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  • Taxonomia:A Photo Essay
  • Maria Whiteman (bio)

My ongoing work engages in an exploration of the complex ways in which we have come to understand animals and our relationship to them. As a visual artist I am especially compelled by the ways in which animals are visualized and put on display and by how distinct techniques of representation afford them different degrees of cultural significance.

The issue that I am currently examining in my work is that of displays that transform bare flesh, feathers, and bone into knowledge about nature. The photo series Taxonomia investigates the archive of animal bodies pushed into jars, held in place by pins, wrapped up in

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string, and stuffed, mounted, and displayed in the effort to regiment the anarchy of the natural world into the strict categories of science. Knowledge of the animal world through biological taxonomy—domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and finally species—is an ancient practice, with origins in the work of Aristotle (in the ancient world) and Linnaeus (the forefather of modern practices). It is also a practice fast coming to an end as science shifts from

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learning about animals through visual display to the invisibility of the double helix of DNA. In place of genus and species, traced out through shifts in the color of fur or markings of the skin, we now get a sequence flashing up on a computer screen: A-C-G-T . . .

Taxonomia consists of photographs taken in the University of Alberta's Museum of Zoology, which has significant holdings of animal specimens (the Ichthyological Collection alone consists of more than two hundred thousand specimens representing forty orders and more than two hundred families). The focus of my photographs is especially (though not exclusively) on animals held in formaldehyde-filled jars. These specimens of floating flesh, rendered mute and colorless, gesture back to the origins of zoological collections and the dreams and fantasies associated with them—everything from the scientific [End Page 55] desire to organize nature to the collector's attraction to curiosities, examples of nature gone awry that make up collections such as Peter the Great's Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg.

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Given the size of the university, this museum is a strangely empty space. It is more likely to be visited by art students who use the bodies of animals as guides for learning how to shape bodies on paper with ink or graphite than by those science students for whom it was created. Due to budgetary restrictions, several members of the university staff had to be let go this year. One of them was the director [End Page 56] of this museum—rendered redundant as much by shifts in the epistemology of nature as by declining attendance and use of this space.

My photos are not only intended as a record of a dying epistemic and ontological practice that many of us would not have known about to begin with. Through them, I am also trying to probe the way in which animal display and visuality participates in our growing interest in animal studies (a field no one would have recognized a decade ago) and in discussions of posthumanism. These are not documentary records—or not only that. These photos are a form of aesthetic-critical

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practice. Their aestheticized surface is intended to draw attention to the frame of the visual in relation to animal bodies—something we consider too rarely. They put into play the function of vision in scientific knowing; they also highlight the difference between these forms of animal display and that which occurs in the other spaces in which we more commonly now confront animals.

Natural history museums, which came into existence primarily in the nineteenth century as a place of scientific study, have themselves changed focus, becoming one of the few kinds of spaces in which members of the public come into contact with animal...


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pp. 53-61
Launched on MUSE
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