“THE OTHER WHO PRECEDES AND POSSESSES ME”: CONFRONTING THE MATERNAL/ANIMAL DIVIDE THROUGH THE ART OF BOTCHED TAXIDERMY
ABSTRACT: The abject body is a feral, wild body, disrupting and transgressing social proprieties and becoming wilfully monstrous. In this paper, I examine works of “botched taxidermy” by artist Angela Singer that summon an abject response in both viewer and artist. I critically examine the place that botched taxidermied animals occupy within discourse surrounding ferality, colonization, and feminist constructions of maternity. How can the notion of abjection be used to examine the relationship between maternity and animality? Botched taxidermy engages with a re-feralization of the animal/mother, but is not without its own set of problematics, particularly those of misplaced animal advocacy and entrenched violence towards marginalized bodies.
Abjection, Maternity, Animality
The abject body is a feral, wild body, disrupting and transgressing social proprieties, becoming wilfully monstrous. Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection describes the shudder of disgust one experiences, particularly when confronted with bodily fluids or other corporeal waste, as they threaten the distinction between the self and the other (Kristeva 1982, 69-70). This notion has been used to great effect in contemporary art, particularly by feminist artists working within performance and body art disciplines. Abjection fundamentally challenges borders, whether individual or social, and the abject body repeatedly violates its own borders, disrupting propriety on a personal and social level (Oliver 2009, 281). In Powers of Horror, Kristeva challenges psychoanalytic theories of development that cast the desire to murder one’s father as the inspiration for the rule of law and development of social taboos. Instead, she interprets these taboos as inextricably tied to the infant’s pre-verbal, “semiotic” connection to the maternal body. This connection is described by Kristeva as a direct “confrontation with the feminine” (1982, 4) which disappears through the child’s entrance into the symbolic world. The symbolic world is characterized by the acquisition of language and the subsequent establishment of boundaries between the self and other, or inside and outside (Kristeva 1982, 61).
Abject art, which peaked in popularity in the 1990s, engaged with social taboos, particularly bodily ones such as urine, feces, vomit, and blood, provoking disgust and reclaiming the abject female body as a subversive trope of liberation. Recent scholarship (Oliver 2009; Lipschitz 2012) interrogates this intrinsic connection between the abject and the feminine within the emerging field of animal studies, leading to a reconsideration of the role of abjection in the production of subjectivity, the feminine, and the construction of Otherness (Oliver 2009, 15). In this literature, abjection is examined as a method through which the border between human and animal is both reinforced and challenged, furthering the trope of abjection beyond a simple transgression of bodily taboos, and instead, questioning what it means to be a human against what it means to be an animal.
In this paper I consider the role of abjection in contemporary art that uses animals as subject, object, and material, critically examining the place that botched taxidermied animals occupy within discourse surrounding ferality, colonization, and feminist constructions of maternity and motherhood. In particular, I will examine the works of Angela Singer, who uses the taxidermied bodies of wild animals as a technique to provoke feelings of abjection in a fundamentally ambiguous way. I argue that Singer’s works are a manifestation of what Steve Baker terms “botched taxidermy” (2000, 55), a technique that questions the relationship between human and animal—and the role of animals in the creation of social taboos, territorial boundaries, and the production of maternal subjectivity.
Botched taxidermy is a process by which mixed media and the deliberate use of “wrong” materials distort and subvert the original aim of taxidermy: to preserve a realistic animal form. Botched taxidermy relies on the abject through an unexpected wrongness, which upsets notions of order and classification and refuses to comply with familiar expectations (Aloi 2012, 42). I will work to interrogate the pervasive connection between the animal and maternal, mentioned in Kristeva’s writing but given further weight by theorists such as Kelly Oliver, in order to examine Singer’s attempts to bring to light the suffering experienced by her taxidermied animals. Worth mentioning here is that this maternal-animal connection also has the potential to reaffirm damaging constructions of both the maternal and the animal, through the manifestation of abjection, which fundamentally produces negative affect, particularly disgust and horror. This interplay between identification and revulsion inspired by Singer’s practice is where the effectiveness of her work ultimately lies. Taxidermy in fact relies on abjection to provoke a response that exists somewhere between subversion and exploitation, exposing these boundaries to provide the viewer with an uneasy sense of their own relationship to animals, whether feral, domesticated, or mounted on a wall.
