Take a slice of life.
Clean it up real good using a series of highly toxic chemicals.
Mount it on wood.
Put it on display in your living room.
A few hours.
Enjoyment over a lifetime.
Boston — The similarities between contemporary art and taxidermy are more numerous and more humorous than I realized, and thanks to a slightly too smart, vaguely discomforting show called Whitetail Deer, A to Z by Rebecca Lieberman at Anthony Greaney Gallery in Boston this similarity has been brought to my attention in great depth and detail.
“Taxidermy itself,” Lieberman writes, is quite literally “a practice of hyper-realistic re-making; of using the dead to reconstruct the living, of falsifying the natural to produce the illusion of nature, of transforming the real into a replica or representation of itself.”
So, it’s art, right?
Not to worry. We don’t have to deal directly with it since Lieberman’s installation centers on a video. In it, she has restaged an instructional taxidermy video, “Whitetail Deer, A to Z with Sallie Dahmes,” and her restaging has, I imagine, all the DIY deadpan enthusiasm that only someone packing animals with sand could muster. Made in 1984, the video walks the home-taxidermy enthusiast through the process of skinning, cleaning, and mounting the head of a whitetail deer.
While that alone would serve as the basis for a wonderfully strange found-media piece, Lieberman rewinds the tape from 1984 to 1975, explicitly styling her restaged performance after Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975). This brings out all the manifold baggage of originality – what does it mean to restage someone else’s performance (see also Abramović, MoMA enshrinement of)? In the video, Lieberman has chosen to crop her head out of the picture so that there are only hands and a listless, disembodied voice narrating actions, instructions and a few handy taxidermy tips.
The video runs something like two hours. It is split into two segments and looped asynchronously side by side on two small televisions. All of this gives off the impression that it isn’t really meant to be watched from beginning to end.
A key point of departure between Lieberman’s video and Sallie Dahmes is the object produced by the process. Dahmes is working with acutal brains and a real deer head. Lieberman, on the other hand, uses a knot-ridden, burly hunk of tree trunk. It’s a remarkable piece of wood, and in different hands it might make a beautiful craft tabletop but instead Lieberman maneuvers the chunk of wood into different positions with heavy thuds; she scrapes it, douses it with chemicals whose purpose she explains, and sets it gently on a towel. Throughout, the trunk slips in and out of recognition. Sometimes it is a trunk or just a piece of wood, while others it looks like the torso of a deer.
This doubling of deer-as-wood and wood-made-flesh opens up the richest critical angle of Lieberman’s investigation: here in the midst of a work heavily laden with the anxiety of influence, the material collapse made by the suggestion that perhaps wood is a stand in for flesh encourages a whole strain of thoughts about self-presentation. Is forcing artistic expression into a gallery space as violent and unnatural as taxidermy or meat-packing? This gallery is located in a space that was once a factory, after all …
There’s a whole unsettling series of thoughts when the viewer turns away from the video.
Scattered, haphazard hangings made of different woods and imitation woods cover the walls. Some extend onto the floor. Lieberman has cut many of them up, spliced some unnaturally and awkwardly together. To others she has hastily attached a hinge or a piece of clear Plexiglas that faintly reflects. She has cut several from unused taxidermy wall mounts — big, badge shaped panels. Intentionally questionable workmanship in some places and illogical assemblage in others make it seem like a choreographed series of readymades au Duchamp (if he got away with a urinal as art, wood scraps don’t seem too much of a stretch).
For me, this part of the installation is too dependent on a viewer with a really active imagination. Typically all of that exhausting imaginative work is something that the artist is supposed to take care of. Asking a gallery full of people in black turtlenecks to regress to a world of childhood fancy, where a suggestion can set ideas to flight leaves a little too much to chance.
“You want presence, you want an artist,” the bits of wood suggest to me, “but paint is paint and wood is wood and this is an object not the skill that made it, and sure it was made but there is no flesh in it, no blood either, only the residue of fear in a handful of dust.”
Next time I hope the hands aren’t just on screen, and that the taxidermy torso at least makes a cameo.