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.

Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion

Programme for the performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion
Programme for the performance
of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion

This week’s guest post was written by Daný van Dam, who recently submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorian fiction at Cardiff University.

Together with Megen and with Akira Suwa, she is putting together a special issue of the online journal Assuming Gender on the theme of ‘Consuming Gender’ (submission deadline 16 October 2016, see here). At present, Daný is setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. 

Five women are missing. One was last seen when visiting a travelling circus. A well-off family notified the police when their daughter went missing after meeting someone in town – not long after, the girl’s mother also disappeared. A fourth woman, struggling with mental health issues, hasn’t been heard from since her first visit to a psychiatrist. Considering her state, the police are concerned about suicide. The fifth woman disappeared close to an old cemetery – people in the neighbourhood claim the cemetery is used for dark and satanic rituals. The police are looking for clues. The only name that links all five women is Dr. M…

A few weeks ago, we went to the theatre for my birthday present – a performance. At this point, my birthday was long past, but due to a bout of the flu, I’d missed my original gift. I chose to drag my partner, who’s less of a classical music buff than I am, along to a performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion by the Dutch, The Hague-based company OPERA2DAY. This blog provides some details about the show as well as my opinion about it.

OPERA2DAY are known for their alternative approaches to classical performances – in 2012 and 2013, they performed a collection of ‘lamenti’ – melancholic songs – by different composers in an old and empty hospital building in The Hague under the title Dolhuys Kermis. The title, which can be translated as ‘madhouse fair’, refers to asylums and madhouses in earlier centuries being open to the (paying) public for visiting, so people could gape at the supposed madness within.

The old hospital bathing room, with Martin Snip performing as Patrick, who wants to go to sea (photo: Roelof Pothuis)
The old hospital bathing room, with Martin Snip performing as Patrick, who wants to go to sea (photo: Roelof Pothuis)

Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion was performed in the Royal Theatre in The Hague, but here, too, OPERA2DAY didn’t limit themselves to the stage. The performance was preceded by a selection of ‘side programmes’ in the different foyers of the theatre. The indefinability and repetitiveness of these mini-performances pointed back to the madness of Dolhuys Kermis – and of course, the theme of madness returns in Dr. Miracle, with one of the five women disappearing after a visit to a psychiatrist.

Dr. Miracle's last illusion - Side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion – side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle's last illusion - Side programming at the Royal Theatre with violinist Isobel Warmelink and Lorris Eichinger (photographer unknown)
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion – side programming at the Royal Theatre with theremin player Thorwald Jorgenson (photographer unknown)

 

Dr. Miracle’s potential victim is not the only one in the performance who may be mad – another candidate is the good doctor himself. Dr. Miracle is a travelling illusionist. During one of his shows, he makes a mistake, leading to the death of an unknown young woman he asked to participate in the act. As she dies, Dr. Miracle catches a glimpse of what he thinks is the eternal light of the hereafter. Inspired by this experience, Dr. Miracle continues to experiment in an attempt to capture the moment of transition between life and death, but his attempts become increasingly cruel. As he becomes more and more willing to risk the lives of others, Dr. Miracle loses his own grip on life and the everyday world, no longer able to distinguish between the real and the illusionary.

 

Dr. Miracle heading into the light, as his five victims look on (photo: Morten de Boer)
Dr. Miracle heading into the light, as his five victims look on (photo: Morten de Boer)

With Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, OPERA2DAY wants to bring to life the period from the fin de siècle to the early twentieth century. While spiritualism was still a popular form of entertainment at this time (and taken seriously by many of its followers), scientific developments also rationalised what was before seen as mysterious and magical. Illusionism and spiritualism became increasingly close, with illusionists seemingly knowing things beyond what was normally possible and offering communications with the dead.

Dr. Miracle’s first (and accidental?) victim (photo: Morten de Boer)
Dr. Miracle’s first (and accidental?) victim (photo: Morten de Boer)

Dr. Miracle is played by Woedy Woet, a prize-winning Dutch illusionist who performs the tricks taking place on stage. His role is a silent one, though Tom Jansen provides a voice-over representing the doctor’s thoughts. In the programme booklet of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, director Serge van Veggel provides a historical background for the performance. Writing about opera, he states that, like many things, operas mirrored the concerns of their age. Magic, psychology and spiritualism, as well as a touch of horror, played a large role in nineteenth and early twentieth-century opera. The pieces sung and performed in Dr. Miracle do not come from one opera. Instead, the performance can be considered a ‘pasticcio’ – the Italian word for pasty, in which various elements become one coherent dish. Pieces from operas and ballets from, among others, Bellini, Offenbach, Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky are brought together to create a new narrative with different meanings. At the same time, the familiar pieces evoke their original contexts, providing the performance with additional layers.

