The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (Animalibus)
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From sixteenth-century cabinets of wonders to contemporary animal art, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing examines the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lively postures. But why would anyone want to preserve an animal, and what is this animal-thing now? Rachel Poliquin suggests that taxidermy is entwined with the enduring human longing to find meaning with and within the natural world. Her study draws out the longings at the heart of taxidermy—the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance. In so doing, The Breathless Zoo explores the animal spectacles desired by particular communities, human assumptions of superiority, the yearnings for hidden truths within animal form, and the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange human existence, being both within and apart from nature.
unavailing strength is nearly exhausted, and its bones crushed and broken by the strength and weight of its tremendous adversary.”5 Giraffes, elephants, big cats, and bigger snakes obviously thrilled and entranced visitors, but the little hummingbirds were not outshone. In fact, of all his creatures, Bullock paid special attention to his hummingbirds, describing them at length in his museum catalogues and taking special care to express the species’ most cherished physical traits: their
beauty was defined by its ceaseless, shimmering movements. Standing in front of a glass case packed with nearly a hundred dead birds, visitors had to envision them reanimated, to imagine the flashing colors and humming velocity of their wings as the birds darted between flowers, hovering almost motionless, as if suspended in air. Simply put, Bullock’s desire to capture the creatures’ intrinsic beauty was impossible to fulfill: death eradicated the very source of the birds’ loveliness. Stuffed
beauty. Close observation could reveal the lives of starfish, beetles, and songbirds, but, more important, such contemplation aroused a poetic sensibility.20 Nature was alive with significance: only the spiritually dull failed to appreciate nature’s beauty. In a sense, the perception of nature was inseparable from its aesthetic appreciation. The ability to appreciate birds and bees and flowers and mountains was the ability to fibrillate in tune with the natural world, although—of course—that
died that offends, not necessarily the product that is made afterward.7 Leather belts are typically made from the hide of cows that have been raised specifically for their utilitarian benefits to humans, which is to say, leather belts are the products of cold, anonymous killing. The death is planned from birth and conducted in a sterile space. Garry Marvin writes that slaughterhouse workers maintain an emotional distance between themselves and the animals they kill: “this is a detached and
piece of nature but as a tacky piece of décor. A victory of style over content and aesthetics over ethics, camp deposes the serious with playfulness. Its hallmarks are flamboyance and artifice. Camp is always too much, too outlandish, over the top, and passé. But, as Susan Sontag observes, camp is not a love of old things as such but an appreciation of the detachment old things offer. Things become campy “when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of being frustrated by, the