I had gone to the RAMM intending to see Contours into Colour, a retrospective of landscape artist Alan Cotton. A recommendation from a friend and the story of Cotton’s career-shaping encounter in his pyjamas with Marxist art critic John Berger had piqued my interest but, standing in the gallery, his neo-impressionist field scenes and dense oil-paint seascapes left me cold. It was nature represented as we expect to see it: golden Provence, glittering Everest, dark Snowdonia and verdant Devonshire.
Wandering through the rest of the museum between towering carved totems and microscopic slides of insect life, I stumbled across something completely unexpected. Beneath the hanging skeleton of a Cuvier whale and behind the immense mass of an Indian elephant stands a Bengali tiger, locked in the eerie stasis of taxidermy, enacting an endless wrestling match with a grotesque nude human figure. It would be easy to walk straight past this curiosity, dismissing it as the bad-taste souvenir of a colonial hunting excursion or the kind of absurdist grim humour of Crap Taxidermy, but the strange spectacle has a little more history to it than immediately meets the eye.
Wandering through the rest of the museum between towering carved totems and microscopic slides of insect life, I stumbled across something completely unexpected
The tiger is old. A royal hunting trophy shot by George V and a kind of emblem of sovereignty over nature. The human figure, on the other hand, is new. This unsettling model is the collaborative work of artists Serena Korda and Sonia Boyce, installed in early August as part of the RAMM’s Artist Reflections programme, which asks contemporary artists to respond to a chosen artefact in the museum collection.
The figure, known affectionately as ‘Oscar,’ is a gawky pastiche of the human body. He looks like a ‘crap taxidermy’ human; all pasty skin, fake hair and obscene appendages. Everything about his anatomy and expression is not quite right.
To see ourselves rendered so lifelessly and so grotesquely is unsettling. It makes us question why we see nature in taxidermy as such a ‘natural,’ if outmoded, practise. Surely the image of a stuffed tiger is equally obscene? The pose of the two combatants is equally suggestive, casting an ambivalence over their relationship. It is hard to say who is attacking who or whether man or beast is the victor. Human dominance over nature is thrown into question, subverting the artefact’s original symbolism of the tiger as a conquered subject of colonial rule.
Serena Korda’s broader work focuses on similar themes of fear, spectacle and the natural world through kitsch and uncanny models, puppets and performance installations. Her seminal 2013 exhibition Aping the Beast covered much the same ground, exploring secular superstitions, anxieties of the unknown and uncanny reflections of human forms. A veteran of the British art scene, Sonia Boyce’s drawings and installations share an interest in bodies and the Other, often informed by her experiences of racial and cultural difference in 1980s London.
In stark contrast with Alan Cotton’s passé landscapes, Korda and Boyce’s installation asks direct questions about how we have historically presented nature, challenging our assumptions about the natural world and the ways in which art still tends to limit ‘nature’ to the sunset, the rolling field and the mountain range. ‘Oscar’ places the human on an equal footing with the animal and shows us the crudity and grotesqueness of our means of encountering and subjugating nature in the display cabinet. Here, art collides with the natural world in a provocative, unsettling and thought-provoking work.