“Wunderkammer” translates from German as “Cabinet of Wonders” … and this upcoming exhibition at the Manning Regional Gallery is certainly that. Artist Rod McRae presents an exhibition that showcases his skill as a taxidermist, but also an exhibition that is bound to create conversation, perhaps a little controversy, as it brings to the fore many social and environmental issues facing our world today …
Tell us a bit about yourself. You’re a man of many talents … sculptor, children’s author, teacher, photographer, among others … but what is it about taxidermy that inspires you? Why did you learn this particular skill? What’s your work/artistic background?
I guess I’m a storyteller – over 50 children’s picture books illustrated between 1983 – 1991, some of them written by me as well, including Terrible Tracy 1989, a cautionary tale. I really like “cause and effect” literature for children – The classic stories of Aesop’s Fables 1990 and my attempt to draw attention to the plight of the environment in Cry Me a River 1991.
In the 1980s, I realised a long held fascination with taxidermy and took lessons by correspondence from a taxidermist in Narrabean. Since settling in Sydney, I have always kept animals in my terraces. In Woolloomooloo I had a mad Afghan Hound called Heathrow; he featured in a reader I wrote and illustrated for kids, The Trouble with Heathrow 1984, and a goose called Winston, and two fat NZ white rabbits called Mercedes and Scooter.
The freezer was always full of road kill from Lady Macquarie’s Chair and from the animal dealers at Paddy’s markets, who would keep their fatalities for my taxidermy projects.
I opened Animal Fetish Australia in Flinders St, Darlinghurst in the mid ‘80s with my brother, and we stuffed people’s budgies, traded mounts and printed our own range of animal print shirts and gift packed boxer shorts!
My private collection of taxidermy specimens grew exponentially during those early years of the shop, to include a 19th Century Orangutan!
My art photography practice slowly grew after 1992, when I finally stopped illustrating books. At the time I joked I had lost the “inner child”, but in hindsight I just needed a change and an opportunity to explore some more grown up themes after years of drawing bunny rabbits, dragons and princesses.
My photography practice took me to an altogether darker place; I was drawn to use animals and human in compositions both surreal and absurd. I later came back to more rigid narratives, text from the bible to continue my investigation of the body in space and in communion with others. I am not a religious person; to quote Oscar Wilde, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”. I like Oscar; he has a quote for every occasion!
With the rapid onslaught of digitalisation in photography, the magic of analogue photography with its film and emulsions, chemicals and dark room printing was replaced too quickly with the digital Photoshop.
In 2010, I returned to sculpture and taxidermy.
This present work represents a culmination of so many of my previous life experiences – the desire to tell a story, share a tale or flog a fable, build a collection and combine and create narrative installations that draw attention to the big issues in and around climate change and the environment. I get to play with animals again (be they deceased!) and I plan to use photography as a means of making my installations more democratic; lets face it, most people don’t have the room for most of my work!
Please explain where you first discovered the concept of “Wunderkammer”. What does this word mean to you, personally … and how have you used this perception to bring life to your latest exhibition?
Wunderkammer translates from the German as Cabinet of Wonders.
Wonder seems like such an outmoded notion in our technological age, where all appears to be explained by the scientific method; however wonder can and does exist in the imaginings sometimes triggered, yet not fully explained – by an object.
Rachel Poliquin’s The Breathless Zoo, Taxidermy and the cultures of longing 2012,¹ puts it thus: “From early cabinets of wonder to philosophical repositories, collections of curiosities never really displayed knowledge. Rather, they acted as warehouses of raw potentiality”.
Krzyszt of Pomian, writing in his book Collectors and Curiosities, suggests “Objects were not seen – but seen through” ²; in other words, the objects become like portals to other worlds, exotic lands, adventure, mystery and the excitement of the unknown, all without the inconvenience of traveling to them.
- Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo, Taxidermy and the cultures of longing, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, p.36
- Paris and Venice 1500 -1800, trans Elizabeth Wiles-Portier (Cambridge: Polity Press 1990), p.36.
The pieces in your upcoming exhibition at the Manning Regional Art Gallery showcase many social and environmental issues facing our communities today. What pieces are your favourites, and what are you hoping viewers of Wunderkammer will experience/take away from the exhibition?
I don’t really have a favourite. Each work has a stand-alone message; each is as important as the other. In this age of climate change fatigue, it has become more and more difficult to get people to sit up and take notice of conservation issues.
The taxidermy animal as a medium has proved an effective tool in doing just that, more so than sculpting an animal in clay or stone, metal or faux fur. The taxidermy animal is both authentic and empathetic; it speaks to its audience because it is real.
I hope my work comes across as authentic and creates empathy with the viewer to start conversations about issues important to all of us.
Where did you source the animal hides used in your exhibition, as there’s no doubt a story or two there as well?
The art of taxidermy is principally about realness; it is part of nature, and all artists know how difficult it is to improve on nature. Because taxidermy works with the real skin, half the work is done; all that remains is to arrange that skin in the most life like manner.
Sourcing skins is complicated. I don’t want to create a market for them, so I pay special attention to each skin’s providence, where it came from and most importantly, how it died. I can confidently say that no animal has died in the first instance to make any of my work.
Animals in my work in the first instance died as a result of hunting for sport, were slaughtered for food, euthanised, and/or have died of old age or illness.
In the work Z is for Zebra, I found the full mount zebra on eBay; I purchased him third hand from a taxidermist in Montana, who was selling him on behalf of an American big game hunter who was selling his collection of trophies after a messy divorce. I had him road freighted to LA, then air lifted to Sydney to tell his story.
The antelope in Serengeti are by products of the hunting industry; these are the discarded bodies after the heads have been severed for trophies. These bodies came from a South African taxidermist, who was perplexed at being asked to mount the headless bodies. The absence of the heads asks the viewer to fill in the gaps and imagine the animals’ expressions as they graze on the long grasses of the Serengeti, stand alert looking for predators and fight each other for dominance.
What are some of the awards/acknowledgements you have received for your work? Where can readers view other samples of your work, or find out more about you?
I have been a finalist in the Wynne Prize for Australian landscape/figurative sculpture, Art Gallery of NSW in 2007 and 2010, the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2005 and 2006, the Fishers Ghost Art Prize in 2007 and 2009 and Sculpture by the Sea in 2008 and in 2011.
I undertook an archeological dig at Tamarama beach to unearth the legendary Alice the elephant of Wonderland City fame.
Wunderkammer started its life as the Tent of Wonders at Sculpture by the Sea 2012 and has been travelling the Regional Art Gallery circuit ever since. This year I have launched a new show called After-Life, Animal Stories from Beyond the Grave, which is also travelling regional centres with an emphasis on the difficult and complex relationship humans have with the animal kingdom. This show also uses taxidermy and animal skeletons – including a family of giraffe.
I also presently have a work in the Salon de Refuses at the S.H. Erwin Gallery in Sydney ‘til the 18 Sep 2016. Dates and locations for upcoming shows are posted on my website: www.rodmcrae.com.au
See Wunderkammer at the Manning Regional Gallery from September 16 – November 13.