Category Archives: Sculpture

Careful What You Wish For


Rudolf Siemering, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, 1896, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlin (detail)To a mouse, today is not so much about an Irish saint called Patrick but about another saint who lived three centuries and six hundred miles away from him. Saint Gertrude of Nivelles hails from seventh-century Belgium (then known as Francia). Like Saint Patrick she died on March 17th, and like Saint Patrick she was posthumously awarded the date as her Feast Day. But you’ll find no mice dancing down the avenues, dying rivers and lighting buildings in colors that sing spring, drinking Belgian ales by the bottlefuls; you’ll hear no squeaks of Happy Saint Gertrude’s Day. Instead the holiday undoubtedly makes tiny rodents rather somber, for this Gertrude was none other than the Patron Saint of the Fear of Mice.

According to legend, Nivelles’s Gertrude was responsible for driving field mice out of the land, protecting people’s crops from devastation and the people themselves from disease. Before you picture a nun chasing mice like some kind of rabid farmer’s wife, the young abbess got rid of the rodents much more efficiently; she banished them with a single Rudolf Siemering, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, 1896, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlinprayer.

“Karma will bite you in your habit,” the mice must have thought, and sure enough, by the Middle Ages Saint Gertrude became forever stuck with myriad tiny rodents at her side. As mice at the time were popularly considered to represent souls in purgatory—souls for whom Gertrude in her day had spent hours and hours praying—artists began depicting her together with a mouse, often more than one, climbing her pastoral staff or sitting at her feet.

In 1896 the German sculptor Rudolf Siemering[1] completed a nine-and-a-half-foot bronze of Saint Gertrude for Berlin’s Gertraudenbrücke (Gertrude’s Bridge) that had been erected near the site of a former hospital, which also bore the saint’s name. The pedestal is bedecked with mice and rats on the run—one mouse’s head has been rubbed to a high shine from the many hands of passersby who can’t resist touching him in hopes their wishes are granted.



[1] Here in the States a sample of Siemering’s work can be seen in Philadelphia: his monument of Washington on horseback (1897) sits in Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; [Father Alban] Butler Lives of the Saints, 1866;

Images: Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (with a traveler) and detail (, 1896, cast bronze, height: 118 inches, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlin, reproduced for non-commercial use only.

“‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Felinka Mouse 2013, Mister Finch

The sculptures of Mister Finch, a British textile artist, conjure up a mesmerizing world of sleepy dormice and March hares, magical mushrooms and mischievous fairies, of Victorians romancing fantasy and nature. One of the works in particular (pictured here) caught my eye. The mouse is titled Felinka, but unlike the mice of Fairy- and Wonderland, Mister Finch’s mouse happens to be gigantic—at least for a mouse. Rivaling the capybara, the planet’s largest rodent, Felinka measures more than three-feet across and has a tail that’s five feet long.

Often referred to under the umbrella of the cuddly-sounding art form “soft sculpture,” each of the works Finch creates are sewn from remnants of new and vintage cloths, recycled clothing and table linens. The pieces are as meticulously realistic as they are fanciful; they’re as hard as they are soft.

While articles about Finch’s work almost invariably point to the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, considered ‘the creator of soft sculpture’ with his three-dimensional interpretations of everyday objects, the use of non-traditional, malleable materials—felt, foam and fabric and animal skins sewn and stuffed for example—can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century and the works of the Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Meret Oppenheim. That being said, perusing his website and the press, I get a sense that Finch (the Mister he added to reference his gender, meaningful in that he is a man who sews) is hardly the sort who is preoccupied with his place on art history’s spectrum. He seems to prefer to spend his days in his studio working late into the night, sewing his sculptures to the steady patter of the Yorkshire rain.[1]

He completed Felinka in April of 2013. In an email, he wrote, “I’m drawn to creatures with eyes closed as it has more room for interpretation,” and added, “a huge mouse was something I always wanted to make…”[2]

“Do we need [enchantment] now more than ever?” a journalist recently asked him what feels to me today like an urgent question. To which Finch replied, “I don’t believe it ever went away.”[3]



[1] Laren Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch,” The New York Observer, June 10, 2015.

[2] Email to author, December 28, 2015.

[3] Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch.”

Additional sources: Steven Kasher Gallery, NYC; “Viewfinder,” T Magazine, The New York Times, December 3, 2015.

(Image: Felinka Mouse, 2013, 
unique hand-sewn sculpture made from a mixture of fabric, paper, wire and plastic details.)

