Side Image: 

Toby Buonagurio (American, b. 1947), Multi-Winged Bionic Tiger, 1985, ceramic with metallic finish, 10½  x 17 x 6½ inches. Gift of Edward T. Minieka, Jr. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
Toby Buonagurio

Toby Buonagurio grew up in the Bronx in New York City and attended City College of New York, where she earned a Bachelor of Art degree in 1969 and a Masters in Art and Education degree in 1971. She sculpts brightly colored, flamboyant, tongue-in-cheek ceramic objects that are inspired by popular culture. She is best known for her rhinestoned and glittered ceramic "hybrids." A permanent installation in New York City at the 42nd Street Times Square subway station, titled Times Square Times: 35 Times, was commissioned from Buonagurio by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts for Transitprogram. It is made up of thirty-five separate pieces embedded in a glass brick wall. Buonagurio resides in New York City and teaches art at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she is head of the ceramic sculpture program.

She has said, "I always retain some aspects of the source images so everyone can recognize them. Then I make changes. What is small I make large and what is large I make small. I also crop, distort and invent among many other processes. The combination of the familiar and unfamiliar is of interest to me and hopefully to other people." Her work both celebrates and critiques popular culture. "It plays one against the other," she notes. "Ceramic is an important medium for me, but that’s not the first thing I want people to see. I want them to look at the art and be interested in its expressive ideas and sculptural components."

Key Ideas
  • Popular culture as a source for colorful sculpture
  • Fantasy of power in a hybrid of animal and machine
  • Decoration and artifice that embellish the natural capacities of the individual
Discussion Questions
  • What do you know about the meaning of the word "bionic?" How have you heard it used?
  • What are the qualities of a real tiger? What might you have heard about the tiger as an object of fear and reverence in its natural environment?
  • What qualities might wings add to a tiger? What might be some ways a tiger could use these qualities? Compare what it could do with wings and what it can actually do in the natural world.
  • What are your ideas about what this tiger might symbolize?
  • If you had such an animal for a pet, what might be some qualities of your relationship?
  • Like Battle Cat, the lazy and timid tiger that was transformed into a fearless and powerful beast in the Masters of the Universe action toy series, Toby Buonagurio has imagined a tiger transformed into a bionic and powerful creature. Can you think of another, less powerful, animal that could be bionically transformed instead? In what ways would the impact of a transformed humble creature be different from that of a transformed tiger?
  • In what ways could you compare the transformation of this tiger with the transformation of the lion in The Wizard of Oz?
  • What are some ways humans use decoration of their bodies to enhance their own, already unique, powers?
Vocabulary
  • accoutrement  an identifying and often superficial characteristic or device 
  • bionic  electronic devices and mechanical parts that assist the performance of difficult, dangerous, or intricate tasks by supplementing or duplicating parts of the body; or, having superhuman strength or capacity
  • compound  composed of or resulting from union of separate elements, ingredients, or parts
  • electromechanical  relating to a mechanical process or device controlled electrically
  • embellishment  added decorative or fanciful details for heightening attractiveness
  • extraterrestrial originating, existing, or occurring outside the earth or its atmosphere 
  • flocking  very short or pulverized fiber used to form a velvety texture or design
  • piston a sliding piece of an engine that consists of a short cylindrical body fitting within a cylindrical chamber whose purpose is to transfer force derived from fuel to movable parts supernatural  extraordinary; something associated with forces that cannot be explained by science or the laws of nature

Can You Imagine This? Fantasy in Art

A bronze tiger strides forward, its mouth open in a roar, baring its orange teeth. Turquoise eyes are covered by a cobalt blue butterfly-shaped mask topped with gold wings. A turquoise-and-cobalt yoke supports six additional wings, highlighted with flocking and joined by glittered turquoise triangles. Glitter sparkles on the sides of a saddle that has been transformed into a power-source with two rows of silver pistons. A turquoise band surrounds the tiger’s right front leg; a glittered chap on its left front leg holds a silver wing embellished with rhinestones and gold studs. A cobalt blue strip with seven gold studs lines the length of the tail. The tiger’s body is striped with deep brown streaks edged in cobalt.

This Multi-Winged Bionic Tiger obviously has super-cat powers, evidenced by its compound wings, the mask that may give its eyes special sight, and the propulsion technology it carries on its back. Its bionic nature, in which super power is derived by combining life forces with electromechanical technology, surely gives this tiger optimal capacity and efficiency for running, pouncing, even for flying. The bionic feline presumably is powerful enough to confront supernatural forces. Its natural animal energy has been magnified by the wings and mechanical technology so it can meet challenges from mechanized creatures like robotic enemies, as well as flying monsters or other extraterrestrial forces. The shiny, colorful decorations on its sleek body give notice that it is special, remarkable, and extraordinary. It is a star. 

What is even more remarkable is that a tiger in nature already has amazing qualities and doesn’t need any accoutrements to make it a superstar. It is the largest of the cat species; it can make short distance runs of between thirty and forty miles per hour; and it can leap horizontally as much as thirty-three feet, flying through the air with its tail rigid like the tail fin on an airplane to stabilize its hindquarters. It has exceptional hearing, and night vision that is six times as powerful as that of humans. Its unique striped appearance, particular to each tiger, helps it conceal itself in the dappled light and vegetation of the forest while it stalks and surprises its prey. There is little in nature’s animal world that a tiger cannot dominate.

This bionic cat is a fantasy hybrid of a tiger and a bird that plays on the inherent ability of a tiger to hide and blend in. Here it is calling attention to itself and pretending to be something more than its true nature. This tiger’s intrinsic force is dominated by embellishments and trimmings. The emphasis is on color and decoration as indicators of power to meet whatever challenges the tiger may encounter. The animal is carrying bionic propulsion, rather than being and expressing its own natural power. In this way the tiger may be a metaphor for much of the preoccupation in contemporary society on clothes and body decoration that enable humans to “hide in plain sight” as they negotiate the demands of social forces.

Powerful animals have often been depicted in art as guardian beasts, such as the lions at entrances of buildings like the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York Public Library, or on cemetery monuments and tombs, where they suggest a role as guides to the next world. Dogs have also often been depicted as guardian beasts because of their traditional characteristics of fidelity and watchfulness. Hybrids of humans with animals have been imagined, such as the sphinxes that guarded Egyptian temples. Other human-animal hybrids include the minotaur that unites a bull with a man, the mermaid that joins a fish with a woman, and the faun that is part goat and part human. The Hindu deity Ganesha, is represented as a male body with the head of an elephant.