Inanimus, Monsters & Chimeras of the Present

I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.

I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.

Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.

This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”

What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.

Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).

Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.

His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.

Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.

A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.

An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.

A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).

As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.

Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.

On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.

Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.

Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo
Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017]
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Teresa Margolles: Translating The Horror

Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.

Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.

Photo credit: Scott Dalton.

Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?

Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.

Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.

But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.

It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.

This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.

En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.

Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.

Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.

Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.

Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.

Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.

Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.

Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered  women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.

Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).

37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.

¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.

It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.

For this post I am indebted to Bethany Tabor, who at Death & The Maiden Conference presented her brilliant paper Performative Remains: The Forensic Art of Teresa Margolles, focusing on the Deleuzian implications of Margolle’s works.
A couple of available essays on Margolles are
What Else Could We Talk About? and Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death.

Il giocattolo del Gigante

Una famiglia di giganti stava attraversando le Alpi: scavalcando le montagne, falcata dopo falcata, verso chissà quale destinazione. Il figlio dei giganti, un bambino alto circa 100 metri, piangeva a dirotto, e i suoi singhiozzi riecheggiavano per le valli. Era disperato perché aveva perso il suo coniglietto di peluche; ma purtroppo non c’era tempo per tornare indietro a cercarlo. Mamma gigantessa lo prese in braccio per consolarlo, e la marcia continuò.

Questo è quanto potremmo immaginare imbattendoci nella strana fotografia satellitare qui sotto. Cosa ci fa un enorme coniglio rosa a 1600 metri di altitudine sulle montagne piemontesi?

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Posto sul Colletto Fava vicino al Bar La Baita, proprio sopra al paesino di Artesina in provincia di Cuneo, il coniglio è lungo 50 metri, ricoperto di lana, imbottito con mille metri cubi di paglia, ed ha richiesto cinque anni di lavoro a maglia. È stato creato nel 2005 dal collettivo viennese Gelitin, composto da quattro artisti dalle idee bizzarre e spesso geniali.

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Ma non lasciatevi ingannare: se l’idea di un coniglio rosa gigante vi sembra fin troppo kawaii, l’installazione ha in realtà un effetto davvero perturbante. Le dimensioni innaturali del peluche contrastano con il paesaggio, il colore rosa shocking lo stacca dal resto del panorama: l’idea di posizionarlo lontano dalle gallerie d’arte o dai centri urbani, elemento artificiale “abbandonato” in un contesto naturale, contribuisce alla sensazione di disagio. La posa del peluche, inoltre, dà l’inquietante impressione di qualcosa di morto e in effetti le interiora del coniglio (cuore, fegato, budella, tutte di lana) fuoriescono dal suo fianco.

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E non è tutto. Il coniglio resterà esposto agli elementi fino al 2025. Questo significa che i visitatori potranno, nel tempo, assistere a una vera e propria dissoluzione dell’opera d’arte; già adesso, a distanza di quasi dieci anni dall’inizio del progetto, la decomposizione del coniglio è in fase avanzata. Se fino a qualche tempo fa si poteva ancora arrampicarsi sul corpo dell’animaletto, e sdraiarsi sul suo petto a prendere il sole, oggi l’installazione comincia a mostrare il suo lato più crudele e beffardo. Le intemperie hanno squarciato in più punti la superficie del pupazzo, esponendo la paglia sottostante e donando al povero coniglio l’aspetto di una vera e propria carcassa.

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Il collettivo artistico austriaco, ben conscio dell’effetto destabilizzante che nel tempo avrebbe assunto l’opera, ha usato queste splendide righe per descrivere il proprio lavoro:

Le cose che si possono trovare vagando nel paesaggio: cose familiari, e completamente sconosciute, come un fiore che non si è mai visto prima oppure, come Colombo scoprì, un continente inesplicabile; e poi, dietro una collina, come lavorato a maglia da nonne giganti, giace questo vasto coniglio, per farti sentire piccolo come una margherita.
La creatura, rosa come carta igienica, è sdraiata sulla schiena: una montagna-coniglio come Gulliver a Lilliput.
Che felicità scalarlo lungo le orecchie, quasi cadendo nella sua bocca cavernosa, fino alla cima della pancia, e guardare verso il rosa panorama lanoso del corpo del coniglio, un paese caduto dal cielo; orecchie e arti che si dipanano verso l’orizzonte; dal suo fianco veder fluire il cuore, il fegato e gli intestini.
Felicemente innamorato scendi dal cadavere putrescente, verso la ferita, ora piccolo come una larva, sopra i reni e le budella di lana.
Felice te ne vai come la larva che acquista le sue ali da una carcassa innocente sul bordo della strada.
Tale è la felicità che diede forma a questo coniglio.
Io amo il coniglio e il coniglio mi ama.

