by Zoe Wentzel
One may find it difficult to comprehend how the creative world of art can be blended with the factual world of science. How can the subjective be blended with the objective without doing a disservice to either end of the spectrum? This exact question is what the Nevada Museum of Art’s Art + Environment conference is aiming to answer and reflect upon.
The highlight exhibit to the conference is Late Harvest, a collection full of taxidermy, traditional wildlife paintings, and every animal in between. As someone with a lot of respect for art, I walked through admiring the pieces individually, which on their own, are all great pieces of art. Walking out, I had a basic understanding of Late Harvest and its prominent and strange use of taxidermy animals. But I still wondered, why?
Through the speakers on Friday of the A+E conference, the answer to that question surfaced. One of the first to speak was JoAnne Northrup who is the director of contemporary art initiatives at the NMA, as well as the primary curator for the Late Harvest exhibit. In her presentation, she offered an explanation of sorts of what was behind the ideas in the exhibit and placed background on the pieces that may not have been picked up by simply browsing the gallery.
What I found incredibly interesting about what she spoke about was the idea of juxtaposition; by having traditional artworks next to contemporary, by placing human items and characteristics with animals, and by aligning science with art. Perhaps the most illustrative pieces of these juxtaposed concepts are Yinka Shonibare’s Revolution Kid (Fox) and Carl Rungius’ Red Fox. Both feature foxes, yet both are so very different.
Revolution Kid (Fox) acts as a political commentary complete with a taxidermy fox head. Foxes are pests in the eyes of modern Londoners (where Shonibare lives) and this piece serves to illustrate the way in which minorities are perceived in the United Kingdom. With a gold gun in one hand and a blackberry in the other, this fox represents the artist’s ideas around the “Blackberry Riots” in 2011. In comparison, Red Fox, which was commissioned by the Bronx Zoo in 1933, has much less political implication. Rather Rungius’ goal was to demonstrate the beauty of the animal and understanding of its habitat.
You see these pieces together, but it is not immediately apparent why they belong together. The obvious tie is the fox, but it also provides a conflicting view of how we perceive this animal. In one, the fox is human-like and animated, in the other it’s in a natural setting and plays solely the role of the animal.
When you see an animal portrayed as a human, do you still see it as an animal? How can a fox be used as both a creative political outlet and a scientific representation of habitat and species? How has the old given birth to the new? These are the types of questions that Friday’s A+E conference presenters raised to their audience, extending these ideas beyond just that of Late Harvest.