"Those blades of grass and leaves are all hand-painted," explained artist Jeff Millikan as he noted details in one of the dioramas in his exhibition "Collecting Memory," which opened with the new Bell Museum on July 13.
With poetic one-liner titles such as "He Wondered What Patriotic Science Might Look Like," these works exert a subtle presence in the museum's first-floor Nova Gallery. It feels like a conceptual archival excavation — as an artist-in-residence at the Bell, Millikan has taken taxidermied animals and specimens from the museum's archives and reassembled them for a show about extinction and loss that reflects the current cultural crisis surrounding climate change.
One of my favorite pieces actually is just a relic from a bygone era: an antique case, circa 1936, filled with bird taxidermy from St. Catherine University, that was used to teach biology. Millikan gave it the name "She Spent a Lifetime Gathering Birds," and wistfully mentioned that he thought it was "kind of an altar when I spotted it."
His dedication to arranging and anthropomorphizing this exhibition, and his work as a whole, speaks to broader issues about humans' relationship to the natural world. We caught up about all of this in person.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of using archival taxidermy and specimens?
A: I got access to the Bell Museum collections and I was mining them. My whole idea is really in a way counter to what the museum of natural history is in some sense. I am interested in how we are destroying the planet basically — the dark side — and they are more focused on preservation and how to support a system. To their credit, I look at the new museum and they are talking much more about what we are doing to the Earth. It's such a shift from the old Bell, which was kind of stuck in the dioramas, essentially. It's just an incredible transformation.
Q: At what point did you start working with the Bell?
A: The origins go way back. I had a relationship with the curatorial staff, then I developed a sort of trust with the scientific community when I came in as an artist-in-residence seven or eight years ago. When I came back this time [before the new museum's opening], there was all this chaos surrounding what I would have access to. The key thing is getting the trust of whoever you are dealing with.
Q: How'd you become an artist-in-residence?
A: The one I did a few years ago really involved no money. It was because I wanted to do it and I had a relationship with them. So they listed me as an artist-in-residence. This current one was funded by the McKnight Foundation. They selected several artists to work with the collections. I am the only visual artist. Some are poets, or using puppetry. I think it's an important program because it sets up an opportunity for artists to work with a major natural history museum.
Q: So it began with you looking around the archives?
A: For each of the areas — ornithology, herpetology, mammals — there's like a research facility that contains a giant collection. So it's really about mining the collection. The staff would allow me to greet the crates that were coming in [from storage].
Q: I am curious about some of the photographs, which are essentially like snapshots of certain aspects of the existing dioramas or taxidermy in transit. In one, you photograph a sleeping fawn with an owl perched on a tree overhead, watching it in a very fairytale-like way. The fawn reminds me of artist Peregrine Honig's piece "Twin Fawns," which are two unborn baby fawns found in their roadkill mom's belly and then taxidermied and sold.
A: Well, actually that fawn in the diorama was found like that, curled up on the side of the road. Most of the work I have done with natural history, it's like: "Do you want that above your couch?" No, not really. It's meant to be monumental but haunting.
Q: Some of the works in this show seem more curated than others — like one which mixes actual food specimens and what looks like fish from the archives. It's also kind of funny. What's the deal?
A: I just imagine these scientists that have a pantry and store their specimens in them. It started with friends who gave me green beans and garlic scapes, and between them are lampreys, which attach to fish in the Great Lakes — they look so much like green beans. And then I found this crazy box in the basement that just had a kind of pantry feel. If I can inject some humor, I will.
Q: I'm struck by this diorama with the gathered fallen bluebirds.
A: In the ornithology collection, they have shelves containing all kinds of study skins. This was a little touchy — I had to borrow maybe 60 to 70 bluebirds. So I think they had to trust that I wasn't abusing it.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this show?
A: I just want people to be haunted by the profoundness of nature and its fragileness. It is a scary time. It's pretty bleak, I would say. We've got a president who is trying to unplug science. And the evolutionary crap and global warming being dismissed. My work has always dealt with humans trying to control or subvert nature and failing miserably, and wrecking a lot in the process.