Director Van Veggel also engages with performance history, seeing nineteenth and twentieth-century developments in recording imagery and sound as a way for performers to be given a life beyond death. The three sopranos taking the roles of three of Dr. Miracle’s victims perform in the ‘bel canto’ singing tradition, which focused on refinement and elegance, singing in the service of the text and the performance as a whole. They provide an homage to legendary opera singers from Dr. Miracle’s age, especially Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Adelina Patti.

Pavilion set up before the entrance to the theatre for the performance of Dr. Miracle (photo: Daný van Dam)
Pavilion set up before the entrance to the theatre for the performance of Dr. Miracle (photo: Daný van Dam)

While Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion is a wonderful piece of work, the performance itself (the actual opera and dance pieces, taking place on stage) did not live up to the standard set by the larger whole around it. To be fair, this may have been because my expectations were very high. Nevertheless, the show as a whole was definitely worth visiting.

If you happen to read this from the Netherlands and are willing to invest a few hours of your time: for each performance, OPERA2DAY needs several volunteers for a moment of audience-participation. These volunteers get to attend the performance for free. For more information, see here (in Dutch).

The Dutchman’s Guide to Fitting In

This post first appeared on An American in London, a travel blog run by Natalie Romero. You can find the original post here.

I am an American citizen. I am also a Dutch citizen. This means I get to pick and choose which passport I want to travel on, and when I want to identify either the Dutch or the Americans as a ‘they’, or as an ‘us’. Since I currently live in the UK, I often find myself talking about both the Dutch and Americans as ‘they’ these days. Today, however, I’ll be wearing my Dutch hat.

Not this one, thank god.
Not this one, thank god.

When I moved to the Netherlands seven years ago I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty confident that my status as a long-time TCK would help me to deal with whatever came my way. I am used to being immersed in new cultures (for better or for worse), and I am used to having to adapt and fit in quickly. What I definitely didn’t expect was that I would learn a thing or two from the Dutch about this process.

When choosing a nationality for the character of Goldmember (in the 2002 movie of the same title), Mike Myers wanted someone from ‘a place that nobody has an axe to grind with’. How do you develop that kind of status as a nation? Partly by financing half the world and providing vital trade to the other half, partly by becoming known as ‘that place where weed is legal’ (again, a savvy sales tactic), and partly by encouraging its citizens to become expert blenders.

So here, as my gift to you, is the Dutchman’s three-step guide to fitting in. Use it wisely.

Make being normal a competitive sport

How do you get noticed in the Netherlands? If you want to do it in a positive way, the best way is to be as normal as possible. There are at least four well-known sayings about it, but the best-known of these is doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg – literally ‘just be normal, then you’re already crazy enough’. Some have called being normal the nation’s primary pastime. And don’t worry – the Dutch have a Civic Integration programme and exam to help you figure out exactly how to be normal.

Sometimes this innate desire for normalcy hides deep social problems, and it can be very off-putting if you come from a culture (or cultures) that don’t encourage you to go with the flow. It can feel like your identity is being sucked away. But sometimes it’s pretty effective.

In typically Calvinist fashion, the Dutch take the concept of ‘being normal’ to ridiculous extremes. It’s not at all unusual to walk past a Dutch house and see the following:

dsc02632

It’s not that the Dutch don’t have curtains, it’s just that they don’t use them. If people are allowed to look in (and you’re allowed to look out), then we can all see just how normal everyone is. If you close the curtains, Dutch logic goes, you must have something to hide. Which brings be to my next point.

Let it all hang out

If modestly shutting yourself in and hiding doesn’t show how normal you are, letting it all hang out must be the answer. At the Rotterdam office I worked in for two years, we had a neighbour we called the naaktloper (‘nude walker’). This was because he enjoyed walking around his house wearing very little clothing, and rather than seeing this as something particularly strange, my co-workers were amused in a positive, almost affectionate way. This is because the Dutch value directness, a quality that has been given many less flattering names as well. Once you’ve qualified as ‘normal’, you can pretty much get away with anything.

I won't scar you with the experience.
I won’t scar you with the experience.

Basically, the Dutch glorify shamelessness, which only works because we take every opportunity to shame each other. If your clothing choice is bad, someone will tell you (though their feedback isn’t always reliable). You’re respected for having an opinion, and voicing it, even if no one agrees with you. When you fail, you’re expected to own up to your mistakes. If you don’t, someone else will definitely call you out on it.

