Animal as Object – nature and culture

Written by Deb Mostert

For the past five years, artist Deb Mostert has been visiting Queensland Museum weekly to draw and document the State Collection, in particular the bird and mammal collection. Her artworks from these visits form the basis of her new exhibition Animal as Object – nature and culture at the Tweed Regional Gallery.

As a mid-career artist with a 35-year practice, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to ‘make something‘ of the world around me. From my early scratchy drawings of dogs which plastered the walls of my 10-year-old bedroom to a tipsy sketch of a mudskipper copied from a photo in the comprehension test I was supposed to be doing in grade five. I discovered the joys of the natural world through the lens of author Gerald Durrell and made careful copies of the Ralph Thomson illustrations in his books.

My practice has always been grounded in observational drawing and I find myself continuing to come back to this language to try and share what I see. There are stories in all things, tales of loss and destruction but also of great hope and redemption, small smiles and quiet humour. The natural world whispers renewal and hope in ways I can’t ignore.

The ‘Animal as Object’ works have come about through my weekly visits to draw and document at Queensland Museum over the last five years. A love and fascination of natural history and a long-standing art practice within the genre of still life has collided to produce the perfect storm of subject matter and conceptual concerns.

The ideas around the objectification of creatures led firstly to a d-evolution of the Grey Nurse shark, from the valuable museum holotype skin of the Grey Nurse shark, down to kitsch soap holders and shark suit wearing Lego figurines. How do we feel about the various images of shark within our popular culture? From shiver to shudder, can it help our understanding and appreciation for the shark as an integral and important species?

Deb Mostert, Shark as Object, 2019 watercolour 55 x 77 cm. Image: Carl Warner

German mystic St Hildegard of Bingen said in the 11th century ‘If we fall deeper and deeper in love with creation, we will respond to its endangerment with passion’.

If this is the case, maybe even a plastic, grinning, dancing effigy of a shark can be redeemed.

I continued that exploration through other endangered animals like the Koala, the Bridled Nail tail Wallaby, the Powerful Owl, Giant Barred Frog and Loggerhead Turtle. They all start out very specific and unique and then sort of devolve into generic caricatures or wildly inventive pop subspecies.

The strangeness of seeing animals become objects in the museum taxidermy became a paradox I became interested in unpacking. Like Rachel Poliquin asks, ‘what does it mean to be dead but not gone?’ (The Breathless Zoo 2012)

I also wondered about the use of animals in popular culture. What does it mean to be objectified and sold as mass produced plastic?

What is the place of the animal object in both nature as taxidermy and in culture as the souvenir?

I followed the volunteer taxidermists, preparators and collections manager and documented what I saw happening in the back end of the museum, marvelling at their dedication and wealth of knowledge. I saw that scientists and artists are cut from the same cloth, both asking questions based on what they observe. I scribbled away in sketchbooks while they worked to save the hide of a koala that had been hit by a car or made a small dead frozen kingfisher into a beautiful study skin for future reference. They save some small amount of the masses of dead birds and mammals that would otherwise be lost to us, for the benefit of education and science into the future.

We, thankfully, no longer deliberately kill birds and animals to build our museum collections and we all feel the discomfort of looking at taxidermy and wondering how that creature died. The same disquiet comes upon me when I regard mass produced plastic souvenirs which I argue could be seen as single use plastic for all the time they spend in use.

I hope to continue to observe and ‘draw out’ the natural world to connect and offer that practice of mindful observation as a quiet antidote to consumption.

Through mashups of early scientific taxonomy charts and illustrations, museum taxidermy, pop culture and the mass-produced souvenir, I hope questions are asked about artifice, collection, consumerism, mimicry, wonder and beauty.

Deb Mostert’s exhibition Animal as Object – nature and culture is on display at the Tweed Regional Gallery until 16 October 2022.