Singer uses botched taxidermy in her work as a form of advocacy and protest, a way to express ambiguity towards the role of animals in society and the environment. Her work emerges from a convergence of viewpoints in which animal advocacy, the remains of the colonialist project, and the problematic question of how one can represent animals ethically in visual culture are at the forefront. In this vein, I will analyze her works Sore, (2003), Catch Caught, (2007), and 1080 (2006-7) to ask how botched taxidermy productively questions and challenges notions of abjection, maternity, and sexual difference. Further, I will ask how these questions manifest when considering the unstable figure of the animal in cultural constructions of ferality, nature, and territorial borders? Whether botched, lifeless, feral, or domesticated, the animal cannot occupy a singular subject position. Through abjection, which fundamentally produces ambiguity, the figure of the taxidermied animal body produces and maintains the often problematic and porous divide between the animal and maternal, domesticated and feral.
Abjecting the Animal
In recent years, contemporary art has displayed an emerging interest in animals—an “animal turn,” with more and more works being produced that centre on the appearance of animals in contemporary culture (Hansen 2010, 11). But this “turn” is also fraught with questions concerning the ethics of representing animals, which in turn signifies larger philosophical challenges related to questions of language, political representation, and animal advocacy (Gruen et al 2012, 514). Whilst animals have always been present in the arts (as well as most other areas of human life), their representation is often characterized as a “metaphorical silencing” (Aloi 2010, 61). This silencing occurs when the animal is present contextually only as a symbol, representing an aspect of human experience or emotion, rather than as a representation of animality itself. This criticism bears weight regarding Kristeva’s treatment of animals in her writing, in which they are symbolically present, but literally erased, existing only as substitutes for the maternal body (Oliver 2009, 301.) The animal in both art and psychoanalytic theory, then, exists most often as a metaphor for the human condition, considered only as object, never subject.
However, Baker argues that contemporary artists’ representations of animals have developed from using animals as only symbols or objects, instead using animals as subject, object, and medium in order to engage with their often ambivalent and complex place in the world (Baker 2013, p. 19). In this way, contemporary animal art is now a field in which it is somewhat unclear how this field can usefully contribute to questions of human/animal relations or knowledge of the non-human world (Baker 2006, 70). Therefore, whilst animal representation in art (or as art, in many cases) is not a new phenomenon, the artists’ own attitude towards the animal world is a major feature in their work. Baker’s characterization of most contemporary animal art is that it does not raise a simple question of what the presence of animals in art can do or say about the work. Rather, it blends both aesthetic and ethical strands of criticism, making it genuinely difficult to coherently address the multiplicity of arguments, questions, and problems that arise through a consideration of the work (Baker 2006, 70). This characterization resonates within Singer’s practice, which engages with the problematic of animal representation in contemporary art. Much of her taxidermied works present an ambiguous and disconcertingly violent response to the question of whether animal representation and the “use” of animals as artistic material can productively address the animal-human relationship, without reaffirming humanist notions of superiority and power over animals and the environment.
As Kristeva reminds us, abjection is “above all, ambiguity” (1982, 9), but is foremost associated with that which calls into question boundaries (Oliver 2009, 94). Primarily, the abject demarcates the boundaries between the child and the mother’s body, and thus between subject and object. More specifically, it reminds the subject of the pre-objectal relationship—the violent splitting of self that occurs when the child is born of the mother’s body (Kristeva 1982, 10). The mother’s body is inextricably connected to the abject, as it is her body that constitutes the child’s first notion of identity as well as the child’s subsequent realization that the two are, in fact, separate. Both biologically and psychologically, the abject maintains the border between life and death, expelling what threatens life (Kristeva 1982, 95). Hence, it is most often things that are produced by or taken in by the body, such as food, as well as bodily fluids and secretions, which are associated with the abject. These fluids and waste products are perceived to be repulsive because they test the notion of the split between self and other upon which subjectivity depends (Covino 2004, 17).
This split between self and other is further codified in religious rites and rituals to separate the sacred and profane, or to define the individual’s place within the social and symbolic order (Barrett 2004, 95). These rituals determine the sacred function to separate the unclean from the clean, and are embedded in one of the primary taboos of culture: incest. Kristeva draws on Freud’s interpretation of the origins of taboos within societies to suggest that, contrary to Freud’s theory of the murder of the father by his conspiring sons, it is in fact the relationship between the mother and child, and the prevailing fear of the feminine, that founded the origins of the incest taboo. She points to a slippage within Freud’s writing that, whilst mentioning the incest taboo multiple times, does not actually interrogate its origins. Instead, Freud chooses to focus his analysis on the second taboo: the murder of the father (Kristeva 1982, 57). Ultimately, the incest taboo exists to ensure that the child abjects the mother’s body in order to separate itself from her body, to develop its own subjectivity, and maintain, or solidify, the borders between the mother’s body and its own.
