First published on 25 Jun 2008. Updated on 19 Apr 2011.
Perhaps if the Melbourne Cup had been cancelled last year in the wake of the equine flu scare, then it would all be a bit close to home. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan's dead, stuffed horse is currently hanging by its harness in the Museum of Contemporary Art, lending the 16th Biennale of Sydney one of its most striking and disturbing images.
The work is titled Novecento (or Twentieth Century) in reference to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1976 film of the same name, starring Robert de Niro and Gerard Depardieu, which depicts the opposing forces of fascism and communism in 20th century Italian history. According to the Biennale's official guidebook, the dead horse "expresses a sense of blocked energy. A saddled horse is a means of transportation and mobility; here it is rendered immobile. [Cattelan's] work is a eulogy for the end of the great revolutionary impulses that characterised the 20th century." As such, its relevance to the Biennale's theme of ‘revolutions' is pretty clear.
Still, in the wake of the Bill Henson fiasco, it's worth asking: is it within the realms of good taste to create art out of animals, dead or otherwise? When hung from the ceiling of the Tate Gallery in London in 1999, Novocento provoked a storm of protest from horsey types everywhere. And the poor nag is not the only dead creature in Cattelan's oeuvre. Among his other works is a deceased squirrel sitting slumped over a doll-sized table with a miniature pistol, suggesting that the poor furry thing has committed suicide. Should we laugh or weep? Is the dead rodent a poignant comment on the pitiful smallness of the woes that can lead human beings to take their lives, or a cruel art gallery joke designed to make small children cry?
Coincidentally, Novocento is not the only taxidermied creature currently on display in a major Sydney art gallery. Adam Cullen's solo show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales features a dead cat in a glass case, fitted with fake antennae and partially wrapped in foam. The pussy in question, titled The Otherness When it Comes (1993), is more ghastly than funny, and fits quite neatly into Cullen's catalogue of violent and scratchy paintings filled with loathing - for women, men and himself. Why should cats be exempt?
When it comes to dead things in galleries, Britain's Damien Hirst is course The Man. From butterflies painted into canvases, to cows, calves and sheep cut in half lengthways and suspended in vitrines, no member of the animal kingdom can count itself safe when Hirst walks by. But the artist, who also has a thing for human skulls, knows full well that the primary emotional effect of seeing a dead animal is the suffocating sense of the viewer's own mortality. Whether we feel sorry for the dead thing, or scared of it (remember that shark?), these are precisely the kind of emotions art was invented to tackle.
Besides, if humanity is ever called to account for art crimes against the animal kingdom, there's at least one ‘artist' we can call in our defence: the very creepy and very successful Dr Gunther von Hagens. Hagens' Body Worlds exhibitions - hundreds of human cadavers ‘plastinated', flayed, dissected and arranged in a variety of macabre poses - have toured the world, including quite recently Sydney. And while the dead all volunteered their bodies to the enterprise, the indignities their mortal remains have been put through certainly makes that dangling horse look like it got a better side of the deal.
Sign up to our monthly Arts newsletter