19
Nov
12

Review: ‘Preserved’ by Greg Elms at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 7th November – 24th November 2012

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This is an excellent exhibition by Greg Elms at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne. The photographs, made using a film scanner re-purposed into a lens-less camera, have great fidelity. Fidelity refers to the degree to which a model or simulation reproduces the state of a real world object and is therefore a measure of the realism of a model or simulation. These photographs have great overall presence – as the artist himself puts it, “Focus of the subject is likewise abnormal, sharp only where features press against the glass platen screen, dissolving into darkness and blur as they recede, implying a sense of entrapment behind the image surface.” This limited depth of field means that the taxidermies loom out of the intimate darkness into the artificial light, the scanners passing recorded as a crescent moon in the eyes of the preserved, the deceased.

Ashely Crawford, in an excellent piece of writing, notes how Elms captures the notion of the animal as ‘other’ while observing that there is much to say about the permeable membrane between human and non-human in postmodern culture. The press release states that, “Preserved raises allusions to the history of zoological inquiry and highlights the sense of loss intrinsic to mortality. Indeed, the works can be read as a series of ecological memento mori.”

These ideas can be further interrogated. Personally, I think it is more than just a singular, momentary death. There is the original death of the animal, its re/animation through the art of preservation, taxidermy, and then a second little death due to the light of the scanner. These photographic animalia may be a reflection on our ecological relationship to the world, caught in a double time-freeze – a postmodern reflection on our memories, histories and interactions with the animal world that are becoming released from the historical contexts on which they are traditionally based, the referent silently split from its once powerful reality. Much as we humans objectify our death through ritual (the dressing of the body, the viewing of the body, the singing of songs, the saying of validations for a life; the coffin, the priest, the burial, the burning) these photographs objectify a simulation of death as though the death of these animals has been pre-served, like warming up a TV dinner in the microwave and then letting it go cold again. Our relationship to the animals of this world is now mainly about death (live sheep exports, eat your heart out!)

Gothic, nocturnal and now immortal, Elms photographs transcend the animal-human connection and evoke primal emotional responses in the viewer causing us to ask, yet again, what the hell we are doing to this planet.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to Edmund Pearce Gallery for allowing me to publish the text and the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All images © and courtesy of the artist and Edmund Pearce Gallery. Text © Ashely Crawford and Edmund Pearce Gallery.

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Gregory Elms
Spotted Hyaena, Crocuta Crocuta
2010
Archival Inkjet Print

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Gregory Elms
Female Red Kangaroo, Macropus Rufus
2010
Archival Inkjet Print

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“Gregory Elms pursues the rupture of photography’s implicit claim to realism. To this end his current series, Preserved, investigates the staged realism of taxidermy. Both zoological document and faux wildlife imagery, the work oscillates between life and death, veracity and fiction, the horrific and the sublime. It documents the lifelike lifelessness of taxidermy, presenting a zoological menagerie that is both hyper-real and otherworldly. The work was inspired by childhood memories of taxidermy hunting trophies on the walls of the Sportsmans Bar, at his father’s suburban hotel. But it’s also a gothic investigation of our relationship with animals, influenced by the Romantic movement, the Age of Enlightenment, and the tradition of vanitas painting with it’s metaphorical associations to mortality. According to curator Simon Gregg it “erects an invisible barrier between us and the animals; a physical barrier but in many ways and with more consequence to us, a psychological barrier.”

As the artist observes,

“I grew up in a suburban hotel with a public bar festooned in taxidermy hunting trophies. I’d spend ages gazing at them and have remained enthralled by their life-like lifelessness ever since. For me taxidermy is akin to photography: it too presents a frozen moment as a copy of the real thing. On one level, the work explores our primal emotional responses when in close proximity to animals and insects. But it also explores what truth means in photography – is a contrived photograph still real? And doesn’t photography always render the real as contrived?  I seek to highlight this conundrum with the further contrivance of taxidermy.

