Taxidermy, once the province of natural history and dedicated to the pursuit of lifelike realism, has recently resurfaced in the world of contemporary art, culture, and interior design. In Speculative Taxidermy, Giovanni Aloi offers a comprehensive mapping of the discourses and practices that have enabled the emergence of taxidermy in contemporary art. Drawing on the speculative turn in philosophy and recovering past alternative histories of art and materiality from a biopolitical perspective, Aloi theorizes speculative taxidermy: a powerful interface that unlocks new ethical and political opportunities in human-animal relationships and speaks to how animal representation conveys the urgency of addressing climate change, capitalist exploitation, and mass extinction.
A resolutely nonanthropocentric take on the materiality of one of the most controversial mediums in art, this approach relentlessly questions past and present ideas of human separation from the animal kingdom. It situates taxidermy as a powerful interface between humans and animals, rooted in a shared ontological and physical vulnerability. Carefully considering a select number of key examples including the work of Nandipha Mntambo, Maria Papadimitriou, Mark Dion, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Roni Horn, Oleg Kulik, Steve Bishop, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, and Cole Swanson, Speculative Taxidermy contextualizes the resilient presence of animal skin in the gallery space as a productive opportunity to rethink ethical and political stances in human-animal relationships.
Prologue: The Carnal Immanence of Political Realism—Realism, Materiality, and Agency
Introduction: New Taxidermy Surfaces in Contemporary Art
1. Reconfiguring Animal Skins: Fragmented Histories and Manipulated Surfaces
2. A Natural History Panopticon: Power, Representation, and Animal Objectification
3. Dioramas: Power, Realism, and Decorum
4. The End of the Daydream: Taxidermy and Photography
5. Following Materiality: From Medium to Surface—Medium Specificity and Animal Visibility in the Modern Age
6. The Allure of the Veneer: Aesthetics of Speculative Taxidermy
7. This Is Not a Horse: Biopower and Animal Skins in the Anthropocene
Coda: Toward New Mythologies—the Ritual, the Sacrifice, the Interconnectedness
Appendix: Some Notes Toward a Manifesto for Artists Working with and About Taxidermy Animals, by Mark Dion and Robert Marbury
Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer in art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby's Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He is the author of Art and Animals (2011) and the founder and editor-in-chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.
"How did taxidermy become cool again? The recent and rapid rise of taxidermy in contemporary art reflects a broader shift in philosophical understandings of animals as embodiments of our shared physical vulnerability. Reading key examples through art and natural history, Speculative Taxidermy makes the case that aesthetic innovation follows from a sense of materiality as imposing a heightened register of realism, and with sweeping consequences for human-animal relations.
– Susan McHugh, author of Animal Stories and Dog
"Speculative Taxidermy makes a fascinating contribution to the nonhuman turn and invites us to find new ways to envisage the relationships between human and nonhuman animals. It will be a significant text for ethical and political debates in animal studies and the environmental humanities."
– Hannah Stark, University of Tasmania
"In Speculative Taxidermy, Aloi gives us a contact zone between humans and animality, art and the nonhuman. While there are a number of recent works on taxidermy, this is the book many of us have been waiting for – broad ranging, keen-eyed, insightful, and informed by animal studies as well as art history."
– Ron Broglio, Arizona State University