Review of Aloi, Giovanni, Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene

Ari Heinrich

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    Speculative Taxidermy opens with a systematic breakdown of Degas' sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen that will change the way you see the piece forever. Among other things, Aloi draws our attention away from the multiple cast bronze reproductions of the piece and back to the original: a piece sculpted from a variety of organic materials like wax, wood, rope, and most importantly, a wig of human hair. Degas' original sculpture was received with shock for many reasons, but one of the foremost was that this use of human hair "anticipated surrealist notions of the uncanny, the abject, and the object-assemblage by more than forty years" (p. 7). Aloi's explanation of the Little Dancer's affront to standards of representational realism in the late nineteenth century sets the stage for Speculative Taxidermy's critical engagement with the always already politicized art of taxidermy in contemporary environments. Speculative Taxidermy is a dynamic work with a strong narrative component. Following the discussion of Degas' important sculpture, the Introduction links a catastrophic fire in the famed French taxidermy shop Deyrolle in 2008 to celebrity fundraisers and social media exposure which then contributed to a new vogue for taxidermy in popular culture. But Aloi does not focus on more mainstream explanations of taxidermy as reduced to binaries of man versus nature. With the notion of "speculative taxidermy," Aloi instead introduces a more biopolitical understanding of nature and culture according to which the art practice of taxidermy—far from a "postmodernist 'trick of the hat'"—offers unique insights into the political economics linking human and animal in contemporary life. Thus subsequent chapters of Speculative Taxidermy balance broader historical and theoretical discussion with sensitive close readings of individual works. Chapter 1 for instance offers a literature review of the history of taxidermy in which Aloi considers evolutions in contemporary practice against older, cruder practices of "stuffing animal skins" in traditions* related to hunting, illustrating the discussion with specific examples of recent works that deliberately frustrate viewers' expectations of "naturalistic realism." Chapter 2 then considers the relationship of natural history to taxidermy practice, propelling the book's own narrative forward with its detailed discussion of (for example) the preservation of plant matter by Luca Ghini, "founder of the academic study of nature in Bologna and Pisa."
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)353-355
    JournalJournal of the History of Biology
    Volume52
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2018

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