Nature’s Exuberance Uncentring the Anthropocentric
An Interview with Giovanni Aloi
This interview—and very much else—starts, for Giovanni Aloi, with his enchantment as a child visiting the Natural History Museum in Milan, the city of his birth, and seeing there the noted and accomplished dioramas, reading what was presented, reading as a child with wonder and pleasure and without the mediation we acquire later—just looking, filling his eyes. What was there in a notable array were dioramas containing tableaux, vignettes, stories—something clearly intended to be viewed with more than a quick peek or hasty look—something wondrous and not glanced at by chance. Here was a world held static, the looking-in, uninterrupted. No wind to rustle the grasses and startle the birds, no noise or sudden movement to cause animals to bolt, no shifts in light to indicate time passing. A perfect, still, held moment available for us on the other side of the glass wall—removed, remote, open to our specular gaze, outside our selves. A theatre for our entertainment, pleasure, education, but also an assertion of the hegemony of entrenched imperialist values, man’s dominance over nature.
Dioramas in natural history museums are beautifully, carefully, skilfully prepared. Art pieces by masters in the genre, evidencing the high level of skill required to create convincing presentations of the perfection of the natural world—for us to see, on the other side of the glass.
Giovanni Aloi speaks of our alienation from nature, of our having extracted or drawn ourselves outside it. Can we blame the apple? How did it come about or why, that we have removed ourselves from nature to use and overuse it and see now the consequences? We at the centre, the Anthropocene, isolated, alienated and suffering this disengagement. Aloi tells us how critical it is for children to be in nature, to have it be central and to be centred in it, to be literally well grounded. I think of the satisfaction of knowing my rural environment well enough to identify where and when to find wild strawberries, which grasses and plants grow alongside the wild raspberries nestling in their shade to ripen slow and plump, and the pleasure of spotting a “vagrant” sunflower in the rocks carried as a seed by a bird who isn’t my agent, dropped there after foraging in one of the random feeders around my cottage.
Aloi tells us not only that we have failed to see and acknowledge animals remote or among us, but we have also failed to be fully cognizant of the plants with whom we share the world. In his significant scholarship he has written about the ways in which plants have been overlooked and misread. Presented in art as secondary subjects to portraits or spectacles of history, they were relegated to be carriers of symbolic meaning—placeholders for something else.
In the editorial for the summer 2020 issue of antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, which Aloi founded and edits, he reminds readers that our fraught and complex relationship with plants (in art) is historic. “Seeing symbols wherever flowers bloom,” he wrote, “is undeniably poetic. But symbolism replaces one thing for another and invites us to see ourselves in the subject rather than see the subject itself.”
There we are, self-centred, in the middle, and how do we escape that nuclear pull? Maybe we need the dizzying, destabilizing, uncentring fling of a centrifugal force to move us to the periphery where we can properly join in the circle of nature.
The dioramas in natural history museums that have been dazzling viewers for centuries are filled with taxidermy—animals and birds and all creatures—emptied, presenting their handsome skins and feathers for our elucidation and pleasure. Perfect, precise and convincing, as Giovanni Aloi says in the interview that follows, they are, in their realism, incredibly haunting. “They are unstable— flickering in the illusion between life and death.” It’s this liminal, never one or the other state that is so endlessly fascinating and, as Aloi says, so haunting.
He speaks and writes about the study and state that he calls “speculative taxidermy.” The skins carry the topic where it has been engaged for exacting presentation in dioramas or by artists who use, alter and manipulate them as art and critique. In taxidermy what remains of the animal is only the skin, and so it is when this external surface is used for a coat or a rug or a trophy. But Aloi argues that it is not only material but the indexicality of the material; not only representing the animal but being the animal. Here is the animal, emptied out and discarded, but here, is the animal. He tells us, “All these anthropocentric notions—passivity, speed of response, the inability to speak—have contributed to our plant blindness.” To get back inside and close, we need to look closely at everything around us.
This interview was conducted by phone to Chicago on February 25, 2022.
