13 September – 1 October 2004
Curated by Jazmina Cininas
Euan Heng and Deb Williams
All you braintanners know the situation: You have successfully tanned all those neat pelts and skins and now you wonder what the heck to do with them.1
A wolf pelt was powerful medicine...2
In 6000 BC, prehistoric Anatolians painted hunters girdled with leopard skins swarming to kill stag and boar3. Throughout history humans have valued fur for its warmth, protection, adornment and prestige, as coveted spoils of war and symbols of status and royalty,4but the animal pelt has also managed to excite the human imagination beyond pragmatic parameters.5Like the African leopard societies and the Sioux hunters of North America who dressed in the skins of the white wolf, the berserkers of Norse mythology believed in the pelt's power to transfer the hunting prowess and ferocity of the animal to the human wearer.6In many legends, garments made of feathers grant their wearers the ability to fly, and plumes have adorned the headdresses of Egyptian gods, Mexican kings, and the native inhabitants of North American prairies for whom each feather recalled an act of bravery.7Power and status was attributed to animal ancestry, but as humanity became more 'civilized', association with the beasts became emblematic of degradation, and that which was base and socially abhorrent.
She has no alternative: she must marry her father, or flee … so she wraps herself in the stinking pelt, dirties her face and hands till she looks like the lowest slattern8.
Jonas Ropponen's linocuts draw on mediaeval doctrines grounded in Genesis that saw animals as subordinate to humans, a position reinforced in the theories of evolution that developed subsequently. Witch hunting propaganda, ecclesiasticism, heresies, superstitions, mass hysteria, the macabre, psychological states and sexual and body politics all make up Ropponen's research.9
The historically despised cat - cruel, vain, nocturnal and above all feminine - has long been considered in league with witches, a vehicle for misogynist clichés.10To be familiar with a body just like your own I & II alludes to traditionally persecuted sexualities, and hints at the narcissistic delight of recognition. Fellow dabbler in the dark arts, the raven, features in Unheimlich II, pulling its inverted double from an ornate hand mirror, symbolizing the division that occurs in the Western psyche whereby the 'civilized' mind, despite best efforts, still falls prey to the bestial urges of the body.
They were both victims of a curse …according to which every seven years two people had to don wolf skins and live as wolves.... The wolf reached down and rolled back the female's wolf skin and the priest saw underneath the bony torso of an old woman.11
Her tears fell on his face like snow and under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow.12
Wolf fur was good for a parka ruff13.
For the past decade, Jazmina Cininas has been working with another, more hirsute, social transgressor from the Dark Ages – the werewolf – whose history often intersected with that of the witch; indeed the ability to transform into a wolf was generally considered proof of witchcraft. Recent shifts in popular culture suggest that women are particularly suited to lycanthropy, sharing with werewolves, as they do, unseemly hair growth and a monthly cycle accompanied by hormonal, even murderous, angst. 14
In Cininas' ancestral homeland, Lithuania, wearing an enchanted belt or wolf skin was the preferred method of becoming a werewolf, while hairy palms or tails peeking out from beneath coats betrayed the lycanthrope's identity. The dingo's recent inclusion not only acknowledges the artist's Australian upbringing, its blonde pelt proved to correspond irresistibly well with her own flaxen locks.
A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt–15
Euan Heng's Sheep-dog, like much of the artist's work, is a play on words, a riddle made up of composite quotations. Kneeling in supplication, it suggests the sacrificial lamb of mediaeval tapestries, which do, in fact, inform Heng's work, along with cartoons, popular culture, Indian art through the centuries, frescoes and Leger's stylised monumentalism. Motifs, particularly rabbits, hares and squirrels, which are common to 12th century European hunting scenes and early 17th century Mughal art, make up the artist's own iconography, reconfigured into cryptic tableaux and episodes. Another favourite, the snail from the St Clemente Basilica, teams up with a war-dancing bunny in Boogie-Woogie. 16
Like the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, these animals are integral to the humans they accompany, serving as serene companions and guides not unlike the attributes of pagan gods, escaping the subordination of pets or the indignity of prey.
pet… 9.Informal. to fondle or caress (one of the opposite sex)17
'O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are' 18
Wynona loved her big brown beaver
And she stroked him all the time.19
The role of the pet is of particular interest to Deborah Williams, who uses anthropomorphic irony to create centrefolds of domestic dogs, drawing parallels between advertising and pornography. Sprawled on their backs, legs spread in lusty invitation, these Penthouse Pets parody the ultimate porn fantasy – wanton, playfully erotic, submissive, and unconditionally faithful into the bargain. These are no free-spirited strays, but rather willingly domesticated, ever affectionate companions, always eager for a bit of heavy petting and tail wagging. Man's best friend indeed.