The Artist Who Came in from the Cold

James A. Houston, Mouse and Cheese, 1975Cheese is not a mouse’s favorite fare—at least from my experience. Sunflower seeds rather than slivers of cheddar are the furry fellow’s food of choice. Yet there are countless stories to the contrary—perhaps because the image of a cheese-eating mouse is simply irresistible.

James Houston, artist and writer, appears to have agreed. In 1975, he created two small decorative sculptures, each of a mouse sitting atop a wedge of cheese. Since 1962 he had been a designer with the famed Steuben Glass Works, a division of Corning Glass in Corning, New York.

Houston was American, Canadian-born and -raised. Excelling in art from an early age he found a mentor in Arthur Lismer of Canada’s storied Group of Seven [landscape painters]. He attended the Ontario College of Art, and at age twenty-six, he took off to Paris, and continued his studies at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière for almost a year—until his mother, like a fisherman with a taut line, reeled him back to Toronto, writing that whatever he was doing “there” was “making her terribly nervous.”[1] But Toronto wasn’t Paris, and he opted for adventure; he took the Hudson’s Bay Company ship to the Arctic in September 1947, and made first Inukjuak and later Baffin Island his home. Surviving the physical hardship of his initial five-month stay—enduring sub-zero temperatures and slipping through the ice on no fewer than five different occasions—he fell in love with the indigenous people; one later told him, “We sometimes thought we’d have to give you away. We didn’t know what to do with you, you were so clumsy.” He learned the language and absorbed the way of living of the Eskimos (as he preferred to call them, that to him using the word “Inuits” was silly unless you’re speaking their language, something akin I guess to English-speakers calling Germans, die Deutschen). He drew their portraits, their birds and their fish, often gifting them with his sketches. He began collecting their soapstone carvings and sculptures, acquainted them with the printmaking process, and helped them by creating a market for their work; he became the biggest champion of contemporary Eskimo art.[2]

He had been living in the Arctic for almost twelve years when he met Corning Glass’s president, Arthur Houghton, who had arrived on Baffin Island as a member of the very first tourist group to the eastern Canadian Arctic. Instantly captivated by Houston’s drawings, impressed by his artistic skill, Houghton offered him, open-ended, a design job. Three years later, Houston, realizing that it was time for him to come in from the cold, finally accepted the offer, and became Steuben’s leading designer. Houghton said that Houston was “the most prolific and the most successful designer that Steuben ha[d] ever had.”

Houston’s specialty was “Major Ornamentals,” in which he often merged crystal with precious metal in his designs. The majority of his works feature either Eskimos or wildlife of the Arctic region—polar bears, salmon and seals, for example. He said that at times his ideas came in an instant from recognizing a particular animal’s shape in the molten glass on the end of the blowing iron. Perhaps it was in 1975 when he saw in a hot glob of crystal with tiny air bubbles, a piece of Swiss cheese—the perfect partner for a small 18k gold mouse.




[1] Quotes and primary source: see Mary D. Kierstead’s excellent profile of Houston, “The Man,” The New Yorker, August 29, 1988,

[2] Margalit Fox, “James A. Houston,” The New York Times, April 22, 2005.

(Image: Mouse and Cheese, designed by James Houston, 1975; Colorless lead glass, 18k gold,
4 x 3 13/16 x 3 1/4 inches. Made by Steuben Glass, of Corning Glass Works. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


From a Mouse a Flower

Honebana Lycoris #2, 2009Hone = bone, bana = flower. Honebana, Hideki Tokushige calls his art: single-flower sculptures he makes from the bones of mice. Honebana might, to Western ears, sound like a sendup of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, if it weren’t for the fact that his work is a meditation on “nature and modern life.” It might appear a bit creepy if it weren’t for its beauty. The works are at once delicate and elaborate; each mouse bone carefully placed to complete the illusion of the stem, the petal and the stamen.

His use of bones emerges, Tokushige writes, from the knowledge that humans have been, since the beginning of time, connected to animal bones—converting them into tools and even houses (thanks to the size of the mastodon), not to mention musical instruments, jewelry and fancy footwear—and that all that we avail ourselves of today, from a sweater to the internet, stems from this “primordial consciousness.”[1]

For the Japanese artist, the mouse is the perfect conduit for conveying these ideas because, like us, it is a mammal and similar in form, that has lived through epochs of human history. And perhaps he chose the mouse too, because it was easy to find. He went to a pet supply company that raises domesticated mice whose sole purpose in life has been ascribed by man, to be raised only to be killed and frozen to feed people’s snakes. The chain of life with a man-made spin.

