In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the preserved skins of exotic animals from faraway lands were brought back to Europe by explorers. The hides would be handed over to taxidermists whose job it was to prepare them for display by stuffing the skins and giving them a life-like appearance.
However, the taxidermists often just had to guess at the shape and appearance of these unfamiliar animals based on crude sketches and descriptions, resulting in grotesque physical distortions which would appear unsettling to the modern eye. (See this article on bad taxidermy on the fantastic Ravishing Beasts blog).
James Lomax’s Untitled [Me and My Friend] (2011) disturbs and captivates me in the same way that this kind of grotesque taxidermy does. Created as a haunting tribute to a close friend who passed away in tragic circumstances, the work is comprised of two latex casts of the artist’s body. The perpetually distorted figures inflate and deflate at random intervals, giving them an unpredictable life and death cycle accompanied by the menacing mechanical scream of the inflation device. Like the distorted animal skins, James’ deflated bodies are re-animated into bizarre caricatures of their former selves, reshaped into an uncomfortable state between living and dead.
To make the work, the artist had to spend a lonely six hours laying still in a full body plaster cast. As James describes: “The work was almost privately performative for me through spending six hours on my own, losing all of my senses whilst being moulded in plaster. […] It is totally debilitating and scary as your sense slip away from you.”
I think that the temporary detachment from reality he experienced while making this work beautifully mirrors the slippage between life/death, reality/imagination that the sculpture embodies. James effectively participated in the creation of his own death mask, and then responds to the psychological trauma by hooking up the skins to a pump that mimics the artificial breath of a life-support machine. I’m not sure whether this process was a series of conscious decisions or instinctual reactions spurred by the death of his friend, but the resulting artwork is certainly a powerful meditation on the messy overlap of life and death.
// Images from the artist, but you can find these alongside more of James Lomax’s great work here.