Abjection is a particularly fascinating concept by which to interrogate radical theories of the Other, the feral and the wild, primarily that of the animal, which, for Kristeva, is “too different, too Other, too foreign” (Oliver 2009, 5). It is in fact through this discussion of animals that Kristeva’s writing becomes increasingly ambiguous, leading to the question: why is the animal body not abjected in a similar manner to that of the maternal body? (Oliver 2009, 293) Kristeva draws a line of commonality between the maternal body and the animal body, in which both are mysterious, wild and unknown Othered objects whose existence threatens the clean, pure, and unified body. However, the maternal body, precisely because of these feelings of abjection, remains off-limits as food because these taboos are transposed onto the animal body, which in turn becomes the focus for rituals of purification, food prohibitions, and other cultural and social rituals. Therefore, as Oliver argues, Kristeva’s analysis of purification rituals, incest taboos, and matriarchal power trades entirely on animal bodies in order to give the abject mother her power. The animal body is inextricably linked to the maternal body, but in Kristeva’s analysis, the animal body remains only as a symbol for the mother, and animal bodies themselves remain absent (Oliver 2009, 293).
This connection between maternal and animal body remains, despite the unmistakable asymmetry of power and representation. In the same way that the abject represents the limits of the individual in the social and symbolic order, the animal represents the limits of the moral community on a social level. As Oliver argues, “Animals occupy either pole of the limits of the moral community: they are absolutely innocent because they act on instinct and therefore do not control their behaviour and cannot be morally blameworthy; they are absolutely monstrous because they cannot control their violent instincts and are therefore beyond the pale of the moral community” (2009, 495). Our ambivalence towards animals is inextricably linked to our sense of a moral community and our conceptions of violence, good and evil, and innocence.
For Kristeva, the disavowal or turning away from the maternal body that begins the child’s entrance into the patriarchal world of language and laws can also be considered a disavowal of the animal body, one that erases our dependence on animals from our psyches. As humanity is dependent on both the female body and the animal body for the continuation of life, this dependence must be repressed through abjection in order for the subject to assert their independence and fortify the boundaries of its subjective identity (Oliver 2009, 290). In this way, it is not in fact paternal and Oedipal power behind Freudian animal phobias, but an embodied female animality and the generative power of the maternal (Lipschitz 2012, 553). By demonstrating a complex, unsignifiable space, the maternal body threatens the individual’s own subjectivity, causing abjection as a horrifying permeability between self and Other. Ultimately, the maternal body exists as a constant presence in the process of abjecting the animal body, powerfully exposing and questioning notions of female subjectivity, maternal authority, and the ruling power of patriarchal law in the community.
In Kristeva’s analysis, the animal body only exists as a metaphor for the maternal body, and consideration of animals themselves is absent. In Singer’s work, the animals’ body is rendered present in their abject suffering; however, as I argue, on the level of both individual and social identity formation, the animal and the maternal are inextricably linked. By using this existing maternal identification to promote feelings of abjection in the viewer, Singer’s work inextricably links abjection to the animal body, leading to a potential reconsidering of their presence in the world, in our moral community, and their objectification, domestication, and subordination.
In this section of my paper, I will explore Singer’s use of botched taxidermy as an artistic technique in order to interrogate not only how and why abjection is present in her work, but also its potential to lead to a reconsidering of animality and the maternal body. Sore (Figure 1) presents abjection in the form of a deer’s head, a common trophy in the world of traditional taxidermy, and the fundamental emblem of a wild animal that has been domesticated with horrific finality. However, in Singer’s version, the skin has been entirely removed from the head, stripping the flesh back to the wooden supports, and a new kind of skin has been created out of wax and iron oxide pigments, which has the effect of making the entire animal appear to be drenched in its own blood – skinned alive.
