Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Stephen F. Eisenman reviews Speculative Taxidermy

Giovanni Aloi. Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 328 pp.

Review by Stephen F. Eisenman

In the last half-century, global wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent and insects by more than 75 percent. (When was the last time you had to clean your windshield of dead bugs?) The current rate of species extinction is at least one thousand times the background rate, and soon, many of the world’s most charismatic megafauna—lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, polar bears—will be found only in zoos. The culprits are many: global warming, insecticide and herbicide use, water pollution, and habitat loss. The last is mostly the consequence of grain production for farmed animals. Every year, over fifty billion animals are killed for food—not including fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, whose deaths are so numerous they are only counted in tonnage.

Two generations of research have proven that nonhuman animals are capable of consciousness. In 2012, a conference of internationally renowned neuroscientists at Cambridge University reviewed the scholarship and issued the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.” The document concluded: “Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”[1] The text is circumspect. Ethologists have for years documented tool making, laughter, and empathy in animals from chimps to crows.

You might think these developments and discoveries would inform any contemporary art and criticism concerned with animals, but you’d be wrong. The artists considered by Giovanni Aloi in Speculative Taxidermy—a book about dead, stuffed, and dismembered animals in contemporary art—mostly treat their subjects formalistically. Rather than interrogate extinction, oppression, habitat, diet, sentience, empathy, autonomy, agency, rights, and resistance, the artists considered here—including Mark Dion, Nicholas Galanin, Roni Horn, Berlinde de Bruyckere, and Steve Bishop—deploy animal bodies as other artists do plaster, marble, wax, or bronze. Galanin’s Inert (2009), for example, consists of a wolf skin of which the front half is taxidermied and the back left empty. De Bruyckere’s K36 (The Black Horse) (2003) features a horse’s skin stretched taut around an armature that doesn’t conform to equine anatomy. The result is a freak something like those formerly seen at circus sideshows. Dion’s Landfill (1999–2000) is a vitrine that contains what its title suggests as well as taxidermied seagulls and a wolf. The purpose of this assemblage, the artist appears to claim, is to interrogate environmental degradation, but the inclusion of actual dead animals renders the tableau both melodramatic and cruel. Dion and Robert Marbury write in a manifesto published as an appendix in Speculative Taxidermy that artists should strive “whenever possible,” to use already dead animals (p. 257).

Aloi’s formalism derives mostly from Michel Foucault, and in particular, from the concepts of power, biopolitics, genealogy, similitude, panopticon, archaeology, heterotopia, and the dispositif. The latter term, discussed at length, signifies at once apparatus, discourse, administration, architecture, law, politics, science, morals, philanthropy, and “the said as much as the unsaid. . . . the system of relations that can be established between these elements.”[2] The dispositif in Foucault may perhaps be described as a system of management and control but one anchored in discourse rather than matter.

Aloi sees the dispositif in Bishop’s sculpture It’s Hard to Make a Stand (2009), a mannequin of a horse draped with some cellophane and a fur coat. For Aloi, the dispositif is located in the conflict between “domestication and companionship narratives” (p. 225). However, Aloi also sees Bishop’s sculpture as an example of heterotopia, an elusive term that elides dystopia and utopia and invokes liminal locations such as gates, bridges, and doorways (what Arnold van Gennep called rites of passage) as well as spaces of exclusion such as hospitals, prisons and cemeteries.[3] Aloi stretches the meaning of heterotopia here to mean incongruous or uncanny (p. 226).

Throughout Speculative Taxidermy, Aloi introduces provocative or disturbing artworks, cogently situates them in an art historical lineage, quickly notes their ethical or political charge, and then ascends to the Olympian heights of poststructuralist theory, denying his readers any cogent interpretation. The constant citation of authority is frustrating. Though Foucault is Aloi’s most frequent source, he also cites Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, Emmanuel Levinas, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Donna Haraway, and many others. At the end of his book, Aloi argues that taxidermied art can promote a “prescientific enchantment” that might foster an “ontological mobility capable of shaping different and more sustainable futures” (p. 255). But without addressing either the planetary crisis or current research on species loss and animal minds, it is unclear how this might be accomplished.


[1] “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals, The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf, p. [2].

[2] Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh” (1977), interview with Alain Grosrichard et al., in Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, trans. Colin Gordon et al., ed. Gordon (New York, 1980), p. 194.

[3] See Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1992).