After he extracts the bones, transforming them into a lycoris, a lotus blossom, or an azalea for example, his work is only partially done. With a 4 x 5 format camera in a room on the first floor of his old two-story home, he painstakingly photographs the honebana to give it permanence. No sooner than he’s done, he turns around, breaks apart the flower and buries the bones to honor nature’s “systematic cycle,” and to honor the mouse.

“Spring comes after winter, flower blossoms and dies, evening follows morning, life returns to soil and [is] reborn—.”



[1] All quotes, according to Hideki Tokushige’s website.

[Image: Lycoris #2, 2009, copyright Hideki Tokushige]

“Everybody has a zodiac connection.”

Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals (detail)Chinese astrologers exclaim, you are a mouse—that is, if you were born in 1972, 1984, 1996, plus or minus every twelve years. (Never mind that we in the West typically refer to the zodiac sign as a rat, the Chinese make no distinction between the mouse and the rat; in informal writing, the character for both rodents is the same.) And if your head happens to weigh eight hundred pounds, then you just might be Ai Weiwei’s mouse.

In 2010 China’s most internationally admired artist, architect, and all-around thorn-in-the-side of the Chinese government set out to render the zodiac’s twelve animals in bronze for his first “major” public sculpture installation. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads would recall the bronze animal sculptures, “glorified water spouts,” of a water-clock fountain in the Western Gardens of the emperor’s summer palace, which the Anglo-French army had looted and leveled to the ground 150 years earlier—so-called payback for the torture of British diplomats and routing of British forces in China. Leading the destruction was Lord Elgin, who had previously “liberated” the marbles from the Parthenon and who, just days before the pillaging began, tossed off the adage, “War is a hateful business.”[1] And thus the ruins and the sculptures’ absence became a rallying cry for the post-Mao Chinese under the banner of nationalism, Western humiliation, and cultural rape—amplified more recently when a few of the bronze heads surfaced in auction houses in Paris and Hong Kong.

Viewing China’s past in a clear light Ai saw a subtle irony in the situation. The original works had been designed by an Italian Jesuit missionary and cast in France in 1750. With his well-known subversive wit and playfulness, Ai chose to reinterpret the Westerners’ interpretation of the Chinese birth chart beliefs. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” Ai said.[2]

The first of the twelve heads he created befittingly was the mouse, who was the first animal to show up when, according to one of the many legends, Lord Buddha summoned all creatures to gather and bid him adieu as he was leaving his earthly life. Only twelve turned up. Thanks a lot, Lord Buddha may have thought. With gratitude for those who found the time, he named a year for each of them in the order of their appearance.[3]

Ai said of Circle, “I want this to be seen as. . . a funny piece—a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection.”[4] His mouse has a big grin.


[1] Karen Smith’s “Monkey King Makes Havoc: Ai Weiwei Conducts a Carnival of the Animals,” republished, Hirshhorn Museum.

[2] From interviews published in Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Susan Delson, ed., New York: AW Asia.

[3] Theodora Lau, The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, Sixth edition, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. xiii.

[4] Interviews with Ai Weiwei, op. cit.

(Image: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Mouse/Rat, 2010, Cast bronze, 9.6 x 4.3 x 5.3 ft., Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, Adam Reich, AW Asia, 2012, reproduced for non-commercial use, official Ai Weiwei/Circle of Animals website.)

One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.

Bronze Mouse with Mask British MuseumWhile the Roman emperors were basking in the glow of Pax Romana, the people were busy it seems decorating their first- and second-century homes with small bronzes of mice. A plethora of them has been excavated over the past two to three hundred years in the Empire’s ashes from Italy to England, Turkey to Syria to Northern Africa, along the sunlit coasts of the Mediterranean. By all accounts the mouse’s primary purpose was to look pretty, adorning the lids of oil lamps and food containers; serving as finials for lamp-stands and for railings. At an inch, inch and a half in height the tiny creature is mostly shown in a crouching position, often with a nut, a biscuit or a piece of fruit between his paws.

One sculptor, however, had a more fanciful notion or possibly a client with a fondness for Greek theater. Instead of depicting the mouse in his natural state of forager, he cast his rodent in the role of an actor playing Papposilenos;[1] he gave him both the mask and the pointed ears of this elder silen—half-beast, half-man who was, according to mythology, Dionysus’s surrogate father and tutor as well as the head of the satyrs.

