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Taxidermy - this hobby is dead cool

Once dismissed as a Victorian throwback, taxidermy is now hot stuff. Enjoli Liston speaks to the artists who are bringing it back – and tries it out for herself
Wednesday, 9 March 2011

'Artist Charlie Tuesday Gates is smiling as she stands poised, scalpel in hand, over the lifeless body of a lamb. This is “DIY Taxidermy”, the increasingly popular evening class that is not for the faint-hearted. Within the hour, Gates will teach an eager audience of around 80 students the basics of skinning a lamb and stuffing it with household objects, while they sip wine and make polite conversation. 

Over the past five years, British taxidermy has enjoyed a popularity revival that has seen the craft move from the stuffy world of macabre Victorian curios to the cutting edge of Brit art.
And now, oversubscribed classes such as this one (more than 200 people applied for tickets to this session) are popping up in London and New York, offering crash-courses that take centuries- old rural traditions of taxidermy and move them into urban galleries for an extreme version of do-it-yourself crafting. “I’m cutting from the head to the tail along the spine, because that’s what the YouTube video I watched told me to do,” Gates jokes, as she carefully makes her first incision down the lamb’s back. She uses a £4 knife bought in an art shop (it must have a curved blade, she stresses, or it will butcher the lamb’s delicate skin). 

It’s not exactly the authoritative instruction one might expect from an expert teacher, but Gates does not profess to be a professional. She is an artist and self-taught “DIY taxidermist” who learnt the basics through a dead fox that her brother found for her last year. The interactive demonstrations started as performance-art pieces soon after her first encounter with the fox, and now they encourage complete beginners to stop watching and start taking part. 

She is keen to differentiate her work from that of a professional taxidermist. “Real taxidermy is a painstaking scientific art which preserves the illusion of life in a natural habitat, but I’m more interested in the reality of death,” she says. Whatever the term for Gates’s form of taxidermy, both the professional and amateur processes involve skinning and stuffing a dead creature. 

It may sound morbid, yet, surprisingly, this class is not. There are probably as many rubberneckers in the room as genuine enthusiasts, but there is a palpable air of respect for the process. And no, the body doesn’t smell, because it’s fresh. Instead, there is a metallic taste in the air. Sometimes it sets the teeth on edge, as if you’re chewing tin foil. 

Gates stresses that the lamb died of natural causes and was donated to her by a friend. She emphasises the importance of sourcing animals ethically, but says taxidermy still carries a stigma despite audience if any animal-rights activists are present and planning to throw paint at her. “
Some people still think of taxidermists as murderers who kill their specimens and hunt endangered species,” says Martin Dunne, who is the chairman of the British Historical Taxidermy Society. “But this perception is changing as taxidermy becomes more popular. 

“There are stringent laws about the animals taxidermists can use [they cannot be endangered, must be found dead and must not have died in suspicious circumstances]. The “new age” taxidermy practiced by artists helps increase the public’s awareness of that.” 

The star of this “new age” is Polly Morgan, whose work is collected by everyone from Banksy to Damien Hirst. Her pieces, which remove animals from their natural habitats (therefore also putting them at odds with traditional taxidermy), can fetch up to £100,000.
Morgan says renewed interest in taxidermy isn’t about fashion. She says there is nothing morbid about a fascination with taxidermy, and that it is becoming increasingly popular because people are naturally curious about it – especially those who live in urban areas.
“It’s one of the most natural things in the world to want to study living forms,” she says. “Taxidermy is very closely related to the study of biology, and no one would say an interest in that is morbid. “As fewer schools teach dissection now, childhood curiosities about the way that bodies work aren’t satisfied. Taxidermy is about a kind of physical interaction that people who live in urban environments don’t tend to get anymore.”
Morgan and Gates had rural upbringings and childhood fascinations with animals. (“I was always picking dead stuff up from the side of the road as a child,” says Gates.) But unlike Gates, Morgan started by attending a £150 lesson with a professional taxidermist and has carefully honed her craft since. She says she would have loved to attend a free group lesson likeGates’s when she was learning but they simply didn’t exist. 

She is modest about the impact of her work on the renewed public interest in taxidermy, but Morgan does admit that it has been an inspiration to young artists – like Amanda Coban, a final-year undergraduate studying fine art and illustration at the University of Coventry. She made a three-hour round trip to attend Gates’s class because her course doesn’t cover taxidermy and she “wanted to learn the tricks of the trade”.
After watching Gates skin the lamb, rub a bag of kitchen salt into the skin, drape it around a “body” structure made from wire, and stuff it with cotton wool, Coban helped her sew up the original incision along the spine. Key point to remember: don’t pierce the guts while you’re at it – it’s not pretty.

“I have used animal body parts in my art, but I’ve never had the confidence to preserve a whole form,” Coban says. “It’s a lot easier, cheaper and more accessible than I thought it would be. I feel like I can pick up that dead fox I saw on the side of the A45 the other day, and actually treat it myself.”
This confidence, Gates says, is what she enjoys instilling in the people who attend her classes. “I like showing people that taxidermy doesn’t have to be a mysterious or dark art. It’s easy and accessible. Anyone can give it a stab.”


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