in conversation with Hannah Kelly
HK | We’re delighted to welcome you back as an exhibitor at Mission Gallery; continuing our dialogue with you since your first solo exhibition with us in 2007. The work you have presented as Maker in Focus is aesthetically quite different from the iconic imagery of Cathexis; an exhibition that explored the concept of prayers and wishes, memories and memorial, superstitions and fragmented narratives. What was your motivation for this new body of work?
AL | This body of work is the result of some in depth research for my recent MA final project [Swansea Metropolitan University, 2012]. I wanted to pin down what it is I am drawn to both aesthetically and conceptually. The research allowed me to delve a great deal deeper into my creativity and compare themes in a much more conceptual way allowing me the time to explore the meaning in my work. My work has always had a connection to memory and memoria but perhaps in a more ephemeral, ghost-like way that plays with concepts of time. These themes are still present but a much darker inspiration is at play, to deal with the notion of death itself and its relationship to beauty.
HK | It was evident from your in conversation earlier this year with Claire Morgan for her solo exhibition, ‘Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside’, that you also had an interest in taxidermy. Much like Claire you seem less interested in the macabre or ‘shock factor’ of presenting taxidermy to the viewer. What is it that interests you in the beauty that lies within the presentation of death?
AL | Artists like Claire Morgan and Polly Morgan featured strongly in my research, I like the way they have totally switched perceptions of what taxidermy means to people. Their work is so contemporary and beautiful, presented in unconventional poses, it makes you look again at taxidermy from being distastefully mounted maybe as it was in Victorian times. There is so much to be said on this subject, I am interested in the debates it raises also in regard to our relationship with nature and our desire to control it. My draw to its use was a natural progression. I am interested in its comparison to a photograph with the ability to still time, both signify a death. I started to look at death as a subject directly in an attempt to explore my own reaction to death as an abject form, not as personal loss which my previous work dealt with. I started to photograph dead animals, I first found a dead swallow on the road, it was so terribly sad I wanted to capture its beauty before it was gone forever. This started a collection of images from animals and birds people gave to me. They became like the Victorian memorial photographs of dead loved ones. It was natural then to move to taxidermy itself where I could document the animals differently and play with the notion of decorating death or death as decoration. I like the paradox taxidermy throws up, how you can be drawn and repelled by it all at once, how it it a sign of beauty but its meaning is grotesque. Taxidermy has something of the uncanny about it and a kind of magic. Different reactions to taxidermy fascinate me, I enjoy it when people are uncomfortable looking at it, fearful even and yet their eyes are fixated. By presenting taxidermy in a certain way and using decoration to draw the viewer in Id like to see if the reaction changes and they can start to appreciate the beauty that still resides there.
HK | You source existing taxidermy as opposed to performing the process yourself. Is this a boundary that you consciously choose not to cross?
AL | Much of my work is to do with boundary, of me working at the very edges of my comfort zone. For me to perform the taxidermy would be a breach of this borderline and one which I do not wish to cross. It is a conscious act as through this research I have realised the border line or veiling is key to my work. My request for dead animals to photograph came with the restrictions that the animal was whole, no rotting, no spilling, abjection is one of my boundaries. I have forced myself to look at the taxidermy process and I could not do it. It horrifies me and yet I am drawn to look at it, its like a direct experience of the uncanny, something which should have remained hidden but has come to light. I think the process of taxidermy requires an element of detachment from the animal plus it’s quite a skill to master which I admire greatly as a maker. In terms of moral grounds it is hard to discuss as it’s such an emotive issue. I am happy for my work to raise debates about our relationship with animals but it isn’t directly a comment on it. I strive to use taxidermy which is ethically sourced, the rook for example was found on the roadside in Ireland, the fox is an antique about 60 years old, I like the idea of giving it a new perspective, of taking a vile, unwanted object and making it desirable again. I think there is a misconception about taxidermy, more often than not the subject is already dead of natural causes, or the skin is a bi-product of meat, there is a really interesting blog called ravishing beasts by Rachel Poliquin who discusses these issue is detail.
HK | You veil the taxidermy you use with beauty suggesting that you are uncomfortable with confronting or presenting the death of the animal; it is an act comparable to an apology for their lack of dignity. Do you consciously try to veil the abject in your work?