Singer refers to her work as “de-taxidermy…a stripping back layer by layer of the animal and the taxidermist’s work” (Aloi 2008, 13). In her view, by making the animal look bloody and disfigured, she undoes the aim of the original taxidermist’s work and exposes the shock of the animal’s violent death: presenting a corpse, not an object. In this way, the work is truly abject—to quote Singer: “I don’t see an animal separate from myself; there is permeability to the boundaries separating other species from us. The body intensifies my emotional engagement with the work. Far from repulsing me, it draws me closer because it’s not beautiful” (Aloi 2008, 13). In this way, the deer’s bloody coating reinforces the newly porous surface—instead of the comforting and protective fur boundary, the liquidity of the blood suggests the possibility of infection, absorption, and the loss of self into the abyss of the Other. The permeability of the boundaries between human and animal are thus questioned in the abject bloodiness of the deer’s presence, and the animal is rendered literally present in its frozen suffering.
Figure 1: Angela Singer, Sore (2003) (Accessed from http://www.angelasinger.com/tear.html)
Singer’s work uses animal bodies as a way to consider not only death and suffering, but also the subjectivity of the animal, and to reconsider the relationship between human and animal – how to “come face to face with an unnameable otherness” (Kristeva 1982, 59) and stabilize one’s own identity in relation to the Other. Whilst traditional taxidermy makes an individual animal an anonymous specimen of its species, botched taxidermy reveals “an identity, and is acknowledged as something not fixed but in flux”: “Alive” yet dead, bloody yet bloodless, Other yet somehow familiar (Aloi 2012, 36).
For both Freud and Kristeva, the fear of blood–a strong symbol of abjection–is particularly linked to menstrual blood (Oliver 2009, 289). Kristeva maintains that menstrual blood represents danger from within social groups, particularly those defined by sexual difference. Therefore, menstrual blood represents an internalized fear of undefined borders between the sexes, or the crumbling of sexually defined social order. Menstrual blood and the abjection of the maternal body, then, stand for an internal destabilization of individual subjectivity (Kristeva 1982, 71). This reading resonates in a number of ways when viewing Sore. Firstly, the title becomes explicitly gendered: a “sore” was a Victorian name for a fallow (not pregnant) deer (Baker 2008, 9). When this is considered in connection with the blood, the animal’s death becomes more shocking on the level of sexual possibility, fertility, youth, and unrestrained female sexuality.
However, the reminder of the deer’s bloody death at the hands of a trophy hunter quickly forecloses this line of thought. The family who donated the deer’s head to Singer also told her of the animal’s death: the hunter who shot and killed the deer attempted to saw the antlers off, but became completely drenched in blood, as the antlers act as a blood reservoir (Baker 2008, 9). This is a particularly interesting point, because the presence of antlers means the animal was in fact a stag–a male deer. Singer’s work thus transforms in its complexity: the living, male deer, castrated in death, becomes the site of a struggle between human and animal that results in the blood—inextricably linked to the feminine—covering both hunter and stag in its contaminating, feminizing power. In death, the stag is stuffed and mounted, transforming into a symbol of masculine strength, individual prowess and the patriarchal world of law and power–doubly reinforcing the hunter’s own masculinity against the animal’s Otherness. However, Singer’s “de-taxidermy” flays the layers of skin from bone, to reveal its bloody innards, which recasts the stag as a fallow, female body. As Oliver maintains, “lurking behind the relation between father and the animal is the maternal body and all the sensations associated with becoming a subject over and against the world and other as objects” (2009, 287). By revealing its insides, the totemic animal, reduced to the status of object against man’s subjectivity, breaks down the defining limits of sexual difference and remains, as ever, maternal.
Abject Taxidermy: Botching the Body
The animal skin in particular is a ubiquitous product in multiple aspects of everyday human life, fashioned into shoes, clothes, and as artistic material, “through genetic or superficial manipulation of the living animal’s skin, or through the use of the skin of dead animals” (Hansen 2010, 11). Thus, Singer’s flaying of the deer’s head in Sore is particularly shocking, as the animal skin acts as a symbolically protective layer that maintains the borders between human and not-human. In the separation of the skin from the body, the flesh of the animal becomes the meat, a product for humans to consume, leaving the skin of the animal to bear the animal’s “animalness,” inextricably tied to the image of the animal’s body (Hansen 2010, 14).
The deer’s head, stripped of its protective border, is both feminized and masculinized, animal and not-animal, part of our culture yet fundamentally foreign.
