Curator Rachel Poliquin and her army of stuffed creatures reinvent taxidermy

As a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate, discomfort creeps in as I realize I'm about to face dozens of dead animals, stuffed up as trophies by their hunters. A facelift is going on at the Museum of Vancouver. Right before our eyes, an institution more than a hundred years old is in the middle of a revision, one that will reflect their new concepts of reinvention and rebirth. Pieces can astonish and intrigue, but behind the glue and nails, there’s a haunting and disturbing side that even the most sincere fascination can’t wash over. As a spectator, I'm torn between the artistry and beauty of the work, but slightly disturbed that the imagery before me once roamed freely, living and breathing a life as free as my own.

That said, the animals in Ravishing Beasts, the Museum of Vancouver’s newest exhibit, are all previously deceased, and not killed for this show. As guest curator Rachel Poliquin puts it: “The show in no way advocates the way of new taxidermy, but now that they’re dead and stuffed, it seems tragic to let them smolder in a basement.”

Poliquin has created a lush, innovative world where the age-old pastime of taxidermy is made anew, in an attempt to break down old stigmas regarding this diverse art form.

Poliquin learned about the Museum of Vancouver’s long dormant collection of hundreds of stuffed creatures kept in storage for the past fifty years, and became interested in curating the collection for a new display. In creating the show, she began building off the ideals and concepts of her upcoming book Taxidermy and Longing. She explains to me: “How I interpret the longing component is all on life, death, and decomposition. There is certainly an acknowledgement that all of us are going to disappear. There are narratives of longing, tied into larger longing to use nature to make lives meaningful to tell us about who we are. Taxidermy can connect us with the natural world.”

Throughout the exhibit, I certainly feel a connection with these creatures. Staring into their detached glass eyes tears the nerves of my own heart, but I'm also filled with wonderment that I can see such ancient creatures in the flesh - or what remains of it. Am I sad that these beings are dead and depleted of organs for artistic purpose? Absolutely. I suppose that some pieces bother me more than others. The show guide mentions Poliquin’s upset with the elephant foot table, a literal amputated limb used to display other objects. But the inclusion here is necessary in order to exhibit an entire craft. We might disagree with such a blatant amputation and misuse, but this type of piece is merely one fraction in the catalogue of taxidermy components.

After contacting the Museum first, Poliquin began to grow excited for a hands on approach with the animals themselves: “I realized in writing the book, it's about an encounter with you and an animal. You just can’t have that encounter with photographs.” Poliquin believes the face to face encounter is necessary to fully translate the intricacies of the work. I’d certainly agree with this statement. It is one thing to flip through an encyclopedia or Google image search on “moose”, but staring up and comparing yourself in size next to the actual creature is something to behold. This type of experience is not likely to happen in person. Moose are gigantic, threatening, and intimidating to say the least. This type of comparison is not something one gets to experience daily – and I'm happy to be able to do so, knowing at least that this specific creature was not killed for my pleasure.

Face to face, the creatures are becoming vibrant, and glorious. From the entrance, where a majestic lion greets you in a heavenly stance to the glass encased snowy owls at the rear of the exhibit, each animal finds a way of taking on a presence of its own, even in the reality of death. But can such an ancient art form find a place in the world of today’s audience? Poliquin thinks so. “In a way, now we have other ways of documenting and appreciating the natural world, but there will always be a relevancy to seeing the actual creature. It's a technology for making nature visible. Before colour photography, natural history museums were a natural venue to see nature from abroad.”

A multi-faceted collection is brought to the forefront, highlighting separate entities in the taxidermy world. A stuffed dog sits in on behalf of the now popular pet taxidermy. A gopher dressed in a tiny winter outfit showcases a more whimsical side of the practice. A makeshift “jackalope” expresses the fantastical side of combining creatures with “fraudulent taxidermy”. This piece, slightly comedic, if bizarre, was a bit tacky, but interesting to see from a folklore perspective. Accent tables display collections of unused materials like eye pieces and deer-shaped molded Styrofoam in an attempt to educate about the behind the scenes practices. Poliquin wanted the many worlds to shine as part of the big picture. “I wanted people to see that if they don’t agree with it as a practice that is fair and valid, to see it a new way while they are in the exhibit. The language is very neutral. I say things for and against, just to allow people that freedom to look closely.”

This remark is quite fair and quite representative of the pieces here. While some taxidermed animals are beautiful and charismatic, others fall short and rub the wrong way: and perhaps that type of shift in attitudes is a success in giving the full spectrum of taxidermy thought provocation. For example, a skinned tiger laying as a rug with his gloomy head slinging to the side comes off as inhumane and repulsive. The fact that it's covered by other furniture is offensive and churns my stomach, yet at the same time, it's also reflective of the nature of this practice and some of its uses.  Additionally, a Plexiglas casing contains rows of lifeless stale birds, like sardines in a can; stiff and heartbreaking. On the flip side, other works, like the stern brown fox, presented in its original size, format, and a typical stance, is easier on the eyes, and a more educational and socially standardized representation. Both of these avenues are, however, equally worth displaying in that they’ve both been standard taxidermy techniques and styles throughout the years.

In a well calculated move, the design team took a very specific perspective to the layout and display of not only the actual creatures themselves, but to the entire layout of the gallery. Lime green walls accent the show, as Poliquin says, “to point towards nature, but adding a crisp modern feel.” Reflective, shiny, white display units were brought in to add to the glowing aesthetic the team had in mind. And in the end, only about two thirds of the entire collection was used in the display, in hopes to not overcrowd the audience, and let them enjoy individual pieces rather than become bombarded with too much information. Poliquin wanted the one on one to take precedent. “They each have their own unique character and particularity. Working with that enormous moose and getting it on the platform was different than the tiny hummingbirds. Each posted challenges, and were treated as unique individuals.”

“When people think of taxidermy,” Poliquin adds, “they have an image of a fussy Victorian display of oak cabinets and an overstuffed, heavier atmosphere. In part to allow people to think about it new and afresh and in part to pull in the fact that it's so big in the contemporary art world, it was a series of art instillations, crisp and clean with no actual images of animals.” Right down to the crisp, clean fonts used on the information panels, the team manages to create a very modern take on an old pastime, creating the “unexpected encounter” that Poliquin says they were going for.

In an attempt to show the many facets and avenues of the form, Ravishing Beasts seems to simultaneously beautify the work and educate. Large glass-fronted frames collect dozens of carefully pinned-in butterflies. A large circular table and a hanging collection of colourful jars house a world for scientifically stored pre-taxidermied creatures. As Poliquin notes, “It isn’t until you’re up close [that you can] see the diversity of the natural world.”

Ravishing Beasts ties well in to the Museum of Vancouver’s new approach to giving rebirth and letting an audience in with a fresh take on the nature of taxidermy and natural history.

In the end, the show does a great job of displaying these fascinating creatures without judgment or adoration. This is a major focus for the team, particularly Rachel Poliquin, who adds, “I want to stress that it really is a question exhibit . It’s not designed to tell people what to think about taxidermy, but to raise questions and come up with their own opinions. I hope it isn’t a show that gives my opinion out but gives people the freedom and space to think about it for themselves.”

Rachel Poliquin’s Taxidermy and Longing will be out next year on Harvard University Press. Ravishing Beasts remains on display at the Museum of Vancouver through February 28th, 2010.

//JJ Brewis

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