of the realm of realism. I used 52 of the quail skins I had kept from the Raptor center and stitched each one onto the handmade form, with the feathers flowing in a natural direction.
I later entered the piece “Displaced Nature” into the original art category of the National Taxidermy Association competition. This time, the judges were not as receptive; my three page rubric was left blank and the comments simply stated “I don't know what I’m looking at, it’s confusing.” I was disheartened by the lack of appreciation for an original handmade form and confused by the first place awards for replicated foam with a skin glued on. This venue is clearly not as receptive to artistic interpretations of the practice. Not only was my sculpture out of place, so was I. 99% of the members, judges and volunteers were men. It is difficult to ignore the gendered culture that is prevalent in the field.
In 2019 I attended a convention titled “Oddities and Curiosities Expo.” It claimed to feature wet specimens, taxidermy, animal bones, antiques, weird jewelry, unusual art, and all around bizarre items. The venue was enormous, with over 400 exhibitors. The sheer quantity of items for sale in this expo was astounding, especially given that each item also included a dead animal or insect in some fashion. The place represented death, and I felt remorse for even attending. This type of kitch was not something I wanted to associate myself with. The items here were created for their ability to shock and sell, and were therefore, in my assessment, exploiting the animal used to create it. This distinction between whether the animal was being used to raise awareness for their wellbeing or exploited for profit, became important for me.
In Pittsburg, Richard Pell operates a place unlike any other, The Center for PostNatural History (CPNH). The CPNH is
dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature, and biotechnology. The mission is to acquire, interpret, and provide access to a collection of living, preserved, and documented organisms of postnatural origin. The exhibits study the origins, habitats, and evolution of organisms that have been intentionally and heritably altered by humans as well as record of the influence of human culture on evolution. (Pell)
Upon entering, one encounters the Center’s now infamous goat mount, located prominently in the lobby. The “Biosteel” goat, given the nickname Freckles, had been genetically modified to produce a protein from Golden Orb Weaver Spider silk in their milk. This means that the gene codes for a protein in the spider’s silk was transferred through laboratory techniques into the goats’ genome.
This is an example of a “transgenic” organism.”(Pell) This place is truly one of a kind, situated in between a natural history museum or nature center and an art exhibit. Freckles the goat, along with other examples I learned about at the Center (such as the RED Canary and Roundup Ready Corn), changed my creative vocabulary, providing me with a transgenic umbrella under which my work belongs.
Another atypical museum, “The Museum of Jurassic Technology” in Los Angeles, CA, is an unusual collection of exhibits and cultural curiosities. (Blitz 2015) Founder and museum director David Wilson seeks to reacquaint patrons with their innate sense of wonder, not least of all by making them question which of its exhibits is, in fact, real. (Weschler & Wilson 1996) The museum employs typical museum display forms that can encourage either belief or disbelief in viewers. My interest was piqued by dioramas of miniature mobile homes and sculptures so small that a magnifying glass was necessary to see them. Dr Wilson also used taxidermy in many of the exhibits which fueled the child-like curiosity in me, and the sense of wonder I hoped to evoke with my own artwork.
After visiting the Center for PostNatural History and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, I created my own cabinet of curiosities titled “K.Netti’s Wunderkammer.”
This piece was installed on a 12’x10’ wall in one point perspective, giving the viewer a look into my archive. The architecture was modeled from a print titled "Musei Wormiani Historia", the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities. (Cataloging a Cabinet of Curiosities, 2016). The lines were cut vinyl, the shelf supports using a wood grain texture and the checkered floor a faux marble. All of these materials alluded to realism, yet there was no physically tangible object in the installation. Historical museums of wonder are a cross between a personal collection and a public museum, often composed of unusual specimens and artifacts. The displays are often packed with objects on shelves, in cabinets and drawers, and sometimes categorized. This layout reminds me of a specialty retail shop. I titled my piece “K.Netti’s Wunderkammer,” implying that the work was housed in a collection. The items were being sold in a variety of sizes to appeal to shoppers. Each object was an image of a material study I created within the theme of natural vs. artificial. The objects were photographed one by one and in the proper angle to account for shadows and depth. The photos were then printed in color, cut out and adhered to the wall. The false perspective of the scene alluded to ideas of human exploitation, rather than the sophisticated archive that traditional curio cabinets suggest.
My research led me to a symposium dedicated to human and non-human animal studies in 2019. This is a relatively new academic field and I was impressed with the specificity of subjects being explored by scholars. I was most struck by a lecture from Chris Green, the Executive Director of Harvard Law School's Animal Law & Policy Program. He discussed the legal measures being taken to pass animal rights initiatives and the extreme resistance from certain groups, mostly organizations that would loose profits if forced to treat the animals in a humane manner, organizations such as farm factories and fur mills. I realised that in order to make any measurable, positive impact on the well being of non-human animals, the priorities must be implemented from the top, at the level of government policy, not simply at a level of individual concern.
During this seminar, I also noticed many participants had animals themselves, mostly dogs. I began to examine the ways in which domestic dogs are treated differently than wildlife. Most of these differences stem from ordinances that regard pets as sentient and worthy of loving care. I myself have two house cats and acknowledge the complexity here.
Dogs are groomed, fed, exercised, loved and enjoyed as members of the family they belong to. There are street signs and notices in parks for people to pick up after their dogs, and in some cases, “poop bags” are even supplied. Most cities and towns have specialized dog parks. The municipality has measures in place to make it easy and convenient to care for your dog within the community. I began to ask, why there aren’t similar measures in place to protect all animals, including urban wildlife, that live right next to us and our pets? Often the mere presence of these species-- squirrels, opossums and geese is considered a nuisance. Geese, for example, are notoriously viewed as pests due to their droppings, yet the species contributes to our ecosystem in ways that are vital and often unrecognized. They spread seeds and provide valuable fertilizer to grasses. There is a resillanice in this so-called “invasive species,” despite human efforts to eradicate and control the population, they continue to thrive. A family of geese with small yellow puffs can stop traffic on a 6 way intersection during rush hour. I see them as brave and adaptive.
The apartment complex where I live is one example of the disregard for natural habitats. On a simple walk around the block, you will see many dog walkers and signs reminding owners to pick up their dogs’ waste. Next to the sign, is an orange cone placed on top of a bird’s nest, whose eggs were tossed aside to prevent them from hatching. This type of hierarchy in how we care for species has always confused me. In thinking about Chris Green’s presentation on animal rights initiatives, I decided to construct a sign reminding residents to pick up after wildlife, even supplying the bags. My sign is modeled on a typical “pick up after your pet” notice, yet I replaced the standard image of a dog with an image of a goose. I wanted the sign to question ownership, priorities, and municipal directives.
I installed the goose sign at my apartment complex, next to a man made pond and a bicycle rack. Its color, height, and general presence blends in with the non-smoking and handicapped parking notices already on site. I have not yet seen anyone stop and ponder the meaning, but I did see a dog pee on it while the owner stood by and checked his phone. This anecdote reveals, in a small way, how our traditions and policies reflect our priorities, making space for the lives of some animals that we deem companions, while excluding others as pests.