A long dark hallway stretches before me. To my right are more hallways, each lined with tall black cabinets containing taxidermied birds of all shapes and sizes. To my left, a concrete wall peppered with photographic film transparencies. Each is backlit with a bright LED—the main source of light in this strange underground space. The overall effect is unnerving and, surprisingly, compelling. Before I can think twice, I find myself walking forward into the dim.
I’m at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, BC, the site of local sciartist Catherine M. Stewart’s latest exhibition, Skin & Bones. I first discovered Stewart’s work at a Curiosity Collider event earlier this year, where she shared some of her stunning photo collages and discussed her creative practice. I was instantly hooked, and booked my visit to the Beaty as soon as I could.
In Skin & Bones, Stewart explores the problematic relationship between humans and animals. Bringing together visual art, science, and fashion, she highlights the commonalities between us and the diverse species we share this earth with, as well as the many ways in which we’ve distanced ourselves from our non-human kin.
The photographic pieces that line the wall combine aspects of the human form with images of specimens found in the museum’s natural history collections. A woman’s hands cradle a tiny owl skeleton. Ten tiny toes peek out from under a pair of webbed feet. An x-ray of a human skull gains a mouthful of river otter teeth. These juxtapositions are striking—uncomfortably sterile, yet oddly sensual.
Interspersed between the photographic fixtures are glass display cases containing accessories from the clothing collections of Claus Jahnke & Ivan Sayers. Among the offerings I spot an ornate ostrich feather fan, a corset made of baleen, and, my personal favourite, a pair of snakeskin boots with two sets of beedie black eyes. Animal specimens are tucked between each of these ornate accessories, reminding viewers of the living, breathing species with which these creations were made.
Everywhere I look I find teeth and scales, feathers and fingers, skin and bones. The images compliment and complicate one another, blurring the line between scientist and specimen, exhibitor and exhibit, human and animal.
As I finally turn to go, I take a last glance over my shoulder at the display case behind me. I lock eyes with a passenger pigeon propped up behind the glass, and see my own face reflected back at me.
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