The Beauty of Dead Animals

‘Unknown Pose by Snowy Owl’ (2016)

This article by Hilda Bouma originally appeared (in Dutch) in Het Financieele Dagblad on 15 April, 2017. It has been translated and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the paper. The copyright for this article is reserved by Het Financieele Dagblad, and it should not be reproduced without express written permission. To read the original article, click here.

The Dutch duo Jaap Sinke (1973) and Ferry van Tongeren (1969) have taken taxidermy to a new level. Their work is on display in a museum for the first time. Does it have a message? No, say Jaap and Ferry, of the duo Darwin, Sinke & Van Tongeren (DS&vT). Their taxidermied creations are not, for instance, a statement on the loss of biodiversity.

‘That’s not the artist’s responsibility’, says Ferry.

‘Our job is to make beautiful things’, Jaap adds.

‘Our job is to create an emotional effect’, suggests Ferry. ‘That’s the message: that it can also be beautiful. We polish up the truth’.

Rarely has there been such great contrast between creators and their work. These two bearded Haarlemmers are dry as dust. ‘We don’t really do “art talk”’, says Jaap. But the animals they stuff are exotic, posed, and stylised. They are mounted onto antique objects that have nothing to do with their original habitats. In terms of composition they evoke famous paintings rather than nature. When DS&vT photograph their work, they also drape the animals in an ‘unfamiliar pose’. Essentially, they throw all of taxidermy’s rules overboard.

‘Snake Heraldry’ (2015) is a composition of the world’s seven deadliest snakes. It was lent to the exhibition by Damien Hirst.

DS&vT does things differently in other ways as well. They never use a pre-formed mould, kneading and shaping a new body for every animal. They don’t use a spray, but always a brush, painting on layer after layer until the beak or hoof shines. This is more than the conservation of dead animals. It is ‘fine taxidermy’.

After all, it’s not for nothing that their work is sold at Jamb, a posh antiques shop in London, and on the website 1stDibs.com—in Jaap’s words, ‘the marketplace for million dollar decorators’. Both Jaap and Ferry are former advertisers, who have worked together for twenty years: Ferry sold his business in 2000 to become a taxidermist, and Jaap followed him. They have identified their market well. When their first collection went on sale at a London gallery in 2015, it was bought up in its entirety by artist Damien Hirst, for his own personal collection. This is now memorialised on every website where DS&vT display their work.

‘Enraged Vari according to d’Hondecoeter’ (2016) was inspired by Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s animal paintings (1636-1695).

For the first time their creations are now in a museum: the 18th-century estate of Museum Oud Amelisweerd (MOA), where Armando’s art has also found a home. ‘It all came together so well here’, says Ferry, almost surprised, as though he hadn’t expected it after a year and a half of preparation. Besides a piece of chimney featuring seven deadly snakes, lent from Damien Hirst, all the other taxidermied pieces were made specially for these spaces. Ferry is right—the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The exhibition is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of country house, animals, and painting. DS&vT’s iridescent peacock seems made to stand with Armando’s shimmering, blue-green landscape, against a backdrop of 18th-century bird wallpaper.

In the bird room, the peacock from ‘Turaco’s after Aert Schouman’ (2017) stands in front of Armando’s ‘Waldig’ (2013).

DS&vT’s work functions as a wonderful link between Armando’s paintings and the house itself. The Amelisweerd estate was built at a time when people were excited to classify and catalogue the nature around them: the wonder of God. From the walls to the wall hangings, the whole estate is a hymn to nature, which man can bend to his will. Armando has a very different perspective. For him nature is unapproachable and unforgiving. The landscape itself is guilty—for instance, in the case of a concentration camp. There is no point in resisting it.

The pieces DS&vT have created fit precisely in between. On the one hand, they romanticise life on earth. Though gathered together in the Pheasant Room, the crown pigeon, red ibis, rhea, and Reeves’s pheasant have never ‘met’ in real life. They lived in completely different parts of the world. On the other hand, these artists certainly don’t idealise nature. Their depictions are full of cruel twists. On the Chinese wallpaper we see humans hunting a snow leopard. In DS&vT’s installation, which hangs in the same room, the roles have been reversed: their tiger crushes a starling under its claws. When you look into the eyes of this giant stuffed cat, chills run down your spine.

Taxidermy is trendy in the interior decorating world. A shop chock-full of stuffed beasts and natural history curios even  opened recently in Amsterdam. Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren take things a step further. Both are art academy graduates, and their pieces form an ode to the work of 17th-century painters like Rubens, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, and Jan Weenix. Their work ‘elevates taxidermy to a higher plane’, as the British Telegraph concluded.

‘I think that we do have a signature style’, says Ferry cautiously. ‘But that thought is also scary. A style is a set of walls you have to work between, and we left advertising in the first place to be liberated’.

Darwin, Sinke & van Tongeren only work with animals that have died a natural death, and which come from European zoos, shelters, or breeding programmes. All the animals are legal, and DS&vT hold the relevant paperwork.

You can visit DS&vT ‘s exhibition at Museum Oud Amelisweerd until 10 September, 2017. For more information (in Dutch), click here.