AL | I think death is always uncomfortable, I love animals so I’m torn between the emotion and the desire of the aesthetic and the curiosity of natural history. To be up close to a wild animal or a bird is a privilege to witness at close proximity. Sadly to experience this nearly always means that we view it in death, in my memorial photographs they are dead bodies and in the presence of taxidermy, we see the illusion of the animal skin. Angela Maddock discussed my work as being a desire on my part to veil the abject or to make things palatable, on some level this is what I am doing with the taxidermy but dignity is also important and comes back to the idea of veiling the body in death. When photographing the animal bodies it felt disrespectful to decorate them, I wanted to wrap them up and protect them. The bodies were abject and photographing them is also a form of veiling, in that it distanced us from the horrible, both beauty and photography are human tropes to keep death at bay. This recurs in my work.
HK | You have many photographs of animals that have passed, you’ve mentioned that you requested that none of the animals were to be in the process of decay and the resulting imagery presented is really quite beautiful. It suggests a fascination with death but that you carefully tread the line between the glorifications of death and its reality.
AL | The realities or horrors of death are beyond the boundary line I mentioned, the abject is pushed away, veiled or distanced in my work for both myself and the viewer. Both my work and myself are full of paradoxes , I am so drawn to death but I need to find beauty in it and this notion of beauty is of course subjective and impossible to define. Treading the line is a good description, working at the very threshold of death or the edge of the uncanny always aware of the boundary I must not cross.
HK | Throughout your career your reputation as an artist has consistently evolved across, jeweller, maker, designer and stylist; fashion is consistently present in all of these and continues to be prominent in your new collection. Through presenting taxidermy as a wearable object you are presenting us with the idea of being adorned in death and death as decoration; is this a conscious act?
AL | I enjoy using fashion as a vehicle because it allows me to enter the realm of imagination and fantasy, beyond the ordinary. I always return back to the body as a central point for my work and the bodies’ relationship with objects and its surroundings. Adornment is a human instinct even in death we have this need to aestheticize it. I am exploring the idea of being adorned in death, death as decoration but also a wearable memento mori. All of the materials I am using are natural, they have a link to death yet through fashion have been transformed into the desirable. The fusion of human and animal is being developed with this. The forms of the headpieces are actually based on the taxidermy image of the pulling back of the skin of the bird from the body and turning it inside out. It is the most appalling and bizarre image, but the beautiful wings and feathers fall forward from the head. I quite like having hidden elements like this in my work, something stemming from a gruesome origin turned into a desirable wearable piece. The memorial photographs of dead animals were also printed onto silk for the garments I created, taking death again back onto the body.
HK | The result of this structuring of the headpieces would, if worn, prevent the wearer from being able to see. The taxidermy presented is also adorned in such a way that their sight has been restricted. It presents a situation in which as viewers we are prevented from seeing the eyes of the wearer and the wearers are exempt of the knowledge that they are being viewed.
AL | The headpieces or veils for both human and animal intentionally deny the wearer and the viewer from being able to see out or in. Kant argued that women do not experience the sublime and historically I heard that when travelling in carriages across the beautiful countryside the blinds were pulled down to protect the ladies inside, it was feared that the sublime beauty outside would somehow offend. This idea of being denied beauty because it is too terrifying to handle, of it being veiled from sight became central to the pieces. Liminality and veiling is at the core in terms of beauty and decoration as a veil to make the abject palatable. Lacan describes our relationship with the world as being a fantasy or veil to make living bearable, this disintegrates suddenly and we are given a glimpse through this screen at the real or the abject. The idea of decorating death is a form of veiling, it is also a fantasy, photography too is a veil as it has the ability to let us live out our fantasy distanced from the horrible. Allowing or denying sight, of wanting to see or wanting to look away all at the same time brings in the uncanny and the fear of loosing ones sight. I wanted the photo shoot to have this connotation also, to control the model who, like the uncanny is trying to find a way in the dark. I wanted the wearer to be unable to see themselves, they have as Kant suggested been denied their own beauty by pulling the shutters down the wearer themselves suggesting an unattainable desire as it denies our own gaze.
Anna Lewis is a contemporary jewellery designer based in South Wales. Since graduating in 2000 Anna Lewis has exhibited internationally; her work has translated across disciplines from installation to art direction and production design for fashion photography and music videos for the collaborative Project with Elliot Davies, Seven Everything.