Papposilenos was a recurring character in satyr plays—a bawdy form of drama in which he would lead an uninhibited chorus of those cavorting, pleasure-seeking half goats in a routine of mock-drunkenness and dancing and lewd expression; the actors would be naked except for the animal skins and the masks they wore. Originating in Athens five or six centuries prior to the bronze mouse’s making, in the days of Aeschylus and Euripides, satyric dramas provided comic relief to the tragedies that were performed during the Dionysia, the fall festival held to honor the god of wine and, yes, fertility. With regard to the latter, then is it any wonder that the sculptor chose to cast Dionysus’s advisor as the ever-fecund mouse?

Regardless of the richness of a sculptor’s imagination, the prevalence of these statuettes of mice, clearly made with an enormous amount of sympathy, seems to suggest that the Romans found them utterly appealing, a true fad.[2] And that surely real mice, who served as models for the bronzes, were just as ubiquitous then as they are now—only the Romans, unlike us today, didn’t mind at all.


[2] Arielle P. Kozloff, Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1981, p. 185.

Additional source: H.B. Walters, Catalogue of the Bronzes in the British Museum, Greek, Roman & Etruscan, London: British Museum, 1899; Eric Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater, London: John Wiley, 2010.

(Image: Lamp lid with mouse, 1st century A.D., Bronze, cast, 3 cm h x 3.2 cm diam., British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.”

Tetsumi Kudo, Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970At a glance the terrarium-sculpture of the Japanese avant-garde artist Tetsumi Kudo appears inviting. A small furry brown mouse with his back toward us sits still in the greenness of his surroundings. But up close the lushness is only an illusion. Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit gives us instead a post-apocalyptic world where the landscape of muck and mucus—albeit acrylic—cover the ground, beneath which visible diagrams of circuitry lie; where humankind has lost complete control of technology. While curators and critics debate the degree of humanity there is in Kudo’s work, the artist’s message is no matter how dark and dismal the path technology and consumerism lead us down it will ultimately force us into a “new ecology,” toward a hopeful future.

Trained at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Kudo had first turned painting into performance art, smearing the pigments onto canvas with his feet and fingers. He went on to creating biomorphic sculptures out of kitchenware, and started to incorporate ‘electronic circuitry diagrams’ into his cynicism-filled collages—echoes of the Dadaists in his “Anti-Art” campaign.

In the early 1970s (before his work swung ostensibly inward) he issues, with urgency if not belligerence, his “New Ecology” manifesto. “Pollution of nature! Decomposition of human[ism]! The end of the world!” he writes, railing against humankind’s abuses of nature. Topical, we’re told, for Japan at the time—a country in protest of environmental erosion, of the petrochemical plants polluting its ponds and rivers and streams.

Crammed with waste and ersatz human noses, transistors for cattails and a caterpillar-like phallus, and the mouse, Cultivation by Radioactivity signifies decay. “Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.” Both Kudo’s words and works seem premonitory today. His legacy, however, was the ‘atomic’ 1950s; the decade in which he came of age. And, according to many, his art should be considered closer in spirit to Godzilla than to environmental activism. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that he ends his manifesto with a recommendation, a solution that is, shall we say, less than a practical one. “Irradiate humans,” Kudo commands, “to reform their conservative and egotistical heads.”[1]


[1] Ryan Holmberg, “Tetsumi Kudo: Nuclear Angst and Ecological Breakdown,” Art in America, March 2009.

Additional sources: Katie Kitamura, “Tetsumi Kudo,” Frieze, July 10, 2008; Roberta Smith, “Tetsumi Kudo,” New York Times, July 4, 2008.

(Image: Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970, plastic bowl, wood, cotton, plastic, polyester, artificial hair, electrical diagrams, artificial soil, transistors, paint, and toy mouse, 
9-13/16 x 18-7/8 x 18-7/8 inches, Walker Art Center, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


Among Maurizio Cattelan’s 128 works that filled the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum the ones that stuck out the most were surely the taxidermied animals, so many of them—ten dogs, three horses, five donkeys, and an ostrich with his head stuck in the proverbial sand, plus dozens and dozens of pigeons and two solitary rodents (including the small mouse clinging to a rope with his tiny hands, number 114 in the diagram below)—that might have even made Walter Potter gasp.