Traditional taxidermy is embedded in the belief that animals are their skin, with the original goal being that of creating and presenting either a trophy or a specimen. A taxidermy trophy is a status symbol, displaying the strength, skill, and bravery of the hunter who slaughtered the animal Other. An animal specimen is an anonymous representative of its entire species, preserved for the sake of science and research–a pedagogical tool. In both scenarios, the animal is preserved in such a way as to make it appear alive: realistic, intact, and beautiful. In these instances, the taxidermied animal displayed to audiences the beauty and majesty of nature, whilst also proving that man alone was capable of the subjugation of nature (Hansen 2010, 14). The preservation of the animal’s beauty, strength, and majesty served to erase all signs of the violent death the animal experienced, and above all, sought to impress vitality. The taxidermied animal—simultaneously “alive” yet dead—presents the surface of the real animal in a culturally constructed “natural” tableau, whilst simultaneously removing any real encounter between human and animal.
Although traditional Victorian taxidermy is now most commonly viewed as eccentric and unusual, if a little odd, in recent years contemporary art (and popular culture) has demonstrated a renewed interest in the subject (Aloi 2012, 26).1 However, the approach to representing the animal’s life–its embodied presence–is now somewhat removed from the original aims of the tradition, in which the idea of skinning, stuffing, and mounting an animal was not uncommon, unusual, or particularly taboo. Because it was sealed, stitched, and stuffed, any sign of bloody injury or suffering was concealed and it looked thoroughly alive; the traditional taxidermied animal was not abject. Instead, it was a cultural and pedagogical artefact—an object that did not threaten humanity’s fear of death and the unclean. It did not threaten one’s subjectivity because it did not remind humans of themselves.
Baker compares the abject in botched taxidermy to “abject art” of the 1990s, which largely focused on meat, baseness, flesh, and transgression. However, as he points out, “an awful lot depends on the effectiveness with which those meanings can be turned” (2008, 4). Singer’s work uses abjection to portray a message of animal advocacy; to elicit sympathy for the suffering of the animal, and she feels that by providing a new visual language in the form of botched taxidermy, people can “see animals in a new way” (Baker 2013, 165). In this way, the interplay of Singer’s words and work becomes a tool through which to understand her practice–as a combination of concerns both aesthetic and political (Baker 2013, 19).
However, her “visual language” also signals a larger problem related to her stance on animal advocacy—that of speaking “for” the animal, or removing the animal’s agency. Although animals of course possess their own forms of communication, their representative voice is largely absent in discourses concerning animals and animality, and Singer’s process of creating a visual language in order to reveal concerns regarding animal suffering comes, at times, perilously close to speaking “for” the animal, removing their agency and reasserting humanist sovereignty over animals. Ultimately, questions of language, the politics of representation and advocacy concerns require philosophical caution, with Singer’s work straddling a border between humanist dominion over animals and a more considered notion of caution and mutual respect (Gruen et al 2012, 514).
Despite these problems, this struggle between artists’ words and work, and the problematic inherent in the notion of speaking “for” the animal is precisely where the effectiveness of botched taxidermy lies. Baker contends that artists working in this field are well positioned to devise forms of responsible practice: “Critical and improvisatory and material forms that sidestep a rule-bound or unduly judgmental notion of ethics” (2013, 18). Following this assertion, it is through a botched and deliberately problematic approach to animal ethics, subjectivity, and advocacy that contemporary artists such as Singer can productively explore animal subjectivity: the risk and precariousness of a work that remains both unsettled and unsettling is integral to its affect, and—as I argue—is where abjection also lies.
Catch Caught (Figure 2) presents a taxidermied rabbit, mounted on a wall, stomach ripped open and presented in a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion. Bursting out of the rabbit’s stomach are a collection of red jewels, once again reminding the viewer of the animal’s painful death, while rendering the scene strangely decorative in the material’s mesmerizing, glistening attraction. In addition to the bloodlike jewels emblazoned on the rabbit’s stomach, several red buttons connected to string emerge from the “wounds,” which dangle precariously below the rabbit’s feet, suggesting disembowelment or possibly aborted pregnancy. The stereotypically feminine accoutrements of buttons, which ordinarily function to keep things contained but here are dangling uselessly, and the blood-like jewels exploding from the rabbit’s abdomen, once again evoke the particular abjection of the maternal body, and the threat of permeable borders between the mother’s body and the outside world.
