I arrived last Thursday right after the dead horse. Shrouded in over 1 million knotted horsehairs, it went up the elevator at the Museum of Art and Design to join the feathers, bones, cockroach wings and cocoons accumulating on the museum’s fourth floor as part of the new exhibit, Dead or Alive.
“Once you get over the eww factor, it’s certainly a sight to behold,” says chief curator David McFadden, who conceived the idea for the avant-garde organic art installation this past October. It was while working on the museum’s last exhibition Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary, in which artists created works out of massproduced materials, that McFadden says he filed away the idea for Dead. “It’s like the second installment of Second Lives,” he explains. “It’s bones. It’s creepy animals. It’s bugs. It’s aspects of nature that hold fear but also real excitement.”
The show, which opened April 27, features the work of more than 30 artists—including Damien Hirst and Tim Hawkinson—each displaying work made of materials that were once alive.
Not that finding artists who do that, and do it well, is an easy task. “If you Google even such banal things as feathers in art, you find 99 million horrible things made out of feathers,” McFadden says, “but every now and then, a fantastic artist pops up.”
Like Simen Johan, one of the handful of New York artists in the exhibition. I met Johan in Brooklyn back in March, curious to see how he turns organic material into artwork. The smell of formaldehyde overwhelms you immediately upon stepping into his studio on Ninth Street, and I understood why after we began going through his materials.
“I’ve got bats,” Johan says showing me a plastic baggie. “They’re freeze-dried. I got them on eBay.”
The website, it seems, is a popular outlet for artists acquiring organic materials. Along with the bats, Johan found suppliers for feathers, bugs and frozen finches for his recent works—two wraith-like chicken sculptures erupting out of rock bases and sitting atop pillars in the back of his studio.
“To me they’re like ecosystems,” he explains of the plumaged pair. “Parasitical ecosystems. There’s little cocoons in here, insects, little birds nesting inside, little eggs. It’s a combination of the bigger bird that’s turned into something else, so it’s like a world within a world. [It’s] about our impulse to make worlds, to belong to something.”
Chelsea-based artist Christy Rupp also had birds on the brain when she created life-size skeletons of extinct birds like the Dodo out of cast-off chicken bones from fast food restaurants. And while some Dead artists see organics simply as another material, Rupp sees her work as an opportunity for a social statement. Meant as a meditation on the way humans devour our environments, Rupp used chicken bones because she says she finds something fitting about the way they’re engineered rapidly—just five weeks from gestations to digestion—in order to keep up with society’s insatiable appetite and says it’s this avarice element of society that caused birds like the Dodo to die off in the first place.
“I want to correct a common misconception,” Rupp explains of the reason for her work. “All of these birds perished because their habitats changed, not because of a design flaw.”
The offerings at Dead are as varied as the organic materials used to create them, but if anything, it’s a better installation because of it and thanks to the narrative underlying the novelty of each work. The pieces appear more reverent than revolting and evoke a spiritual element indicative of the organic nature of each piece.
“There’s power invested in parts of nature,” says McFadden. “Freud had this wonderful concept he wrote about at length called The Uncanny, and The Uncanny for him was not being able to distinguish immediately whether something is dead or alive. Is it animate or inanimate? You’re caught in this weird middle ground where you don’t know, and that is certainly true of a lot of these pieces. One of the reasons they resonate so much with people is that no matter how sophisticated we think we are, no matter how hard we try and separate ourselves from these materials, not once can you forget that these once were alive, and so they still have that weird presence of being a memento of something that had a real life.”
>>DEAD OR ALIVE Through Oct. 24, Museum of Art and Design, 2 Columbus Circle (at Broadway), 212-299-7777; $12 and up.