Cool Culture: Dead or Alive Show at the Museum of Arts and Design

I knew this was going to be a cool show before we checked it out in person, but we were truly unprepared for the total awesomeness of the entire exhibit which has a WOW factor that’s off the charts.  The basic premise of the show is about taking recycled “dead” plant and animal matter and making it newly “alive” as art.  Take, for instance, Billie Grace Lynn’s freakin’ fantastic working “Mad Cow Motorcycle” made up of the bones of an entire cow. Then there’s Fabian Pena’s anatomical art that’s pretty swell in and of itself but will knock your socks off when closer inspection reveals it’s entirely fabricated from cockroach wings. And talking about the eeeewwww factor, you’ve got Alastair Mackie’s fabric woven from mouse fur recovered from owl poop.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Read on to get the goods on this exciting exhibition.

First, note that you can enjoy this show with your children without a lot of moral hand-wringing because in nearly every work on display, artists have gone out of their way to explain how they obtained their materials in an ethical and environmentally sound manner. Indeed, many works convey “green” or eco-conscious messages.  Better yet, every single work in this show is well worth viewing, a compliment I don’t extend often. And luckily, it’s not a terribly big exhibit (you can see it in an hour) so there’s ample time to give each piece it’s due.
An overall tip is DO read or at least summarize the descriptions for your child as we found the “wow” factor is often hidden therein.  Prime example: we weren’t exactly blown away by some pretty memorial wreaths of parakeet feathers surrounding tiny multi-faceted gem stones…until we read that those stones were diamonds made from each little bird carcass (natural matter under extreme pressure makes a “synthetic” diamond).  Apparently they can do this in Russia!
Here are some of our favorite pieces, which will give you an idea of the flavor of the show—and how it can appeal to kids with vastly different aesthetic preferences.


In the category of art that turns eeeewwww into awe, you and your charges certainly won’t want to miss the above-mentioned mouse-cloth piece, the cockroach wing wonders, and the incredible cow-cycle (do watch the video which includes the artist’s cheeky visit to a Miami Burger King drive-thru).  We also went wild for Keith Bentley’s “Cauda Equina,” a huge horse-hair-veil-sporting steed that looks like Cousin It from the Addams Family, Helen Altman’s Capuchin-crypt by way of the McCormick rack “Spice Skulls”, and Christy Rupp’s hilariously icky “Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans” which are pseudo-skeletons constructed from fast food chicken and turkey bones.
Action hero fans of all genders will also adore Tessa Farmer’s fun little fantasy film populated with miniature bug-and-bone super-heroes. Then there’s our favorite piece, Jennifer Angus’s amazing Victorian house inhabited by and bedecked with exotic insects all encased in a walk-around cylindrical curio cabinet lined with elaborate wallpaper patterned with jewel-hued bugs.

Young beauty-in-nature-seekers shouldn’t miss Jennifer Trask’s stunning gilt-framed Flemish-style still life in which all the flowers are made up of tiny animal ribs and bones. Exquisite, too, were Damien Hirst’s “Prophesy,”  a mosaic rose window of iridescent blue butterfly wings, Lonneke Gordijn’s “Fragile Future” lighting structure of softly glowing, delicate dandelion fluff, and Xu Bing’s “Background Story 3” which re-invents an ethereal, ancient Chinese scroll work from impossibly rough roots and gnarly plant debris. You can even peek behind the frosted glass to see how he did it.
The exhibit hosts an international mix of artists undertaking these terrific transformations to present, all together, a modern-day Cabinet of Curiosities.  As some works reference historical and cultural uses of natural matter, often with irony, while others blaze entirely new trails with the flora and fauna at hand, the show presents a unique opportunity to talk to your kiddos about humankind’s ongoing dialogue with dead stuff—from taxidermy to reliquaries to feathered finery. Whether you see the works as Dead or Alive, it’s all brilliant, and kids will definitely dig it.


FabianPena_cockroachskull.jpgThe Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)
2 Columbus Circle
MAD is open Tue. -Sun. 11 am to 6 pm and Thurs. 11 am to 9 pm. Adults $15, Children under 12 free.  On Thursdays from 6-9pm admission is pay what you wish.
ALSO, For children and their families, MAD presents Studio Sundays, weekly hands-on crafts workshops that meet every Sunday from 2:00-4:00pm. Ages 6 and up. $10 program fee per participant.