Animals frequently figure in your work, what is your approach to negotiating the boundaries between the wild and the domesticated?
I began thinking about definitions of wildness after conversations with Dr Andrew Kitchener at the National Museums of Scotland. He told me about the endangered Scottish wildcat and the difficulty of differentiating the wildcat from feral cats. States of wildness were being identified in the museum by measuring the length of cat intestine and by taking skull measurements, although as I understand, until a reliable genetic test is found the Scottish wildcat is almost impossible to protect. The future of the wildcat it seems is dependent on finding a methodology for visually determining wild from feral. I was curious as to whether an animal could be viewed as both wild and domestic at the same time and interested in how scientific thinking might determine a different kind of future for an animal classified as purebred, hybrid or domesticated.
The idea for A Thing without a Skin began in the taxidermy lab of the NMS, where I was based during a Leverhulme Trust arts residency. Here I saw gut stretched across the floor to compare measurementsbetween wild, domestic and feral cats.I liked the idea that the innards could offer more certainty of wildness than the skin characteristics alone. The work, along with its title asks if an animal can be represented by its interior, as opposed to traditionaltaxidermy which presents animals as their outer skin. A Thing without a Skin is an attempt to show the essence of an animal, not a literal inside as here there is no centre,but an inside without an outside and an absolute yet composed vulnerability.
As an artist, what do you find appealing about taxidermy as a scientific and cultural practice and why do you often choose to highlight the process of taxidermy and not just the finished result?
I was initially drawn to taxidermy through an interest in preserving fresh material and after visiting the taxidermy lab I became fascinated by the possibilities of making something dead appear alive. The attitude of the taxidermists made a big impression on me, they were conservationists or birders and determined to portray the animal as accurately as possible and would talk about the attitude or jizz of the species and how it would sit or move. They were exceptionally well informed and enthused by living animals and when I filmed the process and watched it on screen I noted the dexterity, care and tender handling they extended towards dead animals. There were moments of the process that I found particularly significant, for instance when the skin was first cut open down the breastbone.Another was when glass eyes were inserted and the inside-out skin is pulled back over the head, as at this moment the animal seemed to re-inhabit its body. Not until the taxidermy process was complete was the animal finally stabilized.
The work Blackbird -Menagerie was made in response to the process. Here I wanted to give the animal a voice and allow it to protest at its own dissection.
In your work a taxidermied dove is positioned with its head tucked under its wing and lying on its back, why did you decide to show a bird in a defensive posture?
I was interested to present a rarely seen aspect of animal behaviour and produced the piece Forever and Ever after seeing an image in the book Weird Nature (2002),showing three doves lying in a death-mimicking trance.
The image and subsequent work Forever and Ever, offers a way of questioning the state of perpetual aliveness that traditional taxidermy presentsto the viewer. As an art object the doveis posed in the imitation of death and yet always on the brink of revival with the potential to become animate at any moment.
I liked that a bird historically used as a messenger,could represent an in-between state of being and at the same time act as a signifier of impending danger.
Your film Blackbird-Menagerie, in which an animatronic bird is shown watching a video of its own taxidermy, raises complex issues from objectification, spectatorship and curiosity to the nature of the animal psyche,what kind of response do you aim to provoke in the viewer?
I want the viewer to be shocked by watching the skin being cut and by the response of the taxidermied bird that is not alive, but shows a semblance of life when it shrieks out in distress.
Despite long experience of preparing birds as cabinet skins for the museum collection, I realised that the moment of opening up the bird body, however frequently performed continued to be unsettling for myself as the amateur taxidermist and I imagined, also for the observer.
I wanted to understand why the initial cut continued to be disturbing and decided to isolate this stage of the process. Through filming I was able to see the taxidermy process from another perspective, which was a very different experience than when actively performing it.
Against the backdrop of ecological crisis, climate change and mass extinction of species, why do you think it’s important to make work that dramatises the relationship between people and animals?
I am interested in how art can be used to purposefully open and pose questions on particular practices and I think perhaps it can do this because of its capacity to present wonder and tragedy simultaneously.
Stories of cross-species relationships can usefullyremind us of both the commonalities and differences between species and might heighten our awareness of anthropocentrism.
The research of author Len Howard for instance,who wrote Birds as Individuals (1952), and Living with Birds (1956),gives us insights into the habits and behaviour of the garden birds she studied. This was gleaned throughintense observation as well as co-habitation enabling her to develop an intimate relationship with wild birds.
Personal research like that of Len Howard can change our thinking about animals and if anartwork inspired by this can then awaken curiosity and the desire to safeguard the more vulnerable relationships we have with other species, then I think it has communicated well.
Andrea Roe, Forever and Ever, 2012