Giovanni Aloi’s exhibition of paintings of plants by Lucian Freud opens at the Garden Museum in London, England, on October 16, 2022, and his newest book, Vegetal Entwinements in Philosophy and Art: A Reader, a collaboration with Michael Marder, will be published by MIT in fall 2022.
border crossings: You were born in Milan, a city with a distinguished Natural History Museum that was founded in 1838. It has sections devoted to zoology and paleobiology, but it also has the largest collection of full-size dioramas in Italy. Was it a place you were taken to as a child?
giovanni aloi: A lot. It was one of my favourite places and I still return to it today when I visit the city. The dioramas have an incredible sense of depth, they are very sophisticated in their imagery and the scenes are rich with artificial vegetation. The ones that explore sections of underwater and above-water life in one image are especially striking and that level of dramatization, generally speaking, is sustained across the display.
You have a more sophisticated understanding as an adult, but as a child was it a place of wonder for you?
Of course. The distinction between nature and culture wasn’t even on the map at such a young age. My first encounter with the museum was through a primary school trip and at that age the awe and wonder were all the natural history museum was about. There’s something simultaneously glorious and terrifying about the transparent readings those dioramas invite. Their power is immense.
The child’s world is a prelapsarian one, isn’t it?
Absolutely. The encounter with these objects is magical. Taxidermy was mesmerizing to me. But I also loved illustrated natural history books for children. I kept returning to them over and over. I was attracted by images of the natural world and it was always the thing that excited me. My parents are from the south of Italy, where nature is more exuberant. There’s a lot of plant and animal biodiversity there, and Milan, where I was born, was the opposite in the late ’70s. Many Italian cities are concrete jungles. I’m not thinking about the classic tourist attractions like Rome or Venice or Florence but the cities of the North—Milan and Turin—which are much more unforgiving when it comes to the balance between natural ecosystems and urban realities. We used to spend the summer months in the South, and returning to Milan was very traumatic. I would spend afternoons in the South looking for animals and chasing grasshoppers and butterflies. There was never a moment of boredom. I think you can never be bored if you’re interested in nature. In comparison, Milan was this dreary, grey and dull cage. So, places like the Natural History Museum, illustrated books and the wildlife documentaries by David Attenborough were my anchors of sanity. It’s only in hindsight that I became aware of how nature is constructed by these media and how that construction carries an often detrimental anthropocentric perspective that objectifies animals and plants.
As you describe your childhood experience, it seems that you were predetermined to become the kind of thinker you ended up being.
I don’t know that it was a matter of predetermination as much as one of being attuned and present. There’s something really important about the exposure children have to nature. I’m not an expert, not having children, but I’ve been working with schools, and I have been a child in environments in which nature was both present and not. I can also see the difference between friends of mine who have had the opportunity to engage with nature from a young age and those who haven’t. I believe that, unfortunately, we’re all alienated. Our distancing from other species, vegetal and animal, and our misconceived relationship to the land and to what environments and biosystems entail deeply impact our happiness and our existentialist quest to find meaning in life. I know it’s an anthropocentric tendency to assume too much about animal perspectives, but existentialism is something that we navigate differently from other species. I am convinced that the sense of depression, meaninglessness and futility that many of us experience at some point is related to this alienation from the natural world. We have lost our reference points because they’re constructed mostly by capitalism. Capitalism has become our second nature. So, one’s experiences as a child, even through a natural history museum, are extremely important because they shape a relationship with something that we’ve already alienated ourselves from and something that, nonetheless, we are. The paradox is that the only way most of us will have to re-engage with nature is through the evident traces of that very alienation, which is the natural history museum, illustrated books, wildlife documentaries, all these mediatic supplementations that aim to bridge the distance we have created through our evolution away from the rest of the animal kingdom.
It’s telling that you end up in Chicago where the Field Museum also has a recognized tradition of dioramas. In 2016 they constructed their first diorama in 60 years, using some of Carl Akeley’s hyenas.
Yes, and I lived in London before, another city that had a great natural history museum. I’m intentionally using the past tense, which is ironic and tragic at the same time. In the UK, as well as other countries in Europe, post-colonialist critique has cast its eyes firmly on taxidermy and condemned it as an effigy of colonialism. While the critique is correct, the response of some funding bodies in the UK was to withdraw money from London’s natural history museum and others around the country, claiming that taxidermy was perpetrating colonialist aesthetics that offended people and supported animal exploitation. As a result, many natural history museums dismantled their dioramas. One can argue that the situation is analogous to taking down monuments or reconsidering historical texts for what they say and what they omit. But taxidermy dioramas are artworks in their own right, and to dismantle and destroy taxidermy animalia is to kill them twice. It’s not erasing the event that has led to their materialization, but it’s rewriting history in a way that can be dangerous. Recontextualizing dioramas would have been the best course of action, but there’s only so much contextualization that can happen. Natural history museums in Europe have faced hard times navigating the post-colonial critique. As you mentioned, the Field Museum only recently decided to set up a new diorama, but it is important to note that those hyenas were taxidermied by Carl Akeley—the father of American taxidermy. I think every natural history museum around the world is very keen to state openly that they no longer kill animals to make taxidermy mounts. New mounts are made from animals that die in zoos.
