Emu feathers, wasp nests, freeze-dried sparrows, owl vomit: Such creepy-icky materials are the underpinnings of the work in the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Dead or Alive” show, opening April 27 and devoted to projects made of flora and fauna in various states of dormancy and decay. We asked nine of the artists to talk about their approaches and their unusual ways of obtaining and preparing art supplies. Hint: You don’t want to live next door to their studios.
Credits: Courtesy of the artist (Lynn, Heneberger, Löhr), private collection (Mackie), courtesy of the artist and Frederieke Taylor Gallery, NY (Rupp), courtesy of the artist/photo by Matthew Welby (Farmer), courtesy of Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris (Morgan), unique photograph by Simen Johan/courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery (Johan)
Billie Grace Lynn
Materials: Cattle bones from family farms and ranches. “I’m vegetarian and would never use anything from a slaughterhouse.”
Turned into: A functioning electric-powered motorcycle.”Once I rode it out onto Miami Beach, like El Cid. People fled.”
Collecting: “I got the bones from a farmer friend while in college. Working with them is horrific”they must be boiled and placed in the sun for months before I can use them.” You really don’t want to hear the part about the maggots.
Complications: “My studio was under police investigation,” she says. “They thought I was doing a satanic something-or-other.” Her art is also a hard sell. “The woman who handles my work says, “Who’s gonna buy this?’ Where’s Ozzy Osbourne when you need him?”
On Top of the World (detail).
Materials: Feathers, cocoons, sparrows, insects, foliage.
Turned into: A feathered entity resembling an avian Cousin Itt. “It’s a response to being surrounded by hipsters working with cardboard, duct tape, and plastic,” he says. “Things become cliché really fast to me.”
Collecting: “I got the sparrows from animal control, freeze-dried. The cocoons came from a biology lab that closed; I bought them on eBay.”
Complications: “I get my materials from ethical sources as much as I can”but I eat meat and dairy, and wear leather, so I already indirectly kill a few animals every week.”
Materials: Rodent remains extracted from barn owl pellets.
Turned into: For Untitled (+/-) (2009), mouse hairs have been spun into yarn and woven, accompanied by a pile of skeletons.
Collecting: Mackie gathered and picked through 5,000 owl regurgitations in the bathtub of his London flat, a process he calls “unappealing and unpleasant.”
Reactions: “I just explain that the owl did the dirty work,” says Mackie, who doesn’t kill any animals himself.
Materials: A variety of skulls, insects, crab legs, hedgehog spines, and wasp nests, plus one cockroach.
Turned into: “Skeleton fairies” inhabiting fantasy landscapes of decay.
Collecting: Friends give Farmer animal parts, and she gathers up roadkill. “I’m glad spring’s here, as that’s when there’s dead insects everywhere,” she says. “It’s like finding treasure”
Reactions: “My boyfriend’s tolerant, but got fed up when he found a stillborn piglet under the bed and my neighbor’s dead hamster in the freezer.” For most viewers, “fascination tends to override repulsion.”
Materials: Discarded bones from “fast-food-quality” chickens. “I don’t want organic bones,” says Rupp, explaining that the cartilage doesn’t break down cleanly enough.
Turned into: Mock skeletons of extinct flightless birds. “I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to repair something that’s gone. That’s why I make heads out of pelvises: They don’t give you the head when you buy chicken.”
Collecting: At picnics in the Catskills, “there’s, like, a chicken barbecue there every day. I’d wait by the garbage to pick things off people’s plates.”
Reactions: Rupp, who is generally vegetarian, is preserving something that may become extinct. “In our lifetime, they’ll be able to genetically engineer chicken meat in a dish, with no bones at all.”
Materials: Phosphorus bronze, dandelion seeds. “Dandelions have a beautiful system of reproduction: Each seed can transport itself to a new location and start its own life.”
Turned into: Fragile Future, a 3-D modular electrical circuit consisting of dandelion seeds placed one by one on tiny LED bulbs.
Collecting: “We take our bikes and go looking for fields with the biggest seed bulbs. We get very excited and scream to each other: “Look, I found the biggest one!’ all the time.”
Complications: “We have to be careful that we don’t sneeze, laugh or open the door.” When they moved to their new studio, they left their work open on the table briefly, and returned to find that everything had been eaten by mice. “They must have been very hungry, because they had even eaten the glue.”
Studio DRIFT (Lonneke Gordijn & Ralph Nauta)
Fragile Future (detail).
Materials: Thistle seeds. “When I finish a work I throw what’s left out onto the earth near my studio, and after years the plants are growing. It happened and it makes me happy, but it wasn’t my aim.”
Turned into: Große Samenwolke/giant seed cloud, a convex hanging sculpture comprising thousands of yellow thistle seeds suspended in an enormous hairnet. “It’s very near to minimal art, but I wouldn’t call it minimalist.”
Collecting: “I discovered the seeds floating in the air”even in big cities”and from this the idea came to use them, to work with their weight.”
Complications: Thistle seeds respond to even the slightest puff of air. “Sometimes people blow on one of my sculptures”then I have to come in and fix it.”
Materials: Sardines dipped in epoxy resin.
Turned into: Moon, four concentric rings of fish facing inward, their eyes and bodies intact. “There are 1,155 pieces in this. I looked through about 10,000 to find straight sardines.”
Collecting: Though he spends a lot of time exploring nature to collect materials, Heneberger admits that he just went and bought his dried sardines in Chinatown. “But whatever connection I lost by not collecting them myself is made up for by how much time I spent with these sardines: hundreds of hours dipping in them in shellac, seven times per fish.”
Complications: “I would eat the sardines while working, and sometimes I’d get confused, take the first bite and realize it was one of the ones I’d shellacked.”
Jose Mora (left) North Conduit and McKinley Avenues, Cypress Hills. On September 4, 2006, 11-year-old Mora was on his way to the barber for a back-to-school haircut; that week, he was to start the sixth grade at nearby Junior High School 302. He was struck by a Honda while walking his bike across an intersection. Jonathan Neese South 4th Street and Roebling Street, Williamsburg. On August 12, 2006, Neese, a bike messenger known as “Bronx Jon,” was struck by a livery cab while cycling from Brooklyn to Manhattan.