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Fra dieci anni, quando l’opera si potrà dire definitivamente conclusa, del coniglio gigante non rimarrà più traccia. Sarà stato “digerito” e assorbito dalla natura, come accade a tutto e a tutti.

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Ecco il sito del collettivo Gelitin.

Kristian Burford

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Entrate in una galleria d’arte, e in una stanza vedete uno spazio delimitato da lunghe tende multicolori che evidentemente nascondono qualcosa. Per guardarvi dentro, però, siete costretti ad avvicinare gli occhi a uno degli strappi nella stoffa: appena riuscite a vedere all’interno, ecco che vi appare un ambiente domestico, e di colpo vi sentite come se steste spiando da un buco nella serratura. Sentite un piccolo brivido quando capite che la “stanza” non è vuota: c’è una figura umana, un giovane uomo, allungato sul letto. Sembra sprofondato in una drammatica incoscienza, ma mentre lo osservate vi rendete conto di altri piccoli dettagli: c’è il monitor di un computer acceso vicino a lui, mentre una telecamera è montata su un treppiede e puntata sul letto. Ecco che di colpo la scena assume una luce diversa, mentre affiora una possibile narrazione: l’uomo ha forse appena fatto del sesso virtuale? L’abbandono in cui lo vediamo è quello che segue l’orgasmo? Stiamo ancora guardando attraverso le tende, ipnotizzati dalla scena, da quella scultura iperrealistica di un corpo stremato e dalla storia che crediamo di indovinare, e allo stesso tempo siamo imbarazzati per la nostra morbosa curiosità.

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L’artista losangelino Kristian Burford senza dubbio ama mettere il suo pubblico a disagio. Le sue perturbanti installazioni ci pongono nella scomoda situazione di dover fare i conti con le nostre pulsioni più nascoste, con il lato oscuro del desiderio e con i nostri istinti voyeuristici.

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Spesso, nei suoi diorami ricchissimi di dettagli, l’artista decide di limitare la libertà dello spettatore, obbligandolo a dei punti di vista predeterminati: si può osservare questi set soltanto da particolari angolazioni, tramite feritoie o spiragli, proprio come dei “guardoni”. Una sua opera, ad esempio, mostra uno scorcio di stanza d’albergo, con una figura nuda sullo sfondo che, di spalle, sta facendo qualcosa che non si riesce a distinguere chiaramente.

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Ma non è soltanto questo aspetto a rendere destabilizzanti le sue opere tridimensionali. Le sculture in cera mostrano un’intimità (dall’esplicita connotazione sessuale) che non è mai solare, ma al contrario spesso travagliata. I volti dei protagonisti mostrano una sottile tragicità, come se fossero racchiusi in una sorta di melanconia, tutti protesi verso il loro interno dopo una probabile auto-soddisfazione erotica. Ed è il nostro stesso mondo interiore a venire messo in discussione, mentre lo stratagemma del voyeurismo ci convince di assistere ad un momento speciale, segreto, fissato nell’immobilità del soggetto.

 Art?

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Le ultime opere di Burford si distaccano dalle precedenti ma ne proseguono la riflessione sullo sguardo e sull’individuo. All’interno di grandi box di vetro, ecco un tavolo da ufficio, anonimo. In piedi, una figura femminile completamente nuda e senza capelli si riflette in un freddo gioco di specchi che la moltiplicano all’infinito. Sembra uno di quegli incubi in cui ci si presenta al lavoro, accorgendosi subito dopo di essere nudi.

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Eppure, mentre guardiamo dentro a questi box, ne restiamo esclusi. Da fuori, possiamo osservare con sguardo da entomologo la nudità senza protezioni della scultura, la vediamo immersa in centinaia di copie di se stessa. Tutte inermi, confinate in spazi lavorativi angusti, vittime di un crudele gioco che le priva di qualsiasi identità o privacy.

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Che siano confuse stanze di passioni tormentate, o algide scatole che rinchiudono l’individuo in un contesto disumanizzante, le installazioni di Burford – in maniera obliqua, scomoda e incisiva – sembrano parlare sempre e comunque delle nostre terribili, immense solitudini.

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Le ali della musica

In questa installazione dell’artista Céleste Boursier-Mougenot esposta a Londra, ad acuni piccoli uccelli viene offerta la possibilità di creare una composizione musicale.

Chi l’avrebbe mai detto che i passeri amano le sonorità post-rock?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZQ4VmicDeM]