Gail Rothschild

Souvenirs of Nature

1990


Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings. 9 x 19 x 25 feet
Commissioned by The Hudson River Museum. Barbara Bloeminck, Dir.

Catalog Essay by Liese Hilgeman, Curator of Exhibitions

Working predominantly as an installation artist, sculptor Gail Rothschild creates unique works that resonate with the ideas and meanings of their individual sites. In her current installation, entitled Souvenirs of Nature, she recalls the early history of the Museum as the Yonkers Museum of Science and Arts when its collections included many natural history specimens. From 1929 to 1956, the Glenview Mansion’s dining room was home to “Tip” the elephant and an assortment of taxidermed animals and other natural history specimens as the photograph from the 1930’s documents. Some of these artifacts are still in storage at the Museum, and the artist has both researched the history of the Museum and examined many of these hidden collections.

In the artist’s view, the installation is about the tension between Nature and Culture as found in natural history museums. There are distinct images in the installation: fossil drawings, hay people, a branch-cocooned case of specimens another buttressed with bricks sheltering early man’s tools and detritus. The ordering of these images suggests a journey through time as the installation unfolds to the viewer through the physical act of walking through cordoned areas. More importantly, however, the installation prompts an inward journey where connections are made, accepted ideas challenged, and tensions exaggerated. One perceives the complexities of man’s existence and the delicateness of maintaining a balanced state where Nature and Culture can coexist. In this instance it is an artist of keen insight that has mediated such an equilibrium.

The room has been partitioned with curtains of translucent material. The light fabric layered with organic materials through which filtered light passes gives a murky mysterious quality to what lies beyond it. In the first area, one is confronted with references to a distant time, in the form of renderings of fossils of extinct creatures. The artist’s view of these creatures is recorded in a series of ink wash drawings done over a period of months at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In this sequential format one glimpses fractured views of the world before man’s presence.

Proceeding along the corridor of sketches, the viewer comes upon a window overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades beyond. A tight semi-circle of seated hay people look out upon the same vista - metaphorical effigies suggesting community and the presence of man. The passivity of the figures and the natural materials from which they are created suggest the strange complicated relationship man has had with nature. Is Nature viewed as man’s domain, his claim or does it evoke fear, awe and inspiration? From the more quiet and passive act of viewing, the contemplation of Nature the hay people suggest, the installation presents actual objects wrested from the natural world, evidence of mans active pursuit to collect and understand the natural world.

The rest of the installation consists of two interlocking chambers each containing a single vitrine. But the contents of the exhibit cases are essentially different. The first room one enters contains a case with natural science artifacts from the Museum’s early years. Zoological specimens, minerals, and shells, all culled from Nature, are displayed on a pedestal under a plexiglass bonnet. The artist has covered the entire case with branches. Originally wrought from their natural environment, collected, displayed and later relegated to attic storerooms, these items echo man’s continuing curiosity about the natural world. Literally viewed through a tangle of branches, the ambiguity and enigma of their meanings, their connection with a non-man made world is amplified.

The neighboring chamber reveals a stark cabinet, the base built up with bricks. The contents of this case include examples of man-made objects – primitive tools and utensils, suggestions of cultures past. One is prompted to ask of earlier cultures and the present one: If man, despite all his collecting and study, has remained unable to unravel the mysteries of nature, to establish histories which can be understood, was that the catalyst for Man to create a system of his own – civilization and culture. To tame, to domesticate, to control, to categorize and to collect with the ultimate goal being to understand.

Souvenirs of Nature, 1990
Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings.
9 x 19 x 25 feet

Souvenirs of Nature, 1990
Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings.
9 x 19 x 25 feet

Souvenirs of Nature, 1990
Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings.
9 x 19 x 25 feet

Souvenirs of Nature, 1990
Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings.
9 x 19 x 25 feet

Souvenirs of Nature, 1990
Artifacts from the museum’s collection, Hay People, fossil drawings.
9 x 19 x 25 feet