Humans have skinned, tanned and stuffed animals since ancient Egyptian times, but it wasn't until the Victorian period that taxidermy really became popular. This is also when photography was developed and put to one of its earliest uses; creating keepsakes of the recently deceased. (The 19th century also saw the arrival of canned food, modern embalming chemicals and the phonograph, hence some historians characterise it as a century totally fixated with preservation).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that photography and taxidermy have a concurrent history and touch on similar themes: how do we hang on to something of the real world, and more importantly why?
These are some of the questions that interest Melbourne artist Gregory Elms, whose work Red Fox can be seen in Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself (until September 21), a group exhibition at Fitzroy gallery Strange Neighbour (which although only three shows old, is quickly becoming a favourite of mine).
Elms grew up in country hotel run by his dad. On the way to play the pool tables he would pass kitschy hunting trophies that lined the walls of the public bar. He’s been interested in taxidermy pretty much ever since.
“What I love about taxidermy is it’s a lot like photography… If you think of the pose that the taxidermy is rendered into, it’s like a slice of that animal’s life recreated, which is exactly what photography is.” Taxidermy, says Elms, “is almost like 3D photography.”
Using a modified, flat-bed scanner, Elms creates photographs of preserved animals and insects. With no lens and no film, “it simplifies photography back to its origins.” “It's a very simple, almost primitive camera that uses 21st century technology,” he says, "almost like a camera obscura.”
In keeping with the exhibition’s exploration of colonial and post-colonial Australian ecology, Elms says, “I wanted, without being didactic, to bring in an environmental reference point to the show. This is the sort of stuff, for better or worse, that humans do to animals. They kill them, they stuff them, they present them as trophies.”
Or worse, in the case of the red fox, we introduce them into new lands, we hunt them for sport and eventually we hunt them to try and undo our past.
>> Maura Edmond