Monday, May 21, 2012

OLD Bio-Art: P.T. Barnum.

Long before bio-art was considered a thing, people were messing with dead animal bits and calling it art. Or, rather, it was masqueraded like a display of deceased freaks that were once alive. I'm still calling it art simply because some of these are indeed works of art. Others are just monstrosities. Regardless, taxidermists still have a lot of fun constructing mythical animals out of spare parts today, so let's go to the freakshow.

 The most famous (but not only) exhibitioner of creative taxidermy was P.T. Barnum. All of his 'freak' taxidermies were "gaffs" ("fakes" in normal English). Nonetheless, it is common practice for exhibitioners to pass off their fakes as the real McCoy - even if they get in trouble for it. They seem to have a lot of fun making monsters...almost real.

From the Peabody Museum. Is it the real one?

The most popular and notorious fake taxidermy is, of course, the Fiji Mermaid. It was made from half of a baby monkey, half of a fish, and a papier-mache bridge in between them. It was brought to P.T. Barnum by another showman, Moses Kimball, in 1842. Since then, 'mermaids' like it have been a staple of freak shows and Ripley's Believe It Or Not!. Don't believe any of the signs claiming that your local mermaid is the original; they're probably lying.

P.T. Barnum also exhibited the world's first 'unicorn' skeleton. This model in particular is a weird blend of ungulate and narwhal. It was fashioned out of a horse's skull and various other miscellaneous, fossilized bones, including mammoth parts. Considering that one-horned artiodactyls come pretty darn close to unicorns,  it's no surprise that this skeleton was dismissed as a fake pretty quickly.


Punks, or pickled human fetuses, are also common to sideshows. Many of them feature fetuses with various deformities, such as Siamese twins. One show was lucky enough to get a fetus that had lithified in the womb - a condition that has supposedly occurred exactly 290 times. These days, most punks are rubber/wax copies called "bouncers"- there are way too many laws about transporting and exhibiting human remains nowadays. I'm not really sure if this qualifies as art, but punks are put on display as often as taxidermic freaks.

Whether you considered the Fiji Mermaid and pickled fetuses art or not, they are certainly displayed like it. People pay to see freaks. One can argue that man did not create things like Siamese twins, but taxidermies and punks are almost certainly fabricated. If it's in a gallery and evokes enough emotion that people have been seeing it for decades, is that enough to make it art?

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