Figure 2: Angela Singer, Catch Caught (Accessed from http://www.angelasinger.com/fastened.html)
In a similar vein to that of Sore, the animal’s deliberately botched body makes an explicit reference to the animal’s violent death at the hands of humans; however, the choice of animal is quite different: rather than the traditional “trophy” animal such as the stag, the rabbit is distinct in its mundaneness. Small, non-threatening and common, the rabbit does not commonly signal the grandeur of nature or of man’s dominion over the animal kingdom. Yet this is particularly dependent on the context upon which the work is displayed and viewed. Rabbits are present in various aspects of human-animal relationships: as pets, as food, and as prey for recreational hunting, but in Singer’s native locale of New Zealand they are bitterly maligned as pests and destroyers of native species and land (Potts et al 2013, 184). Thus, the maternal rabbit body displays a more complex threat: that of uncontrolled reproduction, destruction, and the overwhelming fear of violated borders—both individual and social. As I will explore in the next section of this article, abjection is thus developed in Singer’s work, past a simple threatening of boundaries and borders. Instead, it becomes a more complex reaction that threatens one’s identification with, not just the mother, but also one’s national and social identity, and the patriarchal law of the nation-state: a threat that is inextricably tied to the paralyzing fear of the uncontrolled, feral animal.
Feral Maternity Within the Nation-state
I will now argue that abjection is also present in Kristeva’s discussions of the foreigner and national identity, through the threatening of borders and the need to reaffirm one’s social, political, and territorial identity. In Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva links the idea of the foreigner as stranger to the stranger within oneself (1991, 172). As in the primary abjection, when the child abjects the mothers’ body to affirm its subjective identity and personal boundaries, the foreigner must be abjected from the nation in order to reaffirm a national identity. Although Kristeva never explicitly connects the abject with the foreigner, she provides many commonalities between the two subjects, and her language evokes a connection: “Confronting the foreigner whom I reject and with whom at the same time I identify…I lose my boundaries, I no longer have a container, the memory of experiences when I had been abandoned overwhelms me, I lose my composure” (1991, 187). A nation state thus defines its own boundaries by the foreigner whom it abjects, excluding the threatening Other in its own quest for a cohesive national identity (McAfee 2003, 124).
The maternal body figures as a collective site of abjection and fear of foreignness, through the fear of uncontrolled reproduction. As Freud maintains, contagion spreads through temptation and imitation, and the female body and signs of its fertility are temptations that must be controlled. This argument is reinforced by Kristeva’s assertion that prohibitions against contact with maternal bodies are more prevalent in areas where overpopulation is common (Oliver 2009, 290).
As individual identity is constructed against the exclusion of the abject maternal body, cultural or national identity is constructed against the exclusion of maternity and the feminine (Kristeva 1997, 226). Thus, the maternal body is the ultimate foreign body, reinforced as the original abjection due to the fear of uncontrolled borders both individual and collective–the burgeoning power of the maternal presents the possibility of strangeness reproduced within the borders of national identity and the moral community.
By connecting the abject with Kristeva’s notion of foreignness, McAfee asks whether it is “possible, or even desirable, to eradicate the abject character of foreignness – that is, to eradicate absolute difference?” (2003, 117). Abjection exists to help constitute one’s own subjectivity, but inescapably manifests through violence and disgust. On a political and social level, this is problematic, as extreme nationalism can lead to serious violent consequences for “foreign” communities. But without abjection; that is, recognizing in the foreigner something that resides within us, and thus defining oneself against it, would political or personal identity still be possible? (McAfee 2003, 124). This is a substantial question that arises when considering both the foreign maternal body and the foreign animal body.