William's Penthouse Pets are emblematic of the subordinate roles reserved for women in contemporary media, as vehicles for male desire and trophy-esque projections of virility and status20. They exemplify the similarity between the social role of dogs and the construction of social roles and relationships in human society, with the dog epitomising the qualities traditionally associated with the ideal partner or friend.
In August 1977, before serial killer David Berkowitz was sentenced to 365 years in prison, he stated that he had been ordered to kill his victims bydemonsspeaking through his neighbour's black Labrador retriever.21
The pestilences were represented by twelve animal masks…22
Rona Green also uses the pet for social commentary, but her universe is reserved for misfits and freaks, and her pets remain fiercely antisocial, chewing up the wiring, barking at the neighbours and pissing on the bed. Her tattooed rabbits are the antithesis of Playboy Bunnies, with their bad teeth and predispositions for chain smoking, sugar and far too much daytime television.
Her own pets, and the pets of friends and family, serve as muses and models, as do TV celebrities, horror stars, mummies, aliens, cartoon characters, cowboys, pirates and social outcasts.23Green has a genuine affection for these awkward underdogs whom, one suspects, she secretly indulges with treats from the kitchen table. Her anthropomorphic depiction of domestic animals suggests that beneath the gruff exterior of her pool hall hoodlums there's a soft underbelly or, conversely, that the fluffy fur comes with bloody sharp teeth.
This statute makes it a misdemeanour to kill any dog or cat with the sole intent of selling or giving away the pelt…24
Bear pelts from any jurisdiction must be complete… We do not accept bear gall bladders, teeth or claws detached from the bear hide…25
Stalin took the bird by its legs and slowly, one by one, he plucked all the feathers from the bird's little body. Then he opened his palm. The bird was laying there naked, shivering, helpless. Stalin looked at him, smiled gently and said, "You see… and he is even thankful for the human warmth coming out of my palm"26
Annette Cook's Vögelchen und Mäuschen (Birdie and Mousie) comments on the vulnerability of the hunted. Her small generic animals balance on horizontal grids, hobbled by cord bindings and blank dog-tags that allude to the taxidermist's labelling of extinguished life. While escape routes suggest themselves in the finely woven strata imprisoning the creatures, the hunter's spotlight condemns Birdie and Mousie to their shackled perches, the identification tags auguring imminent extinction.
Through the cruel plucking of a live bird, Stalin graphically demonstrates how to evoke dependence and gratitude for basic needs from a population debilitated by oppression27. Cook's hunted mice are the Steinbeck variety28, and her shackled birds owe as much to the feathered prisoners in the allegorical paintings of Goya, Fabritius and Bleckner29as they do to Audubon's natural history studies.Her downy creatures are predisposed to capture,30and dependent on the benevolence of the more powerful.
The dæmon changed again… from goldfinch he became a rat, a powerful pitch-black rat with red eyes. Will looked at him with wide wary eyes, and the girl saw his glance.
"…En't there anyone in your world like us? Are they all like you, with their dÆmons all hidden away?"
Will looked at the two of them, the skinny pale-eyed girl and her black rat- dæmon now sitting in her arms, and felt profoundly alone.31
The unidentified bird in David Noonan's Supernatural has already met with the taxidermist32but like the nightingale, whose heart was eaten to beautify one's voice,33it promises enchantment even in death. Noonan's bird of preference, however, is the predatory owl – solitary, nocturnal and gothic. With their unflinching stares, Noonan's owls posses an otherworldly intelligence, dominating their dark domains with a hunter's confidence. Ever watchful, these birds are a far cry from the wholesome professors of the woods dispensing wisdom to Pooh Bears and escaped laboratory rats,34preferring the company, one suspects, of bats and wolves, and other creatures of the shadows.
Like Ropponen's ravens, Noonan's owls are harbingers of misfortune,35hypnotically seductive in their chthonic realms deep within the psychological forests of Eastern Europe. They make easy prey of our own morbid fascination with, and capacity for, the dark side.
Knowing exactly what he was doing … he moved his hand from Lyra's wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her dæmon.
