by Samuel Snodgrass
CHICAGO – Carl Akeley (1864-1926) was one of the most influential of all American taxidermists. His mounts are considered to be the most lifelike because of his painstaking attention to detail, creating an overall experience that is mesmerizing and awe inspiring. Retaining the beauty of natural life and the spectacle of a natural history display, fashion designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) utilized a contemporary fascination and interpretation of taxidermy in his garments and runway shows. Nature, with all its strangeness and cruelty, fascinated McQueen and found its way into every collection. While separated by nearly a century, both men took the skins of animals and the pure aura of the natural world as spliced sources to construct their own twisted but beautiful narratives.
Natural history taxidermy mounts offer a glimpse into a world otherwise inaccessible: the natural world unaltered by human interaction. Although we are presented with a hyper realistic scene of animals in the wild, we understand them through human-specific rhetoric. Taxidermy is restricted by the physical characteristics of a skin, but there are no limits to the interpretation and imagination of the taxidermist. The natural world gives clues, such as body size or color, that indicate an animal’s sex. Taking the animal’s sex as inspiration, a taxidermist can position a scene with socially and culturally taught gender roles. Looking at such mounts you do not always find labels designating “male” or “female.” With biological sex presented in the skin, gender is highlighted in these supposedly natural scenes, thus posing archaic gender roles as natural.
Through an emotional experience of spectacle and entertainment rather than of academia, we read taxidermy mounts as reflections of ourselves. This is apparent when looking specifically at Carl Akeley’s diorama of four gorillas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (c. 1921). Akeley considered the gorilla “the ultimate quarry, a worthy opponent” and asked the question, “Is the gorilla almost a man?” In the diorama, a gorilla stands on two feet with fists pounding against his chest. He is the central figure while the two other adult gorillas are half hidden on the peripheries of the scene. Akeley assigns the central gorilla the qualities of an ideal father. The man of the house is the protector and provider. By contrast, the females and children of the group are submissive and require his protection. As females they are posed closer to the ground, as if interacting with two juveniles. Akeley saw nature as pure, the opposite of society and civilization with its fast-paced machines and mass-produced goods. In 1921, American life was increasingly more urban and the gorilla diorama was a tool for curing a separation from nature.The primitive animal is not ethically, morally or culturally driven, and therefore more in tune with the natural order of things or “God’s design.” Akeley used his dioramas to teach early 20th Century Americans how humans should behave. As a man we take cues from the central gorilla and as women we follow those on the periphery.
In creating natural history dioramas, and more recently natural world documentaries, humans assign human qualities and narratives to observe animal actions. Akeley’s gorillas were not found and killed as a family, and yet they live forever in the American Museum of Natural History as father, mother(s), and child. They have been cast into roles complying with American standards of family life. This constructed narrative is read as if it is natural because of its hyper realism. They elicit emotional reactions rather than critical thought. Garnering sympathy, we are meant to identify with one of the characters in the scene and learn we may not be so different than this family of furry beasts.
Akeley mastered the exhibition of idyllic form, but Alexander McQueen interpreted nature’s virtue differently. Primitivism is a pure form of being, but also barbaric and unclean. McQueen found this balance, creating works that were expertly tailored, but slashed, shredded, or smeared with dirt and blood. The animalistic garments of McQueen identify a raw, unfettered sexuality of feminine power. While natural history taxidermy mounts present the ways humans can comply with the decorum of nature, McQueen created garments that showed how humans can comply with the chaos of nature. Morphing human bodies into animalistic beings McQueen glorified primitive behavior: protective instincts, sexual desires, and fears of death. McQueen preferred the state of nature favoring the ‘natural man’ or ‘nature’s gentleman’ free from civilization and law. In a sense, Akeley’s gorillas become human. They show visitors to the American Museum of Natural History a point of reference on which to model their own lives. In McQueen’s view, sexuality as a part of nature should not be filtered by cultural standards or taboos. Thus, his models become animals.
The Autumn/Winter 1997 collection “It’s a Jungle Out There” took its primary inspiration from Thomson’s Gazelle. McQueen’s garments presented an interpretation of Gazelles in contrast with the actual animal. The power dynamic is flipped, and the prey becomes the predator. These garments are not for the faint of heart. Models wore makeup to resemble the markings seen around the eyes of gazelles and black contact lenses to replace their human pupils with the dark round eyes of wild mammals. Many of the garments featured animal skins and leathers, as well as the occasional horn placed on various parts of the body. The unnaturalness of seeing horns protrude from a model’s shoulders, fingers, or back is frightening. McQueen positioned animals to reflect his own narrative, just as Carl Akeley did in creating natural history taxidermy mounts. The animal itself and its natural behavior are second to the human interpretations of them. Attempting to show animals in pure form, Akeley attached human qualities to them in a seemingly subconscious act. McQueen was aware of his interpretations and actively morphed humans and animals to create evocative work. Yet there is an elegance and beauty to the otherwise botched use of animal products. The way in which impala horns are pierced through the shoulders of a pony skin jacket is violent, crude and even barbaric. This is balanced by the precise cut and placement of the lining on the interior of the garment. Trained in traditional tailoring techniques at Gieves & Hawkes on Savile Row, McQueen’s expertise becomes evident in subtle ways. The animal becomes civilized just as the human becomes wild.
Taxidermy is used to portray the essence of an animal just as fashion presents a fleeting fantasy down the runway. Rendering a dead animal skin lifelike and posed within natural surroundings, a chosen quality present in the living animal is captured and heightened. The naturally majestic and ferocious gorilla is frozen in time in his most impressive state. Scholar Donna Haraway eloquently stated “no visitor to a merely physical Africa could see these animals. This is a spiritual vision made possible only by their death and literal re-presentation. Only then could the essence of their life be present.” Living gorillas do not always present themselves in majestic and ferocious ways. They can also be dirty, sickly, or lazy. Through death and human manipulation, they are immortal. McQueen does this by identifying an essential quality of an animal and configures its skin, plumage, or likeness to a human body in a way that represents only his chosen qualities of the animal. When using birds of prey, he positioned them in their most deadly flight as seen in a headdress from Voss, spring/summer 2001. A model appears with four taxidermy hawks tangled in fabric, swarming and clawing at the bandages wrapped around her head. She walks the runway, not with the typical blank stare and syncopated strut, but distressed and flailing. This is perhaps McQueen’s most literal and straight forward use of animals in his work. The birds in this headpiece behave as birds do. They fly, they claw at prey, there is no confusion these are birds. Yet they are merely a headpiece and from their feathers is a skirt.
We are simultaneously a part of nature and separated from it. Alexander McQueen revealed in this contradiction. If a behavior is seen in nature, it is how we as humans behave too. Sighting the Victorian era and cabinets of curiosities as inspirations, he interpreted and reconfigured the spectacle of taxidermy mounts as fashion. Carl Akeley posed animals for the purpose of telling a specific story, and McQueen does the same, but turns these ideas upside down, allowing for contemporary interpretations of taxidermy and animals. Both are using the complex relationship of human and animal as their primary concept and using animal products in ways that evoke the narrative they want to portray while claiming to represent animals as they are in nature, what ultimately is created is a human imposed fantasy. McQueen morphed human, animal, sea creature, myth, future human, and machine. His models were never clearly one entity. They were androgynous and animalistic. He tackled power struggles, paradoxical combinations, and sexuality in his designs and runway shows.
The work of Akeley and McQueen offers complex interactions that question the ever-relevant human condition and its unbreakably twisted relationship to nature. What is beautiful is also dangerous. Romanticism is also frightening.