Julia deVille saw her first human corpse when she was eight years old. She was walking in the countryside with her dad. They came across a little church, which was deserted inside except for an old lady’s corpse in an open casket. There was no one else around.
“Dad encouraged me to go and touch her face,” says deVille. “To feel the difference, how cold and rubbery she was.”
Her dad’s not a normal person, deVille says. Eccentric. He was always encouraging her to be comfortable with death.
A quarter of a century on, deVille is an artist. Her workshop, tucked into a Collingwood backstreet, is cluttered with death yet teeming with life. A stuffed deer sniffs at the hem of a frilly pink Victorian-era coat. Another Victorian gown has real human scapula sewn into the back, like wings. A stillborn kitten floats in a jar, preserved in alcohol, next to others containing a bat, a puppy, a kangaroo. A case of jewellery holds broaches crafted from the leg bones of a turtledove.
Everything in this menagerie is still, but somehow the animals look ready to bound away. I can almost convince myself the ones floating in jars aren’t dead, just sleeping. But even the flowers are dead; bunches droop over the edges of vases around the room. DeVille keeps every bunch she’s given, letting them dry out, stiffen and fade.
Suddenly there’s a burst of movement: her dog Scout, a Chinese crested, yaps and pulls away when I try to pat him. He’s very much alive.
DeVille works with death every day, suspending it into moments of beauty. She’s a rare hybrid of jeweller and taxidermist, but she isn’t the Miss Havisham figure you might imagine befitting a gothic parlour of this type. Dressed in a grey hoodie and blue jeans, deVille is a refreshingly comfortable presence amongst all the macabre.
She’s been working seven-day weeks here for most of the year, preparing her new exhibition Wholeness and the Implicit Order at Linden New Art in St Kilda. I visit her during a quiet week, while she’s catching up on orders, quotes and – presumably – sleep.
Wholeness and the Implicit Order is a selection of deVille’s taxidermy work, including a baby deer in a baby’s crib, a zebra speared with a carousel pole and a calf on a platter. Beyond her presentation of death in confronting yet quirky ways, signifiers of youth are never far away – from the crib to the lullaby versions of Radiohead and Nirvana songs playing from a music box.
DeVille says children are rarely weirded out by her work (“They haven’t been conditioned to think it’s creepy”), and her own fascination with death is linked to her childhood love of animals. She’s been a vegetarian since she made the connection between animals on her cousin’s farm and the meat on her plate at a young age but she also once brought a shark’s head to kindergarten show and tell, causing her teacher to be sick. She says she started asking people if they’d like to be buried or cremated at about age four, and she touched her first human corpse at eight.
“We’re very conditioned to be around dead animals all day long,” deVille says. “Everyone’s walking around with cow strapped to their feet. Our Instagram feeds are burgers and fried chicken. But it’s all faceless.”
Past the workshop is a showroom for deVille’s jewellery practice. It’s minimal in comparison, and a more immediately welcoming space accessible by a back door – a few jewellery customers were freaked out by the taxidermy side of her practice. Still, the work has her signature. A crow is suspended overhead, wings outstretched, gripping a necklace in its claw. A baby alpaca stands in the corner, converted into a kind of rocking horse, with a threaded-pearl muzzle and an ornate gold saddle.
The crucifixes that hang overhead are another reminder that, for deVille, death is everywhere, but she’s not religious. A man nailed to a cross and bleeding out is a brutal image, but it’s also one of the most benign and most replicated symbols in western culture. “People walk around with this around their neck, but they think my stillborn baby giraffe is grotesque,” says deVille. “I think it’s the best work I’ve ever made.”
When she moved from Wellington to Melbourne to study jewellery, a teacher pointed deVille in the direction of interesting historical attitudes to death, particularly the medieval memento mori practice (Latin for “remember death”), which saw skulls and bones becoming popular jewellery subjects. Around the same time, she found a taxidermy mentor.
“Taxidermy was a more modern interpretation of those ideas,” deVille says. “Just another memento mori.”
She explains that taxidermy isn’t as technical and complex as you might think. The only chemical involved in her process is non-toxic borax powder. She removes the muscle and fat of the animal, and dries out the skin. The technical part is knowing her way around the animal’s anatomy, which is essential. Heads, skin and eyes are delicate.
As comfortable as deVille is with death, she’s beginning to move away from taxidermy, so this new exhibition is something of a transitional one. She’s working with new technologies, particularly holograms. They’re like portraits, a little like the mortuary photography of the Victorian era.
“I just don’t want to be cutting up dead things anymore,” she says. “I don’t find it grotesque, but I don’t want to do it. Something in me has changed.”
I ask her if she’s seen the Body Worlds exhibition I visited a few weeks back, in which human remains are preserved for posterity and science. Of course she has. She’s signed up as a donor.
“If I’m going to do this to animals,” she reasons, “I need to be comfortable letting someone else do that to me.”
Julia deVille’s Wholeness and the Implicit Order is at Linden New Art until November 4, 2018.