As he had done throughout his half-life career Maurizio Cattelan set tongues wagging and pens scribbling with his Guggenheim show titled All. He dangled from ropes and cables every single work—or their images—he had created in the twenty-one years of his ‘making art,’ a gigantic mobile whose dissonance was defused by an undercurrent of humor: the trademark of the Italian artist. The critics teetered between degrees of awe and hostility. In part because in the months leading up to the retrospective he had dangled as well the notion that the show would be his last. At age fifty-one, he was retiring. A chorus from the art world cried, “Whaaat?” Was this just another gimmick of Cattelan—whom the reviewers and reporters had plastered throughout the nineties and the aughts with labels of “poet-prankster” and “provocateur” as they catapulted him to international fame? He had entertained them with hanging a sign that said in Italian ‘Be back soon’ on the door of an empty gallery space, that being the totality of his show; he had constructed a large sculpture of a hand giving the finger, it seemed, to the Milan stock exchange outside of which the piece appeared; he had created a fake ‘Biennial’ in the Caribbean that was nothing more than a vacation for him and his artists-friends; and more times than not when requested for an interview he had sent an imposter in his place. (Both the sign torno subito and a replica of the insolent hand were present in All.) Cattelan however assured his retirement wasn’t a stunt. He wasn’t retiring in the way we think of the elderly puttering about but he saw it as a means to start again. He told a journalist, “I’m not saying I won’t do anything else. I’m just reinventing myself.”[1] Sort of like John Baldessari and his Cremation Project, I think, except Cattelan invited the world to watch.

Now back to the animals. The Guggenheim’s chief curator and Cattelan’s “long-time champion” Nancy Spector said, “[T]he animals are anthropomorphic and they are self-portraits and surrogates of him, they have a humanizing quality, if you think of Aesop’s fables – where there is usually a moral to the story – it is very much on that level.” She added, “They all have certificates from the taxidermists that they died natural deaths…”[2]

Cattelan likened himself, the artist, to the animals in his art, the risk that he too could be defined by the work and not by who he is. Yet for whatever sense of fear he may have felt he shared with the animal kingdom, he would later clearly state, “I am happy as long as [the animals] don’t live near me. When they are conceived, I cuddle them but the moment they are released, they become orphans. Mostly I hate them.”[3]


[1] Sarah Douglas, “The Elephant in the Room,” Observer/Gallerist NY, November 1, 2011.

[2] Kiša Lala, “A Mass Hanging at the Guggenheim,” Spread Art, November 4, 2011.

[3] S.T., “The artwork of Maurizio Cattelan: Hanging out at the Guggenheim,” The Economist blog, November 8, 2011.

Additional sources: Randy Kennedy, “Hanging with Cattelan,” New York Times, September 29, 2011; Roberta Smith, “Art Review: A Suspension of Willful Disbelief,” New York Times, November 3, 2011; Nancy Spector, Maurizio Cattelan, ed., Maurizio Cattelan: All, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2011; Peter Schjeldahl, “Up in the Air,” New Yorker, November 21, 2011; Francesco Bonami, Maurizio Cattelan: Autobiografia non autorizzata, Mondadori, 2011.

(Image: Photo and diagram (detail, click to enlarge) of the arrangements of the works, No. 114: Untitled, 1997, taxidermied mouse and string, Maurizio Cattelan’s All, from the press kit, Guggenheim Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

A case of curiosity

In the nineties the American artist Bill Scanga had a show in New York that explored with wry amusement the interrelationship between viewer and viewer, audience and artist. He created tableaux starring mischiefs of mice: looking at nineteenth century landscape paintings in a miniature mock-up of a gallery at the Met; sitting on a bench and scrutinizing their living counterparts behind a glass wall in an ersatz zoo; and huddled around a tiny TV set, watching none other than “Tom and Jerry” in their mouse-size living room. While the cartoon rings a dissonant chord in a setting that shows the rodents’ clear preference for late nineteenth century frills, the Victorian décor is perfectly suited to these taxidermied mice.