Inspired by gothic and nocturnal precursors in art, and the history of zoology, the fauna are recontextualised into a menagerie of lost lives – some of them, presumably, the celebration of a now forgotten hunting spree. Each one echoes the story of their demise and surrender to human intervention, their poses animated by a taxidermist’s skills of presentation and reality re-enactment. To document the series, I have employed the idiosyncratic image making qualities of a film scanner re-purposed into a lens-less camera, its simplicity reminiscent of a camera obscura. Set in an otherwise unlit studio, the resultant image reveals a constructed twilight that fuels a dark narrative. Focus of the subject is likewise abnormal, sharp only where features press against the glass platen screen, dissolving into darkness and blur as they recede, implying a sense of entrapment behind the image surface.”

Preserved raises allusions to the history of zoological inquiry and highlights the sense of loss intrinsic to mortality. Indeed, the works can be read as a series of ecological memento mori.”

Press release from the Edmund Pearce Gallery website.

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Gregory Elms
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo, Cacatua Galerita
2010
Archival Inkjet Print

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Gregory Elms
Red Fox, Vulpes Vulpes
2010
Archival Inkjet Print

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The Art of Preservation

by Ashley Crawford

In the world of Ridley Scott’s 1982 Science fiction classic Blade Runner one of the most prized possessions is a perfectly replicated owl. The film is based on a 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in which social status is most often based on the ‘model’ of animal one can afford – or even better, the ownership of a real animal in a world where most species have been killed by nuclear fallout. This is the background to a more complex story, but it is one that is infused with melancholy and a powerful sense of loss. What is humanity without the context of the animal?

But humanity and the animal and insect kingdoms have long maintained an imbalanced sense of symbiosis. On the one hand we ogle animals in zoos or more regularly via television documentaries. Only the most hardy of tourists today bother venturing into what remains of natural habitats – all too often zones of environmental Armageddon. Very few species are truly ‘domesticated’. Indeed almost all animals remain the ‘other’, psychologically impregnable – some are good for eating, some are pests but they all, in one way or another, remain objects of fascination.

Gregory Elms captures this sense of fascination with unnerving potency. His menagerie of misfits, malcontents and monsters are captured with alluring charm. Elms reveals no prejudice when it comes to selecting his portraits; the pestilent hyena alongside the strangely elegant and impelling Dead Leaf Mantis, the odious Cane Toad against the loyal Jack Russell. Via Elms’ aesthetic each and every one of them carries a peculiar charm, as though they had been groomed for their portraiture session. With his deliberately formalized composition, his animals become indisputably individualistic. They are not generic dogs, toads or birds. They are members of a bestiary noblesse.

Animals have, of course, long been the stuff of artistic inspiration, from Durer’s famous rabbit to Hirst’s infamous shark. In Australia, Elms fits alongside an enduring history of animal as subject, seen contemporaneously in the powerful 2004 exhibition Instinct at the Monash Faculty Gallery, which featured artists as diverse as Emily Floyd, Sharon Goodwin, Irene Hanenbergh, Louise Hearman, Ronnie van Hout, David Noonan and Lisa Roet.

And while Elms may capture the notion of the animal as ‘other’ he also taps into the strange connections we feel toward other species. The animal-human connection is obviously a fertile one. In light of the success of recent works in the firecracker-hot field of comparative ethology, delving into the minds and emotional lives of animals, there is much to say about the permeable membrane between human and non-human in postmodern culture. Animals have also played an intriguing, little-examined role in the emergence of technological modernity, from NASA’s space monkeys to experiments on animal behavior and intelligence.

But Elms work also hints at the pre-history of animal-human interaction. Throughout art history, animals have been utilised by artists to represent human character traits – a man is a ‘snake’ or a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’ depending on their personality. Animals have also featured in mythology and the supernatural – the werewolf, the vampire. Elms also turns the gallery into the scientific laboratory, the taxidermists studio and, inevitably, the Hunting Lodge.

Yes, often sadly, (the Cane Toad aside), Elms’ subjects are dead. But they live on with a strange majesty via Elms’ lens.

© Ashley Crawford 2012

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Gregory Elms
Thailand tarantula, Haplopelma Albostriatus
2011
Archival Inkjet Print

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Gregory Elms
Cane Toad, Bufo Marinus
2011
Archival Inkjet Print

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Edmund Pearce Gallery
Level 2, Nicholas Building
37 Swanston Street (corner Flinders Lane)
Melbourne Victoria 3000

Opening hours:
Wed – Sat 11 – 5

Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘The Songs of Eternity’ 1994

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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