This may not seem like the best blending tactic at first blush, but it ties in closely with my final tip:

Make fun of yourself

Dutch humour relies almost exclusively on mockery. Sometimes this involves mocking others, but usually self-mocking is employed. This is subtly different from self-loathing, which doesn’t fit in with the Dutch love of shamelessness. Sarcasm and black humour also top the list, though irony is often too incompatible with Dutch directness.

A typical Dutch comic. 'We're going to win the European Cup [soccer tournament]!' 'And Greece is going to pay everything back!!'
A typical Dutch comic. Header reads: ‘Fokke & Sukke are a pair of happy idiots’. Text reads: ‘We’re going to win the European Cup [soccer tournament]!!!’ ‘And Greece is going to pay everything back!!’.
When you’re laughing at yourself, it’s more difficult for others to laugh at you in a way that’s not at least partly affectionate. And people we can laugh with are people we can live with. If fitting in (while still having a chance to stand out) is something you’re aiming for, it can’t hurt to give the Dutch model a try.

Now, go forth and be gezellig!

Translating Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

This week I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out which literary monster mashups had been translated into which languages, as well as how and by whom. This turned up all kinds of interesting information – for example that Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters are the most widely translated (which I sort of expected), and that other languages have their own original monster mashups (which I didn’t). Another interesting bit of data I turned up is that mashup translators often approach the comic mixing of styles and genres in a way similar to mashup artists like Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters, or Sherri Browning Erwin: they turn to an older version of the canonical text in their own language.

Literary translation is challenging enough on its own. What happens when you’re not only dealing with an author’s style, but another translator’s as well? The following is an excerpt from a blog post by the Dutch translator of Pride en Prejudice en ZombiesMaarten van der Werf, who had previously translated work by Karen Armstrong and Edward Said. I’ve transposed it into English and reposted it here (modified with links and images), with the gracious permission of both the author and Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookshop:

The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.
The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.

‘A lot of people thought it was a kind of sacrilege – that someone would dare to tackle a classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that way. That was the reason I got the job: the person who was originally asked didn’t think much of the project, and approached me instead. Since I’m not averse to iconoclasm, and also enjoy the odd brush with ninjas and swords, I decided to take the job.

In spirit, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a parody: Austen’s narrative has been adjusted and bits have been added, though the storyline and text remain largely unaltered. Naturally this doesn’t hold true everywhere, starting with the book’s opening paragraph [Dutch translation here]:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.

The Victorian [sic] setting has been changed slightly: England has been stricken by a zombie plague. The undead keep multiplying, immersing the country in an ongoing struggle for its very existence. The renowned Bennet sisters have also been recruited to the war, which they wage with flint muskets and Oriental combat techniques. The result is hilarious, because the fuss about whether or not Elizabeth will marry the mysterious Mr. Darcy remains largely intact. Emphasis on “largely”.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

As Seth Grahame-Smith – the evil genius behind this project – made changes and additions to the original story, I too worked in an older translation of Pride and Prejudice [Trots en Vooroordeel, published in 1980 by L.J. Veen and translated by H.E. van Praag-van Praag]. I changed what Grahame-Smith had changed, translated what he had added, and also made a passing sweep through the original translation, which needed some modernisation. I had to be careful not to get too enthusiastic with this last step, because the somewhat worn, old-fashioned language added to the book’s feel, and could even be turned up a notch in places. The parts I translated myself had to fit in with this language, so I could go to town with dowdy words and phrases. I enjoyed myself immensely – and as I worked I found myself appreciating the original work more and more.

Of course, reactions to a book like this are mixed. Some consider it a waste of every drop of ink used to print it, or are upset because they feel you can’t maim a classic like Pride and Prejudice this way. I think Asten’s story can take it: the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for all the jokes made about it. I’m also sure a lot of people will find it incredibly fun. They can look forward to more fun as well, because Sense & Sensibility & Zeemonsters is already out, and Android Karenina and Jane Slayre may be up next for translation into Dutch.’ [Maarten van der Werf, 2010]

'“My dear girl," said her Ladyship, "I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy."'
‘“My dear girl,” said her Ladyship, “I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy.”’

Five years down the line, there is sadly still no Dutch translation of either of these texts, at least to my knowledge, though the trend has definitely continued in other languages. I would be particularly interested in seeing how a translation of Android Karenina would work in practice, given that the version of Anna Karenina used in the English mashup is already a translation: a highly influential (if controversial) 1901 version by Constance Garnett.

I’m guessing there’s a whole other post’s worth of material in why Jane Austen’s work is the most popular target of this kind of adaptation on a global scale, but I’ll leave that for another day – and possibly another blogger. In any case, I’m now definitely in the mood for some Austen indulgence. Anyone have any opinions on 2013’s Austenland, or that recent Matchmaker card game? If all else fails there’s always Bridget Jones’s Diary on Netflix.