“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
What comes to mind when you think about taxidermied animals and the practice of taxidermy? Perhaps Banff Park Museum’s wall-to-wall display of taxidermied bears, cougars, eagles, moose and other animals indigenous to the forests of the Rocky Mountains, or roadside attractions with stuffed roadkill amateurishly constructed complete with goofy glass eyes. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that preserving dead animals (most commonly birds, insects, and small mammals such as rabbits, dogs, and cats) taxidermically was a popular leisure activity for Victorian young ladies. Taxidermy was deemed a perfectly reasonable hobby because of its association with the study of natural history, which held significant cultural prestige and fascinated the popular imagination. As the scientist William Swainson observed in 1840, “In nothing has the growing taste for natural history so much manifested itself, as in the prevalent fashion of placing glass cases of beautiful birds and splendid insects on the mantel piece or the side-table.” Indeed, Victorians took great pleasure not only in studying the natural world, but also in attempting to rework it and imitate it. This Victorian fascination with replicating nature, ordering the chaotic, and domesticating the wild and sublime has dark associations with cultural obsessions and insecurities that reflect broader social shifts of that time. Women’s handicrafts that centred the nature-to-culture conversion, as well as decorating the domestic interior with plush padding, heavy drapes, embroidered cushion covers, multiple doilies, and delicate trinkets could relieve any number of fears: the fear of financial ruin; fear of not being able to keep up appearances; fear of “difficult” servants and “unruly” immigrants; fear of imperial instability; fear over reproduction, birth and child rearing; fear over dirt and pollution; fear over science and modernization; fear over corruption and moral bankruptcy. The home, in both the imagined imperial centre and the colonial periphery, became the site where the foreign and alien became domesticated and knowable.
Five taxidermied bees that have been refurbished with electronic parts by multi-disciplinary artist Ruth Marsh are displayed in glass vitrines with wooden bases in the centre of the Living Room’s mantel piece. Ruth is an artist of settler ancestry based out of K’jipuktuk/Halifax. In her artist statement Ruth often quotes a passage from Mary Shelley’s gothic classic Frankenstein, casting herself in this work as part cyber-punk mad-scientist, part devoted repair technician. For a number of years, Ruth has been collecting found dead bees – many of which have been mailed to her by strangers from around the world in response to an ongoing public call. Ruth takes each bee she receives and taxidermies it through a labour intensive process in which she first puts the bee in the freezer for a week, then soaks it in rubbing alcohol for a week, and then lets it dry for another week. Next she disassembles the bee, separating its head, thorax, and abdomen. This creates a hollow cavity through which Ruth runs a malleable copper wire. She then injects the bee with industrial strength adhesive, letting it dry for a day. Once the bee has been preserved, Ruth assesses whether the it is missing any limbs or needs to be repaired in any way. She improves and augments the specimen by adding retro pieces of technology salvaged primarily from computers. Resisters become legs, light emitting diodes are attached to the torso, copper plumber’s tape is used to create the span of wings, and copper wire is delicately braided to mimic antennae. Ruth also attaches scavenged jewels and other tiny, shiny ornaments as accoutrement that cosmetically improve the bee. This laborious and time-consuming process mirrors the repetitiveness and arduousness of bee activity. Ruth’s current art practice is dedicated to building her dystopian vision of a future in which bees have been eradicated due to human-caused environmental shifts. In one of the larger glass vitrines set on a side-table near the display cabinet, Ruth has created a diorama-like scene illustrating the occasion of a waggle dance in a cyberhive. The waggle dance is a form of communication used in some bee colonies. It allows bees to communicate to each other the whereabouts of flower nectar through their bodies’ angles in relation to the sun, as well as through figure-eight movements at various speeds and sizes. In the cyberhives of the future, bionic bees perform this dance and mimic other deeply interconnected activities that their biological ancestors once did before they were all eradicated by the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. With this work, Ruth reflects on the sensitive relationship between bees and their ecosystems, and the ways in which natural, social, cultural, and political systems are interdependent and contingent upon each other. These taxidermied artefacts of a future not yet come to pass present a deeply anxious meditation on several issues: the current abuse of the natural world, our fraught and unstable economies, social upheaval and violence, the precarity of labour, mass human displacement and migration, and the global housing crisis. For centuries, the home has been a site where anxieties have been negotiated through the leisure and labour of its inhabitants. While Ruth’s cyborg bees in the Living Room are a fascinating meditation on some of the complex issues prevalent today, her thoughtful practice echoes a continuum with historical material practices and interior spaces.