Figure 3: Angela Singer, 1080 (2006-7) (Accessed from http://www.angelasinger.com/fastened.html)
Singer’s work 1080 (Figure 3) presents the twisted body of a dead taxidermied possum, glistening with blood-like shiny red beads adorning the mouth and paws. As before, the bejewelling technique reinforces the notion of the abject as both repelling and attracting, in its gross juxtaposition of beauty and death. In a similar manner to that of Catch Caught, the possum represents the role of animal species in the colonial project and the literal threatening of borders by introduced species of animals in New Zealand. The title 1080 refers to the poison used to kill possums in the wild, but which has also been historically reported to accidentally kill native species, pets, and children. Despite its danger, the poison is still widely used across New Zealand to eradicate possums, which are violently despised by most of the population due to their disastrous effect on native species and vegetation. This hatred is placed squarely on the possums themselves, who are seen as unworthy of compassion and deserving of persecution, rather than the colonizing forces that introduced them into the wild, purely to create a landscape and ecology that was familiar to European settlers (Potts et al 2013, 183). In this way, the Other, who threatens but also helps to constitute identity, resides within the nation state, ultimately becoming the foreign abject (McAfee 2003, 124). Thus, the possum exists as a violently abjected figure in a New Zealand context—probably even more so than the rabbit.2
Attitudes towards native and alien species in colonized lands encompass the fear of threatened borders–not just of the body, but also of identity, both personal and social. In 19th century New Zealand, taxidermied animals were present in the homes of British settlers as hunting trophies, and native specimens were sent back to Britain for collection and display (Potts et al 2013, 183). In more recent years museums have been criticized for their part in retaining collections of animal, human, and plant remains that are considered sacred to indigenous cultures in their native land, but remain alienated in their foreign context. Brown argues that, whilst human remains have been repatriated where possible (and where not, collections have been reconfigured to be more culturally sensitive), the re-contextualization of collected animals and objects alienated from their original contexts to origin communities is much more difficult and less widely practiced (Potts et al 2013, 183).
1080 presents the body of an animal that has been violently abjected from the national identity of New Zealand humans due to a perceived threat of borders, uncontrolled breeding, and destruction of the land. But the possum’s threat is also a threat that comes from within these borders, raising fears concerning the fraught nature of national identity in a colonized land. In this way, the animal is an abject creature. But it is also part of the moral community, since abjection is only produced when the abjected object is part of one’s own consciousness. Therefore, the abject animal fundamentally transgresses accepted divisions between human and animal, subject and object. As McAfee concludes, “insofar as being, and being a subject, depends upon an encounter with the abject/nothing (represented by the foreigner), the abject/nothing is necessary for being” (2003, 125). Whilst this can potentially lead to violence and hatred, this manifestation of abjection can also be used as a positive force for recognizing strangeness within oneself and the other, and through this recognition, living in a truce with those stranger among us (McAfee 2003, 125). This conception of abjection, foreignness and the Other can be reconsidered as a method by which human and animal Others can coexist: through an acceptance of radical strangeness.
Is Abjection Necessary?
When Angela Singer was asked in an interview what she would answer to John Simons’s claim that “When I see a work of ‘botched taxidermy’…I do not see an epistemological problem. I see a dead animal” (Simons 2002, 183) she replied that she would prefer that he see a “question” (Aloi 2008, 13). For Singer, “The aim should be to create botched works that are transformative, that shock the viewer into a new way of seeing and thinking about the animal” (Aloi 2008, 13). However, her answer troubles the complexities inherent in using and representing the animal in contemporary art. Botched taxidermy, whilst relying on abjection to shock the viewer into questioning their own relationship to the animal’s body on display, nonetheless depends upon context and affect in relation to the viewer. Traditional taxidermy relied on the use of context–trophy, pedagogical tool, and specimen of natural history—in order to normalize as well as veil the animal’s ferality, its Otherness. By bringing the animal into the world of patriarchal culture, the animal was essentially invisible as a subject, remaining purely an object.
Despite the popularity of abjection, and the use of the abject body in feminist theory and art since the 1980s, the risk of embracing abjection as a positive and affirming strategy for rethinking maternal subjectivity at times risks reproducing, rather than challenging, the cultural production of the mother as an object (Tyler 2009, 84). I would add that the animal body is similarly implicated in this argument. As the primary focus of abjection is the maternal (intricately connected to the animal), then the primary moment of abjection is the point at which the maternal is violently thrust out of the individual’s subjectivity. As Tyler argues, “Kristeva’s theory of abjection is founded on the premise that the maternal cannot be, cannot speak and cannot take up a subject position” (2009, 86). This problem resonates in Singer’s practice.
Singer’s botched taxidermy works undoubtedly provoke abjection and potentiate a reconsidering of the animal’s own subjectivity, but, as Estelle Barrett reminds us, abjection appears primarily as affect—“fear, loathing and aggressivity directed toward an unnameable other” (2011, 106). Therefore, abjection also has the potential to perpetuate violence towards the animal as a coping mechanism against the abject fear of permeable boundaries–a problematic made clear by the brutality already directed towards animals such as possums in Singer’s native New Zealand.