How did your interest in taxidermy come about?
Taxidermy has always fascinated me because of my encounters in Milan’s Natural History Museum when I was a child. My grandmother had a few taxidermy mounts because in the South, hunting is still a widely practised activity, and my grandfather would bring back birds for the local taxidermist. So, these objects have been around me since I was very young. I’m not the first person to say that their realism makes them incredibly haunting. They are unstable—flickering in the illusion between life and death. They’re quintessential manifestations of what André Bazin called the “mummy complex” in Western art. In Speculative Taxidermy, I spent some time dwelling on a question that’s been mulled around for many decades and has never been answered. Whether the taxidermy is or is not an art object seems to be a matter of opinion. But when you look at the 19th century, you can find moments in which exponents of natural history museums in the USA advocated strongly that it should be considered a fine art but the art establishment pushed against it. It is not simply a matter of who is and who isn’t an artist. Taxidermists often don’t see themselves as artists. But the object in itself couldn’t become art in the context of the 19th century because it wasn’t subscribing to a very important and essential notion of what an artwork was back then in the context of classical art. Whether it’s sculpture or painting, an artwork entailed a transubstantiation from one material to another, most often through realism. So, a sculpture of a lion can be made of marble, bronze or stone, but it cannot be made of lion skin. At that point, it just could not fall into a classical conception of art. The quintessential notion of classical art is transubstantiation: a material that is long-lasting and immutable replaces matter that decays. So, with taxidermy, the major issue was not the realism, which was accomplished really well. I think that was what Degas addressed in the 1880s with his sculpture of a ballerina that included mixed media—the ribbon, the tutu, the bodice, the shoes and real human hair. He slapped classical art in the face by questioning the purification and transcendentalism that underpinned it. At that point, as we know, artists became much more open to the notion that an everyday object could become art. Look at Duchamp and the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. Many Dada artists begin to think more fluidly about the agency of objects. Taxidermy becomes even more interesting because surrealist artists embraced it. A number of pieces involve fur, like Meret Oppenheim’s fur cup and saucer, which introduced a question of the animal surface that hadn’t really been posed before. You can see how taxidermy emerges as a very important question throughout the last century and how the post-colonialist critique that demonized it was in misalignment with what was happening in contemporary art during the past 20 years. I know there are scholars out there who think you couldn’t critique post-colonialism, which is a massive mistake. It’s going to sound like a cliché, but artists often are at the forefront of certain considerations because they’re led there by materials, rather than philosophy, or other cultural frameworks and sources that might expand their field of action. Artists like Mark Dion and Angela Singer, for instance, who began to work with taxidermy during the past 20 to 30 years, were mostly guided by materials to rediscover and to question the human–animal encounter. Why does the animal keep haunting us? Why can’t we let it go, even now that we know it’s the visible sedimentation of the suffering, destruction and corruption of ethics and culture in the West? Why can’t we just move on and forget it? Why do artists return over and over to the subject of taxidermy, wanting to reinvent it? To me that was evidence that the post-colonial critique of taxidermy was somewhat flawed and only partial. Materials invite us to slow down and that’s where artists find an extra gear. They can spend time in the studio manipulating and understanding what they’re working with: “What is the material saying to me and what can I say to others beyond the cultural structures in which we’ve already entrapped it?” Their ability to free that material and to bring it back into question in a critical way became more visible in what I contextualized as “speculative taxidermy,” which is this will to resist the realistic replication of the animal body and the desire to foreground human animal “becomings” that are inscribed in the manipulation of the skin. Reinventing the shape of the animal skin in ways that suggest domestication, colonialism, agricultural practices, the subjugation of women and minorities, farming, reconfigurations of the land, diaspora—all these things could be explored through the remodelling of animal skin that exceeded the mimetic task of reproducing the animal as it looks in nature.