TAXIDERMY IS THE NEW BLACK
Taxidermy has gone far from being an ancient method of making stuffed animals, this is a fact. Taxidermy has long ceased to be used only to create museum exhibits, or for the sake of hunting trophies, until the last few years eventually bringing the concept of “zoophilia” into our lives. Today, taxidermy is inevitably a very sophisticated art form, another way to decorate any space, whether office, home or studio. These almost-alive figures of animals are so beautiful that it is difficult to tear gaze from them. Not spoilt by time, taxidermy is increasingly used by many artists in their work, and some devote their entire practice to taxidermy. Apart from this superficial layer, what is this fuss about modern taxidermy then? Talented taxidermy researcher Rachel Poliquin is ready to answer this as the creator of the blog “Ravishing Beasts,” as well as the book, "The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing", and the eponymous exhibition.
How did you realize that your life would be revolving around taxidermy, at least careerwise?
My taxidermy project is just my current project -that is, I have other books on other topics that I want to research and write. But my interest in taxidermy really began when I heard about the animal bonfires at the Saffron Walden Museum. Opened in 1834, the Saffron Walden Museum is the second oldest purpose-built museum in England. Throughout the 19th century, like so many Victorian museums, it collected and exhibited a random assortment of specimens: mummies, Roman coins, Anglo-Saxon swords, a motley array of stuffed beasts. But in 1960 most of museum’s natural history collections were destroyed by fire. In 1960, a young curator with a verve to modernize wrote a persuasive report to the Saffron Walden District Council. It was time to sluice out the museum’s taxidermy, which she viewed as musty relics from a less enlightened era. In an age before colour photography and wildlife documentaries, taxidermy had been the cutting-edge technology for showcasing the fauna of distant lands. But those days were long gone. She argued that television and zoos gave children a better idea of nature; taxidermy had become crassly old fashioned. Plus, 19th century taxidermy was shabby; no doubt more than a few hides were cracked with age and sprouting straw. And so, having convinced the council that the museum’s taxidermy was a nostalgic embarrassment, the vigorous young curator hauled the antique beasts to the city dump and lit a match. The bonfires lasted three days. The event seemed so extraordinary. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why had these animals been burnt? It seemed like a crime against nature, but maybe taxidermy deserved to be burnt. I had never thought about taxidermy before, but the story fascinated me. My adventures in taxidermy had begun.
Do you consider taxidermy as a form of art?
Definitely. The making of animals requires a highly artistic endeavor. Truely capturing the spirit and charisma of an animal is an enormous artistic achievement. All taxidermy -even the terrible ones- offers the vision of the animal to some extent. Good taxidermy can draw you in, but exceptional taxidermy gives you that uncanny sensation that the hawk might fly off his perch at any moment or the leopard attack. Yet, taxidermy isn’t only artistry. That startling spark of recognition between you and an animal ultimately rests on a thorough knowledge of animal anatomy. Without an understanding of an animal’s bone structure, musculature, moods and postures, taxidermy is just a stuffed-out animal skin, not much different than a piece of upholstery. Together anatomical knowledge, sensitivity to a species’ particular expressions, and a good doses of artistic flair create something totally, uncannily compelling.
How do you feel about taxidermy being perceived as a decorational object?
I think the movement is partly motivated by a turn away from all things industrial, mass produced, and generic. Whereas modern decorating and furniture has clean lines and polished surfaces, taxidermy is sensuously textural. Serially produced goods have a replaceable sameness while each and every piece of taxidermy -like each and every animal- is uniquely individual. If modern objects sidestep the weight of tradition, taxidermy is haunted with history, nostalgia, and memory. I find it hard to believe that the new interest in taxidermy is unrelated to the growing fascination with the undead -zombies, vampires, and such. A really beautiful example of the softer salvage side of this collecting trend is Morgan Mavis’ Contemporary Zoological Conservatory in Toronto, Canada. She has collected more than eighty vintage animals from antique stores, auctions and donations which she displays in her apartment-turned-museum. The collection is not only an act of salvation (rather than let the animals rot in a junk store) but also preservation of the discarded memories and longings accompanying each and every piece of taxidermy.
Have you ever been involved in the manufacture of stuffed animals?
No. I have never made a taxidermied animal.
Can you talk a bit about the Ravishing Beasts exhibition?
The exhibition I curated with the Museum of Vancouver, “Ravishing Beasts: The Strangely Alluring World of Taxidermy,” explored the cultural history of taxidermy, its successes and failures and its uncertain future. The animals that were used in the exhibition had been part of the museum’s original natural history collection. But fifty years ago, the animals had all been put into storage and had not been seen since. My project was about taking the animals out of hiding and talking about their historical significance and future relevance. Taxidermy has an unsettling way of raising ever more questions, and the exhibit was meant to stage unexpected encounters with taxidermy that might provoke visitors to look at these animals in new ways. I believe that taxidermied animals, as old and musty as they might become, can be reinterpreted as not just something to look at, but something to think with.
What about your book?
My book “The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing” is a cultural and poetic exploration of taxidermy from its early beginnings in sixteenth-century cabinets of wonder to works of contemporary animal art. The book attempts to get to the heart of taxidermy by answering two fundamental questions: why would anyone want to preserve an animal, and what is this animal-thing now? Taxidermy is hardly a simple or cheap practice. It takes enormous time, effort, money, and desire to preserve and manhandle a creature into an everlasting posture. Why this intense longing to keep back what should just fade into dust like every other piece of organic matter? Trying to answer the why led me to explore the poetic aspect of our relationships with animals -both alive and dead. The more I thought about, the more I realised that taxidermy is a means of preserving not animals so much as particular sorts of encounters with animals. These encounters turned out to be deeply rooted and resonate within the human imagination -about what we think we know, the encounters we hope to find within the natural world, and who we dream ourselves to be. The chapters now all pursue motivations for desiring taxidermy: the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance.