In spite of my otherwise macabre interests, for most of my life I had not really been enthusiastic about taxidermy. I usually associated its appearance with places like Cabela’s or musty furniture stores run by area crankpots. Frankly, taxidermy seemed a boorish, obnoxious display of human mastery over the animal kingdom. I failed to see its appeal.
Then, about a few years ago, taxidermy suddenly became cool. I started seeing stuffed animals everywhere, popping up in fancy shops in Hampden, and also in the houses of people my age. I began to see works that strayed from the typical “deer head on plaque,” works that conveyed whimsy and gallows humor. I felt my own revulsion fade and turn into fascination with this new old hobby.
Taxidermy appears to be folded into some kind of millennial zeitgeist, characterized by renewed interest in nearly dead arts and crafts. It is very much in keeping with a general backlash against highly sanitized, factory-produced lifestyles, and a move towards a DIY / maker-based ethos. From that Washington Post piece:
Bazaar, the oddities shop in Baltimore that Hatem owns with partner Brian Henry, regularly hosts taxidermy classes. A recent session sold out in less than 20 minutes. Although the instructors typically come from New York, the students — mostly 20- to 35-year-old women — come from Washington and Baltimore.
Sometimes, I fear how neatly and easily I fall into demographic traps.
Resist though I may, however, I can’t help but join the bandwagon. I wandered into Bazaar one day and lingered for a long time in the tiny shop, perusing their collection of skulls and diaphonized fetuses in jars. I was utterly charmed by Jezebel, the resident taxidermied otter, looking spiffy in a velvet beret atop Shirley Temple curls. But what made Jezebel more appealing than other preserved, glassy-eyed specimens I’d previously seen in museums (and the aforementioned Cabela’s)? Do clothing and fun accessories demarcate the line between ex-animal and horror show?
I walked out of the shop with a copy of Robert Marbury’s Taxidermy Art, and began my study of what is known as “rogue taxidermy” – the new wave of preserving animals for people to gawk at. Marbury describes taxidermy as a way of telling stories through sculpture; depending upon context, taxidermy can either be straight up representational, or imbued with artistic or even political commentary. A posed bear could just simply be a bear; pose that bear on top of a refrigerator and now you have a statement piece about global warming. A deer-head mounted on a plaque could just represent a deer, say, or it could also be extrapolated to represent human dominance over that deer. (I am not sure what the story of Jezebel is, other than an otter with a penchant for fashion.)
Rogue taxidermy seems to distinguish itself from traditional taxidermy by a loosely cobbled together, evolving set of ethics. Rogue taxidermists refrain from killing the animals they use, both out of an impulse to do no harm, and also to not waste perfectly good corpses. There are also vegan taxidermists, which kind of takes the “dermis” out of the equation, but they do their thing with wire and fabric in lieu of bone and fur.
A few weeks ago, the Walters Art Museum here in Baltimore hosted a taxidermy talk with Robert Marbury and Joaneth Spicer, one of the museum curators. Along with the talk was a contest, wherein competitors from all over the country brought their dried up mammals and sundry for judgment. This event was marketed on Facebook, and thousands marked themselves as attending – further evidence of zeitgeist.
The talk took place in the room in the Walters known as the “Chamber of Wonders,” modeled after old timey wealthy folk drawing rooms, which were often filled with preserved animals as a way of studying the animal kingdom – for this sort of collection predated zoos. The talk was fascinating and mostly concerned the history and evolution of taxidermy, from its origins in the Victorian era, to the specimens lined up for judging outside in the atrium.
While taxidermy traditionally intended to be direct, faithful copies of the animal in its lifetime, there were instances of quite literal rogue taxidermy in its early days. Frauds abounded, with artists cobbling together “dragons” out of sting rays and other animals – these were known as “Jenny Hanivers.” The great naturalist Aldrovandi was fooled by some of these Jenny Hanivers; admirably, Aldrovandi swallowed his pride and publicly admitted to having been duped.
Spicer and Marbury did a good job articulating the popular appeal of taxidermy to the enormous crowd gathered in the Chamber of Wonders. Taxidermy represents hybrids of the imagination; it broaches the borders between nature and art. Successful taxidermy evokes curiosity in the viewer. There’s that lurid pull of the grotesque, balanced and tempered by the singular vision of the artist. The morbid materials lure viewers in; the story imposed by the artist keeps them staring.
My very favorite piece ended up being the contest winner – a stunning griffin, Frankenstitched from various fox parts, epoxy and steel. It was absolutely gorgeous and looked almost alive, imbued with potential energies. I talked at length with its creator, Emi Slade. She had driven all the way from Michigan to smoke this competition. If the mythical griffin weren’t enough, she had also brought a Cerberus, glaring at passersby with six flaming eyes. The Cerberus sculpture did not involve any dogs, for as I learned, dogs and cats are actually illegal to use in taxidermy. I suppose the idea is not to incentivize poaching dogs and cats for art a la Cruella De Vil, as Slade put it. Also illegal for use: any kind of migratory bird, hence her need to sculpt part of any bird pieces out of epoxy and non-organic materials. So my cat is safe from any fanciful notions I might have of stuffing him and installing wheels, once he passes beyond the Rainbow Bridge.
The answer is “yes,” sort of, but there are hoops. Of course there is the infamous Body Worlds exhibit, which has been dogged by controversy concerning the sourcing of bodies. Marbury had also mentioned a taxidermist based in Australia who will accept human donations for taxidermy purposes – hopefully, with more rigorous confirmations and controls with regard to sourcing. Aside from various taboos and legal ramifications, human taxidermy isn’t popular because our skin just doesn’t look that great post-processing. Animal fur hides seams and imperfections, and much like satin, we show off every flaw. Also, over time, we mostly just kind of tan into a really upsetting looking leather.
No, the best we humans can hope for is to be turned into stories, in a literal sense. Anthropodermic bibliopegy was a trend during the 19th century. Typically, these human books were either monks, who sought a kind of eternal communion with the word of God beyond their lifespans, or convicts who were forever bound to their crimes. One of the most famous examples is that of The Highwayman. George Walton was the titular highwayman, who robbed and rampaged across New England with reckless glee until he was eventually caught. Before Walton was hanged, he penned a memoir and actually requested himself that this memoir be bound in his own skin, and bequeathed as a gift to the man responsible for Walton’s capture.
Supposedly this book was gifted to the Boston Athenaeum. On a recent visit, a friend and I went to go check out this book. Disappointingly it was not there, as it is currently being DNA tested to ensure it is legitimately people, and not like a sheep that had been swapped out last minute for Walton. I have been told there are a number of similar books in the Boston area, but their whereabouts are generally kept under wraps for reasons of controversy.
From nearly adorable rodent tea parties to creepy-ass people books, there is a lot to explore with regard to the art of taxidermy. It is practical necromancy, maybe, or an attempt to make obstinately ephemeral things permanent. There is life after death. Through morbid media, stories continue.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.