Anthropomorphic taxidermy was all the rage in late Victorian England. Perhaps it was paradoxically due to the growing recognition of the study of natural history as a science and not just as a hobby. Or perhaps the Victorians were just a bit mad—they were certainly mad for stuffed animal mounts to fill their homes not to mention to wear on top of their heads. And surely among the nineteenth-century taxidermists, there’s no one who came closer to being an artist than a man named Walter Potter. His work from the mid-to-late 1800s may be regarded as the pinnacle of the art form. He created obsessively detailed tableaux of animals against a variety of backdrops, in humanized settings: rabbits in a classroom; guinea pigs playing cricket; toads playing sports; and squirrels in a club.[1]

His dioramas I find are at once whimsical and macabre, horrifying for the sheer number of animals he used. In his “Kitten Tea and Croquet Party” he took thirty-seven dead kittens and adorned them with bits of jewelry and bows: seventeen are seated at a long table, serving and sipping tea and eating tarts; the others are playing the lawn game, one kitten is holding an umbrella, and a small tyke is on a bike. And for his “Kitten Wedding” he took another twenty felines and dressed them in bridal finery. His friend’s dog Spot (Potter had made his bread and butter stuffing people’s dead pets, a popular European tradition at the time) appears in “The Hunting Party.” Spot had been a “ratter” before he died; he had apparently “provided” the fifteen brown rats for the taxidermist’s “Rats’ Den.”

That being said, Walter Potter killed none of the animals—all allegedly died of “natural causes,” including presumably the ninety-eight specimens of birds of England he featured in his magnum opus “The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin.”

On that note I can’t help wondering where Scanga had found the mice he used. Had he killed them? Had he stuffed them himself?



[1] In 2003 Walter Potter’s entire collection—including six thousand taxidermied pieces—was put up for auctioned. The artist Damien Hirst offered a million pounds sterling for the collection; he noted that it was more important if it was kept together. “Individually,” he said, “what have you got except for some bad examples of taxidermy?” But alas his offer was turned down for technical reasons related to the bidding. The collection was splintered among myriad collectors. For a wonderful narrative of Potter’s work and the auction, see Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.

Additional sources: Grace Glueck, “Art in Review: Bill Scanga,” New York Times, May 2, 1997; Tami Katz-Freiman, “Notes from the Front-Line of the Struggle for Attention, New York, Spring 1997,” Art Papers, November-December 1997.

(Image: Living Room (Tom & Jerry), 1997, by Bill Scanga; The Lower Five or the Rats’ Den by Walter Potter,reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

Perception versus Reality

Liz Magor MouseA tiny, colorless mouse lies alone in an ashtray; it’s clear, however, that he isn’t just taking a nap but has been laid waste by polymerized gypsum. This is a detail in Liz Magor’s sculptural installation The Mouth and Other Storage Facilities. The cast mouse sculpture and those of his fellow woodland creatures—a raccoon and a deer, or rather, a deer’s head—have a mythical, if disconcerting, presence in the installation’s tablescapes, along with the wreckage of an ostensibly dreary banquet: packs and butts of cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, chocolate-bar wrappers, small piles of tweed and leather jackets, and stacks of dirty metal plates. You can almost smell the staleness. Some of the items are real, such as the candy in blue foil and the cigarettes, which had been smoked, we are told, by the artist herself; but most of the objects are not real, including the tables. Like the animals, they’re synthetic replicas, closely observed and painted to fool the eye.

For more than four decades the contemporary Canadian sculptor and photographer—best known for her participation in international exhibitions (Documenta 8 in Kassel, Germany, as well as both the Venice and Sydney Biennials)—has been examining the boundary between what is real and what is fake, probing the edge of our “human knowledge” through commonplace things. In 2009, a year after she completed Mouth, she turned to a new piece titled Corner Mouse. It’s composed of a two-and-a-half-foot-high corner cabinet made of wood, the top shelf of which displays once again a mouse in an ashtray made of polymerized gypsum.

Contrary to the musings of one critic or another, Magor’s recurring motif of mice deceased doesn’t speak to nature’s destruction at the hands of humans. At least, the artist says, not in “a tragic sense.” Instead the bodies of the animals “speak to a higher order of waste . . . tracking the trajectory of attraction and desire.” She draws a parallel: “Just as the shift from life to death is extremely simple and natural, but exceedingly mysterious, I see a similar profundity in the way some aspects of the material world will temporarily assume an irresistible allure.”[1]


[1] Jen Hutton, Interview conducted via email with Liz Magor, included in the exhibition catalogue for What It Really Is at Red Bull 381 Projects (Toronto) January 2009.

Additional sources: Catriona Jeffreis gallery; Nicholas Brown, “Liz Magor,” Hunter and Cook magazine; E.C. Woodley, “The Art of Liz Magor,” Border Crossings, No. 1, 2011; National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa).

(Image: Ashtray/Mouse, detail from The Mouth and other storage facilities by Liz Magor, 2008, cast polymerized gypsum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)