There was a time when taxidermy conjured images of beheaded beasts mounted on the walls in dimly lit dens – prized game hunted and presented as trophies. But over the last few years, the traditional perception of taxidermy has been challenged by a wave of artists reinterpreting the form in surprising and thought-provoking ways.
Artist and jeweller Julia deVille has been working with animals since 2001, after she left Wellington, New Zealand for Melbourne, and is now a household name in local taxidermy circles. We visited her in her Collingwood home and studio, and were greeted by her two furiously barking Chinese Crested dogs, a stark contrast to the stillness of the surrounding artworks, which included an ostrich, a fox and a piglet.
Ten years ago, learning about the art of taxidermy was considered a somewhat unusual choice and gaining a foothold was challenging to say the least. “It was a conversation stopper,” deVille says. “People couldn’t get their heads around it. It was really odd.”
Nowadays, though, the general public is more accepting of taxidermy. “I’ve watched, over the last 10 years…it’s just become more and more popular. People like Kate Moss have started buying Polly Morgan works,” she says of the British taxidermy artist.
For deVille, death is the inescapable companion to life; an idea she has embraced both in life and art. Her exhibitions Cineraria (2009) and Night’s Plutonian Shore (2010) abound with references to the afterlife. “Death is not something to fear,” she says. A tiny taxidermy kitten, from her most recent exhibition, is crouched mid-gait, carrying an intricately beaded saddle. It is named ‘Charon’ and is deVille’s interpretation of a character from Greek mythology, which carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.
Closer to home, she informs us of her intentions to taxidermy her two dogs after they pass away. “Death does not need to be depressing,” she says. Rather, it is an inspiration for deVille. She is currently working on a yet-to-be named exhibition that will launch in 2012, once again at Sophie Gannon Gallery.
Fionnbharr Pfieffer – who anticipates releasing his debut range to coincide with the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival – agrees, adding that when people see him wearing one of his creations, they are mostly just curious. “How did you get into taxidermy, is it hard to do, what’s it like? These are the sorts of questions people ask,” Pfieffer says, today wearing the vertebrae of a red-bellied black snake hangs around his neck, which he describes as “one of the most unusual pieces I’ve worked with.”
“To be honest, I didn’t find it that hard to do, or start in, at all,” Pfieffer admits. Prior to becoming a dedicated artist, Pfieffer had a brief fling with studying biomedicine at university, where he learnt the invaluable skill of skinning animals. “People always think there’s lots of blood and guts but it can be quite clean,” he confides.
Often, questions arise regarding the sourcing of animals for taxidermy, and both artists are quick to inform us that they only use animals that have died of natural causes. “I’ve never killed anything and I’ve never taken anything that’s been deliberately killed,” Pfieffer says. “It’s important to me, where the animals come from. I don’t want to perpetuate the trade in fur farming.”
“I even become quite attached to the animals I work with, almost like pets,” adds deVille. “I feel like I know their personality and I try to let that show when I taxidermy them.”
In fact, deVille is also a vegetarian, and has been for almost 20 years. “I really felt strongly about the moral issues, so I became vegetarian. It really puts preconceived ideas out the window.”
While taxidermy seemed a natural form of creative expression for both deVille and Pfieffer, they both agree that it isn’t for everyone and there is a lot to learn. Despite working with taxidermy for nearly 10 years, deVille describes her taxidermy skills as “still almost amateur”, adding that she’s “always learning and doing a lot of problem-solving.”
As for Pfieffer, who has been using taxidermy in his jewellery for just over a year, his first encounter with taxidermy came about after trying to save a dying bird that he found on the side of the road.
“I found a parrot, a beautiful bird with colours like teal and purple and blue,” he recalls. “I wanted to nurse it back to life and release it back into nature, but it died. After that, I wanted to preserve it, but didn’t know how. I ended up keeping the skull and the feet of the bird and it was the very first animal I ever worked with.”
Since then, Pfieffer has learned how to taxidermy animals as well as utilise skeletons in his artworks. “I don’t want to take away from the creatures’ natural beauty. I’d like people to notice and appreciate the animal and acknowledge that it was once alive.”
His upcoming collection takes inspiration from the differences in male and female wearers: the contours and shape of human bodies and the art of making taxidermy beautiful and wearable. “I've created pieces such as a unisex reversible red fox coat from vintage pelts, and large skulls adorned with other natural materials such as crystals, fur and beetle shells.”
“Taxidermy is a different thing now,” says deVille. And while it still may not be for everyone, it’s hard not to agree.