Conversely, McAfee argues that abjection, whilst often manifesting through violence and aggression, presents the opportunity to reconsider subjectivity by accepting, not casting out, the abject stranger within–to live with, and use abjection as a force for developing respect for irreconcilable difference (2003, 117). Kristeva examines the estrangement we feel within ourselves and with foreigners around us, not as a fear of foreignness, but as a dread of foreignness—“Whether perturbed or joyful, the foreigner’s appearance signals that he is ‘in addition’…the presence of such a border, internal to all that is displayed, awakens our most archaic senses” (Kristeva 1991, 4). The foreigner threatens the borders of the symbolic as well as national order.
Singer’s work manifests this uneasy strangeness by displaying a foreign body, familiar yet strange, in a different context and in a different guise to that which we are accustomed. Singer’s own abject response to her work, which requires her to brutally and violently rip animals apart in order to reassemble them, further provokes a discomforting response in the viewer. The viewer is made aware of the double acts of violence sustained upon the animals’ bodies, and the attitude of the artist who has committed violence to their corpses in order to criticize said violence. In her work, the borderline between the animal as aesthetic representation and the animal as itself is made permeable. The validity of the work, in fact, arises from Singer’s act of violence, turning the objectification and abuse of animal bodies upside down and making the problematic play between subjectivity and objecthood fundamental to the work’s voyeuristic, discomforting effect.
The animal bodies, imperfectly stuffed, domesticated and frozen in time, but adorned, bloody, and disfigured, simultaneously breed familiarity and discomfort. However, rather than requiring a violent response, her images work together with her words to lead to a reconsidering of one’s abject response. Singer’s work is marked by a refusal to reassure the viewer, or allow them to reassure themselves, that what they are viewing is an unproblematic example of animal-as-object (Baker 2013, 168–179). This reassurance that the work is separate from the viewer is an essential aspect of abjection—that of casting out that which we fear is a part of us—maternal, animal, or other.
Conclusion: the Ethics of Botched Taxidermy?
Kristeva’s notion of abjection is intimately linked to the maternal body. Her focus on the repressed maternal authority as the basis of subject formation repeats an identification of mother and animal: the force of her argument relies on the power over the human psyche held by animals and animality (Oliver 2009, 278). This identification manifests in Singer’s work, in which the force of the animal’s threat–the basis for abjection–relies strongly on the human fear of uncontrolled breeding, fertility, and undefined sexual difference. In this way, the abject response incited in the viewer moves past a simple fear of undefined borders between self and Other, instead raising questions concerning both individual and social fears of maternity, femininity, and ferality in our colonized world.
In Singer’s work, the animal bodies are forcefully present in their own right, albeit “botched” by human intervention, and in this way, the maternal connection leads the viewer, through abjection, to consider that animals are in fact a fundamental part of their moral community. Ultimately, through an approach to the animal’s body that requires the viewer to reconsider why their response is ambivalent and unstable, the maternal and animal connection has the potential to lead to a reconsidering of the boundary between human and animal.
Where Singer makes significant strategic use of abjection in order to lead to a reconsidering of subjectivity, violence, and identity on both a personal and a social level, her works inevitably dovetail with the contradictory double bind of animal representation in contemporary art. This question is whether “using” animals as a way of presenting a particular stance or emotion can be effective or ethical, particularly when this space is for a reconsidering of how animals are abused by humans in a multitude of ways. Through my reading of her work, abjection is characterized as a fundamentally ambivalent, problematic, yet provocative avenue through which to consider the role of animals in our lives, our moral communities, and our feminisms.
1. This is clear when considering the sheer number of taxidermy workshops in London alone, as well as various publications and “how-to” guides for the novice taxidermist–see http://londontaxidermyacademy.co.uk/ (accessed 17/4/15), and Robert Marbury, Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself, (Artisan: New York), 2014 for just two examples amongst many.
2. A speculation on this topic could be because, as a native species to Australia, the possum is perhaps even more threatening within the New Zealand consciousness due to the close relationship between the two countries, and the fact that New Zealand very nearly became a colony of Australia (moreover, the two countries remain unified in the international consciousness)–an even more recent and literal threatening of boundaries, borders, and identities than those between New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
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Miranda Johnson is a recent MA (Contemporary Art Theory) graduate of the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. She writes on the intersection between queer theory and craft practices, embodiment and gender identity, and constructions of maternity and animality. Miranda is currently based in Perth, Australia.