Maria Whiteman – Taxonomia

Maria Whiteman

November 4–December 17 in the Main Space

Opening Reception: Friday 11 November, 7:00 PM

Artist Talk: Friday 18 November, 7:00 PM

Taken in the University of Alberta’s Museum of Zoology and Paris' La Musée Fragonard, these large-format photographs of pickled animals and their display settings is driven by questions about how we display and discuss animals. Maria Whiteman examines the rapidly-changing world of scientific classification where very old ideas—complicated hierarchical cate- gories built on careful observation—are being reexamined in an age of genetic catalogues. Whiteman engages a tradition of spillover from science into artworks that spans the age between Peter the Great’s famous curiosity collections to Mark Dion and Damien Hirst’s taxedermied conceptual art, and considers both the individuality of the animals and how they become objects for display.

With a Monograph Essay by Amanda Boetzkes, available at the gallery.

View posts about Maria Whiteman on the Latitude 53 Blog.

The Eternal Image of the Animal: Maria Whiteman, Taxonomia

In The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Michel Foucault examines how, over the 17th and 18th centuries, the natural sciences organized the world through the systematic description and classification of specimens. Before the emergence of modern-day biology, animal and plant life was understood through the operation of taxonomy, by which all things could be placed into a grid of knowledge based on their physiognomy. Most are familiar with the meticulous arrangements that one finds at a natural history museum. At these institutions, animals and their body parts—heads, claws, appendages, bones and organs—are laid out in display cases, placed alongside one another row by row, to be considered according to their basic structure. But if, as Foucault contends, natural science essentially spatialized animal specimens according to their nomenclature, and visualized them within a larger pattern of taxonomic knowledge, what became of the animal itself? What do we see when we look at these animal bodies? How do these institutions predetermine our contact with, and knowledge of animal life?

Maria Whiteman’s exhibition Taxonomia poses these questions, putting institutions of natural science into conversation with the desires and anxieties that currently haunt our relationship with animals. Through photography and video, Whiteman explores the collections at the Musée Fragonard, the Musée national de l’histoire naturelle, and the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, as well as the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, MA, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, and the zoology lab at the University of Alberta.


Fundamentally, the exhibition calls attention to the methods and settings that contain animal life, be they the discursive framing of anatomy, the preservation and storage of animal bodies, or even more subtly, the visual and tactile modes by which we perceive those bodies. The practice of taxonomy, Whiteman shows, is underpinned by a conflicted passion to both adore and possess animals. It entails a kind of scopophilia—an impetus to see the animal, to discover its surfaces and textures. The videos, Far From Your Home and Fur Skinned and Feathered, pursue this impulse. The camera follows as the artist’s hand trains across their bodies. It discovers the muscular shape of a horse, the exquisite lines of a tiger’s coat, the staunch power of a kangaroo’s fist. The hand acknowledges each animal, and in this way restores their bodily presence after their objectification. Yet it also enacts a desire for them; it approaches with intention and quests their bodies.

This eulogy to the bodily perfection of animals betrays the insidious drive to produce an eternal image of nature. The animals’ pitiable state of rigor mortis is the very fulfillment of our passion to observe and to know them. Paradoxically, the set-up of scientific investigation robs us of the animal life that originally inspired our passion. The photographs exacerbate this dilemma, capturing the specimens in an unyielding self-enclosure. Their enthralling bodies have become a form of imprisonment in the artifice of natural history. A horse’s slender eyelid is sealed; a hawk’s talons do not flex with anticipation but instead curl stiffly; a wolf’s jaws remain slack. The photographs capture body parts that float, often upended without ground or orientation, in a perverse imitation of vital movement. Secreted away in jars, closets, drawers, or stored under milky plastic sleeves, the specimens are indefinitely preserved, but forever deprived of their exuberance.

The peculiar temporality of the animal bodies is also at stake. The images locate them in an embryonic zone, in a liminal time and space with no consciousness of the passage of time, or of death and decay. Many are suspended in a formaldehyde solution that, in the eerie stasis of the image, doubles as amniotic fluid. Yet Whiteman intervenes on the bodies to underscore the fact that each one has lived and died. In one video, her hand cups a deer’s cheek, turning a mounted head into an individual’s face. In the other, her thumb brushes underneath a bear’s eye as though to wipe away tears, a gesture that imposes on the bear’s face the sadness that we feel on its behalf. Equally, the photographs seek out the animal’s particularity, honing in on a paw, or a profile. By effectively mourning each animal, Whiteman disjoins them from the strict parameters of natural history, and uncovers a newly politicized being. Tragically, however, each animal’s newfound status is achieved in precisely the moment of realization that it is a life that has been lost.

Amanda Boetzkes is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art at Ohio State University. She is the author of The Ethics of Earth Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Her research focuses on the intersection of the biological sciences, new media technologies and artistic practices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. She is currently co-editing a book with Maria Whiteman entitled Refigurations of the Animal: Plasticity and Contemporary Art.

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