Lyra gasped. But her surprise was mixed with a pleasure so like the joy that flooded through her when she had put the fruit to his lips… With a racing heart … she put her hand on the silky warmth of Will's dæmon, and as her fingers tightened in the fur she knew that Will was feeling exactly what she was.36
Should you require further pelt handling information, please contact us contact us and we can send you a free pelt handling manual. Beaver patterns are also available.37
The artists in pelt employ animals as barometers against which to measure human society and its shifting attitudes towards the natural world. The furred and the feathered serve to illustrate not only the flaws and attributes, but also the longings that are common to us all.
1.Markus Klek; What to do with your roadkill racoon skin? Make a bag! www.primitiveways.com/pelt_bag.html; retrieved August 2004
2. Barry Holstun Lopez; Of Wolves and Men; Touchstone, New York 1978
3. The derivation of the word berserk used here is usually held to arise from ber (bear) and serkr (shirt), the implication being that these warriors wore bear-skins as shirts instead of chain-mail, thereby assuming the animal's ferocity in battle… Adam Douglas; The Beast Within; Orion, London 1992
4. Richard J. Aulerich Michigan's Fur Bearing Animal Industry Michigan State University Extension Ag Experiment Station Special Reports - SR499201 07/28/98 www.msue.msu.edu/msue/imp/modsr/sr499201.html
5. op.cit. Douglas
7. Hans Biederman, Dictionary of Symbolism; Facts on File, New York 1992
8. Donkeyskin, as told by Marina Warner; From the Beast to the Blonde; Vintage, London 1995
9. Jonas Ropponen, artist statement, 07/08/04
10. op.cit. Biederman
11. op.cit. Lopez
12. Angela Carter, The Courtship of Mr. Lyon; The Bloody Chamber
13. op.cit. Lopez
14. Court trials have seen PMS used in defence of normally rational women who, at the time of her own full moon, become uncontrollable, murderous beasts, with their husbands generally the victims.
15. The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing; www.mcwdn.org/fables/wolfshee.html retrieved August 2004
16. conversation between Euan Heng and the author, August 2004
17. Webster's Encyclopaedic Unabridged Dictionary, Gramercy Books, New York, 1994
18. Edward Lear The Owl and the Pussycat
19. Primus : Wynona's big brown beaver (single) 1995 Interscope
20. Alexandra Noble; Dog Days; Chronicle Books, USA
21. Deborah Williams artist statement 2002
22.Brad Steiger, The Werewolf Book; Visible Ink, Detroit 1999
23. Carlo Ginzburg: Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath; Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1991
24. Rona Green, artist statement, August 2004
25. Animal Legal and Historical Centre California Penal Code 598a, www.animallaw.info/statutes/stuscacalpencode598a.htm, retrieved 5 August 2004
26. www.furharvesters.com/pelthandling.htm retrieved August 2004
27.Simon Sebag Montefiore; Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; New York: Knopf 2004
28. Annette Cook, artist statement, August 2004
29. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men owes its title and plot to the oft quoted Robert Burns poem, "But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane (not alone), In proving foresight may be vain: the best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley" (go astray). The poem observes that however industriously the mouse may build its nest, there is no defence against the might of the plough.
30.Franscisco Goya painted a bird attached by a string on a number of occasions, including a portrait of a young boy holding a hobbled bird, watched intently by two cats. Robert Hughes, Goya, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003 Carel Fabritius' 1654 The Goldfinch is chained to a curved rail and Ross Bleckner's 1980s series Cage incorporates flitting birds amongst vertical stripes. A bird on a string also warns of impending violence in the film The Wild Bunch 1969, directed by Sam Peckinpah
31. Leonardo Da Vinci observed that the bird's intersecting, 'perpendicular' blinking is a crucial evolutionary development. The first covering closes sidewards towards the outer corner of the eye, and the second closes from below upwards, allowing for some pre-warning of birds of prey descending from above and behind. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Oxford University Press, 1952
32. Phillip Pullman; The Subtle Knife; Scholastic Press, London 1997
33. The photograph is one of a series taken of displays at New York's Natural History Museum
34. The nightingale's tongue was also eaten as a delicacy. Op.cit. Biederman
35. In Robert C. O'Brien's children's book, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, the highly intelligent rats, escapees from the National Institute of Mental Health, seek counsel from their natural enemy the owl. 1971
36. op.cit. Biederman
37. Philip Pullman; The Amber Spyglass, Scholastic Press, London 2001
38. www.furharvesters.com/pelthandling.htm retrieved August 2004