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Taxonomies of Power: Photographic Encounters 

at the State Silk Museum, Tbilisi

Mishkin Gallery and Georgian State Silk Museum, Tbilisi

by Joanna Seifter, May 22, 2024

In his essay Why Look at Animals, theorist John Berger expands interspecies companionship beyond symbiosis and into abstract terms. Although humans and animals share neither language nor “capacity for symbolic thought,”* our affinity for animals stems from and has been sustained by, languages’ inclination towards metaphors. Thus, argues Berger, we uphold animals as our earliest emotional, visual, and cosmological analogies, while simultaneously harboring few qualms about eating, subjugating, or transfiguring an animal’s characteristics or environment for our benefit.

 

Biological reductionism, defined by curator and historian Alaina Claire Feldman of Mishkin Gallery as perceived “​​economically useful life [being] domesticated and maintained for state interests,” is one of our methods of categorizing and, indirectly, transforming and profiting from, animals.** Feldman’s latest exhibition, co-curated with Mariam Shergelashvili of the Georgian State Silk Museum, Tbilisi, presents silk production as an example of biological reductionism emblematic of humankind’s fraught relationship with animals and resource extraction. The show, entitled Taxonomies of Power: Photographic Encounters at the State Silk Museum, Tbilisi (on now through June 7), centers around the Georgian State Silk Museum’s recently discovered collections of photographs, which Feldman and Shergelashvili propose were taken by Misha Mendelevich and collaborators in the 1930s-50s. 

 

Some of Mendelevich’s photographs closely adhere to the conventional standards of specimen photography, like Five Ages of the Silkworm, an arrangement of larvae and caterpillars by length and maturity, and Giant Peacock Moth, an overhead view of a silkworm moth with its ringed wings pinned open. Others, like Silkworm; Side View, which distributes a silkworm caterpillar’s profile across three distinct horizontal stills, and “Portrait” of a Silkworm, a detailed frontal view of a silkworm caterpillar’s adorably wrinkled, whiskered face, are more artistically ambitious while remaining representational, transforming their humble subjects into charming anthropomorphized creatures. Mendelevich’s photography is also metonymic, like Silk Production Gland of a Silkworm, which renders a silkworm caterpillar’s organs as two ivory streamers, tapered and forming the elegant contour of an angel’s wings, splintering into scraggly tendrils at both ends. In another, Silk Wing; Microscopic Image, faintly metallic ovular scales stretch across the photograph’s surface, extending past its iris border, replacing all immediately recognizable attributes of an insect’s wing with a nondescript, harmonious swath of textures and values. 


Each photograph is equal parts archival and abstract, clinical documentation of silkworms’ life cycles and anatomies imbued with visual flair (the viewer would be forgiven for mistaking some of these images for Meret Oppenheim’s dioramas, Lotte Reininger’s stop motion stills or Helen Yentus’ book covers). Mendelevich’s often empathetic, imaginative approach to collections photography invites viewers to engage with the Silk Museum’s archives as both specimens and beings. At the same time, some photographs occasionally foray into the grotesque, like Silkworm; side view, a profile of a silkworm caterpillar with unusually bulbous skin, and Longitudinal Cut of a Silkworm, featuring a silkworm caterpillar’s filleted body strung across an apparatus, not unlike a Medieval torture device. These images, coupled with photographs of truncated and stringed cocoons, lay bare the violent undercurrents intertwined with silk production. Although silk is an organic fiber, sericulture can only be achieved through agonizing metamorphoses elicited by selective breeding and requires boiling pupa alive to unwind their fibrous cocoons. Mendelevich’s photography aestheticizes and immortalizes the Museum’s silkworms while, intentionally or otherwise, highlighting the exploitation inherent to resource extraction from animals, encompassing the dichotomous relationship with animals Berger examines.


The exhibition inspiredly pairs Mendelevich’s photographs with contemporary artist Andro Eradze’s powerful short Raised in the Dust (2022). In the film, as fireworks explode over woodlands, marking mankind’s encroachment on the animal realm, breezes escalate to roars and taxidermied critters emerge from shadows and shrubs. Eradze’s forest, imbibed with a Saint-Saёnslike mystique, restores lifeless reconstructions of animal carcasses to their true nature–a wolf’s repatched fur ripples and flows across its motionless body, a ghostly smile flickers across a rabbit’s face, a boar’s glass eyes sparkle to life. The fireworks gradually cease as the animals return to their shadows of selves, possibly forever. The crunch of a footstep grinds the film, and the exhibition, to a chilling conclusion, an elegiac ode to the beautiful yet destructive connections we forge with animals in the artistic, commercial, and archival spheres.

 

* John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?,” from About Looking (New York: Pantheon, 1980): 7.

**  Alaina Claire Feldman, “Lenses of Empire,” from Taxonomies of Power: Photographic Encounters at the State Silk Museum, Tbilisi (ed. Alaina Claire Feldman and Mariam Shergelashvili, New York: Mishkin Gallery, 2024): 7.  

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Header Image: “Portrait” of a Silkworm (c. 1930s-1950s), attributed to Misha Mendelevich. Digitized scan of glass plate negative. Courtesy State Silk Museum, Tbilisi. Image with projection: Video Still from Raised in the Dust (2022), Andro Eradze. Courtesy Mishkin Gallery.Last image: Silk Production Gland of a Silkworm (c. 1930s-1950s), attributed to Misha Mendelevich. Digitized scan of glass plate negative. Courtesy State Silk Museum, Tbilisi.

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