Taxidermy in Trouble, Part 1

You know taxidermy’s past whatever moment it had when a man who wrote a book about the subject no longer wants to pay close attention.

Most people who bother with the matter at all would never admit that taxidermy is in a bad way. After shows on Animal Planet and [the] History [Network], we’ve now got one on the Mad Men/Breaking Bad network (about which more to come), and Rachel Poliquin’s book on taxidermy and longing was part of the New York Times‘s 2012 Holiday Gift Guide. The Taxidermy Moment—which I’ll argue began around April 2007 (with articles in both New York and the New York Times on the rise of trophy-head decor) and hit its apex with Chuck Testa in fall 2011—we’re still, it seems, in the heat of.

The trouble is that shitwork has taken center stage, and nobody’s calling it out for the shitwork that it is.

I got excited when I first discovered rogue taxidermy, from a supermarket tabloid article a grad-school friend handed me in the halls back in 2006. I was (as is my gift) able immediately to see the obvious: by calling attention to the very tools and techniques of taxidermic practice, rogue taxidermists were the modern painters to traditional taxidermists’ 19th-century academy-style representationalists. Why work so hard to make an animal look lifelike when everyone knew it wasn’t alive? Why dissolve your artistry into something naturalist and invisible?

Then I wrote the book and learned two things:

  1. How to read the artistry in a traditional museum-style piece.
  2. How taxidermy can honor—and dishonor—a dead animal.

I guess my interests got recalibrated. To use an apt metaphor for it, I’d need to be a far better writer. If I’d be allowed a clunky metaphor, it was that the push my brain got from rogue taxidermy was like being in a wagon on a snowy field. Whereas the push I got from traditional taxidermy was a set of skis on a steep, slick slope. Traditional taxidermy told me a lot about our relationship with animals and nature. Rogue taxidermy told me a lot about our relationship with taxidermy. I took the grander subject and I ran with it.

Over the last couple years, it seems everyone’s interests have been recalibrated. Perhaps even our ways of seeing. It’s been the Crappy Taxidermy blog and Facebook page. Or the Bad Taxidermy tumblr. Or the F [sic] Yeah Bad Taxidermy tumblr. Or dozens of imgur links I’ve been forwarded. Given more room I’d try to dissect the interests in looking at bad taxidermy over good taxidermy (initial guesses: bad taxidermy translates better on a screen because good taxidermy needs three dimensions to affect you; bad taxidermy affirms something cultural and maybe classist about Internet ironists’ presumptions regarding taxidermists and their work), but regardless of why this happened it has happened, and like so much else on the Internet it’s blurred the lines of intentionality surrounding crap.

The taxidermy story in the press these days involves young urban women taking classes with other young urban women on how to make things out of dead mice. There’s this Plain Dealer piece and this Jezebel piece. Here’s a video featuring the novelty work of this latter taxidermist. You can see, above, the kind of work produced. Whether it’s her own or the work of her students is unclear. Across the board, the mice look like shit. But they are posed in positions and costumes, and this is what we’re meant to focus on, not their bodies. Not the sad facts of their eyes or face or paws. Not what makes the mouse look like a mouse but what’s been done to make it look like a person.

The point I want to make here before I go on to Part 2 is that this woman teaching classes is a tattoo artist. Neither the Jezebel piece nor the video say anything about how long she’s been doing taxidermy. Whether she’s been schooled or self-trained. That it’s not a question that was even asked is what’s interesting here. Expertise, professionalism—because of their ties to commercial taxidermists who mount the work of hunters, they’re to be avoided.

Tomorrow I’ll show how AMC’s Immortalized follows this anti-professional line of thinking. My whole aim isn’t to elitistly restore taxidermy to the realm of traditional pros. It’s, in the end, to show how a mostly urban, queerly female, classist anti-hunter stance has been increasingly producing indulgently bad taxidermy that does a far worse job of respecting animals or handling them ethically than shooting an elephant and mounting its head on the wall ever could.

One thought on “Taxidermy in Trouble, Part 1”

  1. I’m the teacher of the class you’re ripping on so hard in part one and part three of this series. I think it’s bullshit that you focus so intensely on the fact that “urban women” are taking my class… and I also think it’s bullshit that you’re dogging ME when firstly, the students have never done taxidermy before, and secondly, they’re taught now to skin, flesh, turn, clean, mount, and pose animals in a realistic and natural fashion and THEY are the ones that choose to dress their rats in clothing. Not mice. If you’re going to rip on me, at least get the facts right.

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