Post-modern, paleontological art

One a recent art crawl in St. Paul, Minnesota, I ran across the work of Michael Bahl.

Dressed in a white lab coat, Bahl bills his work as "post-osteological interpretation." Basically, he's built both skeletal monsters, and an ostensibly real research history to go with them. This creature, for instance, is a Chalicotherium laurentian. She is an adult female, part of a trio of fossil animals that includes an adult male and a juvenile. Here's Bahl's statement on the C. laurentian family.

Discovered in 1887 by Harold Vanselow, a maverick dinosaur hunter and at one time a member of the Othniel Charles Marsh team from the Yale Peabody Museum, this Chalacothere was named appropriately enough after the Laurentian Divide in Northern Minnesota where tributaries of the St. Lawrence River divide and flow in two directions.

Dating from the Miocene era, the bones of these creatures retain the rich, deep color of the Iron Range where they once roamed in large herds. The purpose of the male's secondary head has been much debated, some experts believing it to be fully functional while others maintain it was most probably used in the mating ritual.

Research indicates that the family grouping seen here was first exhibited in the late 19th Century at a private museum in London and assembled by Walter Vernon, the well-known enfant terrible of those early years of prehistoric osteological display. Vernon's philosophy was explained in a lengthy article which appeared in 1901. He stated that he felt his specimens acknowledged not only the accurate presentation of a skeleton, but the millions of years that the bones had been part of the earth itself and the impact the internment had on them. "Tribute must be paid to the beauty given to these beasts by the greatest of artists -- time."

The exhibit caused a furor in scientific circles largely because no other specimens or even fragments had been unearthed. It was both hailed as a work of art and villified as "expressionistic". Matters were complicated further by the disappearance of Vanselow's notebooks and meticulously detailed maps. The exhibit vanished in 1904 after fire destroyed the hall in which it was housed, and as if by unspoken agreement it was quietly forgotten.

Then, in 1994, the bones were rediscovered embedded in the foundation of a home in South St. Paul, Minnesota. They had been packed in crates originating in Prague circa 1914 and, since the house had been built in 1939, it is not known where the remains of this might species had been kept. Although some structural repairs were necessary, the specimens are otherwise presented here in the splendidly ancient condition in which they were found.


  1. It is written that such creatures can be found in Tlön, where it is speculated (perhaps vacuously) that they are the creation of a mad poet-naturalist, who alone has discovered the art of creating living hronir.

  2. Check out the work of Jan Svankmajer! He builds totally surreal and creepy creatures out of bones, feather, shells, whatever and displays them as classic wunderkammers / “natural history cabinets” including latin classifications. I saw his exhibition in Vienna and still mourn the lack of a proper catalogue there.

  3. I love it! Michael Bahl’s art is a brilliant example of allowing the imagination to run wild, yet filtering it through the constraints of believable organic structures and cultural milieu. It is whimsical too in the way that it caricatures and stylizes not only the structure of organisms but also the institution of science.
    Actually his work is of particular interest to me as I’ve been engaged in a coincidentally similar pursuit for nearly 7 years now. Perhaps we are both tapped into the zeitgeist. You’ll never see my artwork on boingboing though because the artifacts that I produce are not fossils but functioning primitive torture devices. I don’t know why, but that tends to make people uneasy…

Comments are closed.