(Paris.) For an animal rights activist, the Musée de la chasse et de la nature (“Museum of Hunting and Nature”) is a giant morgue that people may visit for money.
Its dark, long, corridors assemble the finest – or worst, depending on your viewpoint – in
taxidermy and trophies; it shows guns, paintings, and anything else related to the skilful killing of wild animals. In here, even the lamps have antlers.
The French expression for still life is nature morte - "Dead Nature", and in this museum it has to be taken literally. An outdated institution, a relict from a gruesome past?
It might not be that easy. Hunting is not the same as torture in the name of science or cosmetics. Whilst there remain serious concerns about trophy hunting, you could argue that game is the ethically most correct way of eating meat – it won’t matter much to a deer whether it’s slain by a human hunter or another carnivore. None of the betrayal and degradation of stock breeding, and no slaughterhouse horrors, are involved here. At least, Bambi has lived a happy life before that last, deadly, encounter (as happy as it gets for a deer).
The museum is well aware of the protests its collection may provoke even in a not very “green” society like the French, and it proves its goodwill and the openness to deal with criticism when integrating contemporary art in its collection.
Currently an exhibition shows the works of Marion Laval-Jantet and Benoît Mangin, a.k.a. Art orienté objet (“Object-Focused Art”).
Right the first work we see is a provocation. The artists filled a doll house with objects and situations telling about the relations between human beings and other animals. A chicken in a steel cage, embalmed leopards and monkeys, a laboratory; but also an altar before a landscape painting and boxes of “bio” (organic) food. This miniature work is full of details waiting to be discovered.
Next to the installation hang a curtain and a warning sign: An artwork in the following room emits strong electromagnetic waves, it’s not advisable to stay in there for long. Drawing the curtain, the menace turns out to be a life-sized polar bear, with its fur turned into a woollen romper suit and its feet emerging out of a white rug. Every now and then, a battery of spotlights fills the room with blinding brightness (hence the electricity). We don’t know, if the artists have thought of it, but there’s this theory about strong electromagnetic fields causing hallucinations as the reason for people seeing ghosts (according to that - maybe pseudoscientific - theory ancient Scottish castles are made from a specific sort of stone that creates electromagnetic fields). So if you’d stay only long enough, you could probably lead fascinating conversations on life, the universe and every kind of art with a bunch of deceased animals populating your mind.
As often with contemporary art, there’s some meta-information that cannot be known without reading the catalogue, arguably turning the catalogue into an essential part of the artwork itself: Those are energy saver bulbs, and the artists mean to fight against climate change (why has the term “climate conservatism” never become popular?).
The Musée de la chasse et de la nature is a Parisian city palace of the kind you’d own if you were spending your holidays on hunting safaris. Each of the museum’s many chambers is dedicated to another theme, there‘s a Deer Chamber, a Wolf Chamber, a Boar Chamber, a Monkey Chamber, etc. Laval-Jantet and Mangin’s works are nonchalantly mixed into the permanent collection.
Apart from deer corpses, the Deer Chamber accommodates a medieval tapestry and a secretary desk filled with antlers, a deer skull, a hunting horn and the manuscript of a deer-related legend, that looks really old (in lack of any labels it’s impossible to learn more about the exhibits). In the middle of the room, the artists added a “deer bagpipe” and a video documentation of a performance they held with this instrument. Blowing into the paws of the life-size puppet, a humming sound emits - not from where you might think, but from the mouth. The video images strangely remind of a team of doctors administering first aid. Maybe, Marion Laval-Jantet and Benoît Mangin sought to give back the animal the voice it lost in these morbid surroundings. There is also that story told by Pindar about the ancient Greek dictator Phalaris, who roasted prisoners in a brazen bull, with their screams resembling the animal’s roar.
The small Wolf Chamber offers another secretary desk, this time dedicated to wolfs, with a wolf’s skull and a spike collar that dogs carried when they were made hunting their ancestors. Above, Laval-Jantet and Mangin placed the photograph of a fur wearing lady with her shepherd dogs. This is smart, there’s a thin line between use and abuse. Reading the catalogue, you’ll learn that a) this woman is Marion Laval-Jantet herself, and b) that coat was made from roadkill.
The special relationship between humans and dogs is further elaborated on in the Dog Chamber (where else?). Among many paintings we find a photo similar to the one mentioned above, but this time it’s a black haired and black dressed dominatrix leading three black Dobermans. In this room we understand how people try to use dogs to convey a certain image of themselves, to express what they deem their personality in an image. (This works almost exclusively in images, in paintings or in photos - Never underestimate a dog’s habit to take over the pack/family he was adopted by. Most people living with dogs will tell you how grateful they are to be accepted as his best friend; and it’s only their personality that had to adapt).
The Trophy Chamber could be named Gun Chamber as well, as there are definitely more guns than trophies. Marion Laval-Jantet and Benoît Mangin focus on the latter, and make a plush Panda join the gallery of heads. We all know, Parisians have a thing for beheadings.
But more important, this artwork questions the status of a prey. What makes a species a legitimate target, why and when will that change? What is the motivation behind trophy hunting? Not to forget, heads on a wall directly compete with conventional works of art, and has art not always been “something else for something real”?
The artists’ best known work is an experiment from 2011. With May the Horse Live in Me, Marion Laval-Jantet tried to become not Catwoman, but Horsewoman by receiving a transfusion of horse blood. It has to be said, the artists well prepared the experiment, and performed it in Slovenia, a country with an easy-going attitude on what doctors are allowed to do and what not.
In a video, scientists explain what happens exactly when the blood mingles. Completing the experience, Laval-Jantet carried leg prostheses to imitate a horse’s step. We don’t know, if she really learned to change from walk to trot to gallop, or how high she could jump. But saying this, we should get serious again and think of the Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius (yes, the one with the bathroom door). There is a need for prostheses, and humanity can learn a lot of things from nature. A chimera is the antithesis to a cyborg, and the reproduction of animal members with inorganic materials the synthesis of both. It’s already used in many fields of technology. Again, the artists’ leitmotiv appears: What makes the difference between man and nonhuman animal, and what are the ethical implications?
The artists hid more than thirty of their own creations in the museum, and you’ll struggle to find them all. Even big installations are easily missed in the four-storeyed labyrinth that is the Musée de la chasse et de la nature.
Marion Laval-Jantet and Benoît Mangin question the environment in more than one sense. Man and animal, primus inter pares in a lesser noble sense. This is one of the most sensitive subjects of ethics (go and read Peter Singer, and about the controversies surrounding him).
They can’t solve the mystery of the polar bear in the Bird Chamber, though.
Musée de la chasse et de la nature, Art orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jantet, Benoît Mangin), 22 October 2013-02 March 2014