Thursday, September 20, 2012

Extinction for Sale

Lot 1304: Extinct Passenger Pigeon
Lot 1304: Extinction for Sale

As Janet Laruence herself tells it, one of the roots of her approach to the living world in the artwork is found in her residency early on in her career at a natural history museum.  Surrounded by specimens - mammals, insects, lizards and otherwise - she was deeply touched by their presence, by how their having lived a particular and unique existence was memorialized in the very bodies now preserved in drawers, specimen jars or through the arts of taxidermy. After a time, she found herself talking to the various creatures whose remains were her daily companions.  She reports  the welling up in her of tenderness, of loving kindness, of care-taking for the once living.  This affection inhabits Memory of Nature and her many other sculptural works.

For Laurence specimens themselves pose a host of ethical and ontological issues.  One in particular struck me the day we were visiting in her studio.  Janet explained that she had "rescued" the preserved owls (I cringe at using the word "stuffed" here) that make periodic appearances in her installations.  They were items in an auction that included a variety of preserved animals, particularly birds.  Janet felt immediately she had to save at least some of these from becoming yet again mere items in collections.  She wanted to give them a home in her studio and so bid successfully on the group of owls she now owns.

As I leafed through the catalogue that Laurence had kept from that auction, I noticed several items were of extinct species, including the one pictured here of a passenger pigeon.

My reaction to seeing the passenger pigeon for sale and commanding a large opening bid, precisely because it was extinct, made me cringe.  As Janet pointed out, the original impetus for specimen collecting - knowledge, however questionable its status might be - had become peculiarly perverted here.  The body of a bird whose kind is now extinct had become a fetish, an object inflaming human desires to own it, precisely because humans had wiped out its kind..

This left me with a question I will take up with in further posts: What human obligations might there be in regard to the bodily remnants of a species wiped off the face of the earth by humans?  What mode of respect or tenderness is called for when one confronts a specimen of a passenger pigeon?  Should it even be subject to a notion of ownership, given the circumstances of its current earthly (non)existence?  And precisely what is this pictured above?  A specimen?  A monument?  A corpse?  An outrage?  An opportunity for bragging rights?  A blasphemy? A spiritual instruction?

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