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.

Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask at the Copenhagen Contemporary

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen, where I visited the recently-opened Copenhagen Contemporary art museum. Before I stepped into the exhibition space to the left of the ticket desk, I was directed to a dark hall at the back of the museum, where Pierre Huyghe’s 20-minute film Untitled (Human Mask) was playing on a loop. The museum’s website introduces the film as follows:

A monkey wearing a mask of a young woman, trained as a servant, unconscious enactor of a human labour; and a drone, an unmanned camera, programmed to perform tasks, inhabit the same landscape of Fukushima, just after the natural and technological disaster.

Huyghe was partly inspired by a YouTube clip, ‘Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!’, in which a trained monkey in a doll-like mask, wig, and server’s uniform waits tables in a restaurant. You can watch the video below:

Human Mask is dramatically different in tone and style, but features the same monkey in the same restaurant, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In this post-apocalyptic environment, Huyghe deployed a drone camera crew, capturing the monkey’s fitful movements through the space and creating the impression of an interior and distinctly human life. The resulting film is both supremely uncanny and surprisingly moving.

No words are spoken in Human Mask, aside from several instances of a muffled, automated voice speaking Japanese in the distance, issuing what sounds like a public service announcement. The monkey, too, is silent save for the amplified sound of its breathing behind the mask. Nevertheless, sound has a real, physical presence in the film, especially when rain begins to pound on the tin roof towards the end.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Frieze.com‘s Jennifer Higgie has written a brilliant review of the film, from when it was first exhibited in London back in 2014. She concludes:

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Click here to read the rest of Higgie’s article, and here to learn more about the exhibition, which runs until 21 May 2017.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Dan Hillier’s Neo-Victorian Fever Dreams

'Towards Death', © Dan Hillier

‘These forgotten images and discarded memories re-write a gorgeously dark period of history, one full of elephant men and taxidermy, death and medicine. The resulting pieces are like postcards coming from Beardsley from a Victorian mansion – if the mansion was populated by circus freaks and Werner Herzog.’ (Dazed and Confused Magazine, April 2007)

A few weeks ago I posted about the artwork of Travis Louie, and its resemblance to Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits. This week I’m doing some research on a very different artist indeed, who I nevertheless hope to compare with Louie in the chapter I’m working on. This artist is Dan Hillier, born in Oxford (far from Louie’s hometown in Queens, NY), now living in Hackney, London. Like Louie, Hillier’s work appropriates Victorian aesthetics and narratives, and depicts fantastical beasts or monsters in this style. The ‘mystery, wonder and amazement’ that Hillier is trying to put into his work also resonates with what Louie communicates.

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Taking prints and pages from old issues of the Illustrated London News, magazines, anatomical textbooks, and ‘various bits and pieces from all over the place’, Hillier’s work is arguably much more deserving of the term ‘mashup’ than Louie’s is. Though much of his collage is done in Photoshop, however, Hillier also does extensive pen-and-ink work – sometimes on top of these collages, sometimes on its own, always in an impressive level of detail.

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If I had to compare Hillier’s work to something in terms of aesthetics, it might as well be the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Hillier himself cites Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness) as a particular source of inspiration. In addition, there are several contemporary artists who have drawn comparisons to Hillier, including Claudia Drake, George K. (alias olex oleole), and, my personal favourite, Mad Meg. Hillier also has a gif series devoted to his work. Naturally though, like all artists, Hillier’s work is ultimately unique.

BeautifulBizzare has some insightful comments on the way he transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar:

Some of Hillier’s most popular work is found in his hybrid figures, mixing ornate Victorian styled subjects with the cosmic and bestial imagery that he is so fond of, challenging our perception of identity and ego. Using images in his collage work from 19th century prints and medical dictionaries, Hillier presents us a discontented and uncomfortable realism that sits uneasy on the eye, but demands our attention to all the wonderful detail. With a third eye present in humans and beasts alike, Hillier takes the Victorian’s thirst for knowledge and strips it away, until all we have is the terror of knowing too much.

Rather than being photorealistic, these images approach reality from the perspective of the anatomical textbook – a Victorian staple almost as evocative as the photograph. Although the subject matter of Hillier’s work is often grotesque or macabre, and the finished image almost always a somber black-and-white, the scenes he presents always manage to make an oddly cheerful – even gleeful – impression.

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If you’re keen to have a closer look at Dan Hillier’s work, you can catch it at the 2016 summer ‘Wonder’ season at Shakespeare’s Globe, or at The Other Art Fair in London (7-10 April, Victoria House). Or you can just pop by his stall at the Sunday Upmarket one weekend.

[EDIT: Any (Neo-)Victorianists reading this post may be interested to know that Dan Hillier’s work was part of Sonia Solicari’s ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ exhibition in 2013. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend, but I did manage to score an art book. You may also know Hillier’s work from this 2010 music video (Losers’ ‘Flush’, featuring Riz MC & Envy), or his cover art for Royal Blood’s debut album in 2014, which won the Best Art Vinyl award.]

Immigrant Portraiture and the Art of the Alien

ellisisland-32
‘German stowaway’, 1911. ©Augustus Sherman | New York Public Library

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, a new book collecting the work of Augustus F. Sherman was published to much media interest and online fanfare. Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

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In addition to giving Americans a vivid look at the individuals who helped make up the ‘great melting pot’, Ellis Island station served as a grimly reflective record of shifting national attitutes towards immigarnts, as reflected in The Public Domain Review’s summary of the station’s usage:

1907 was the busiest year for Ellis Island, with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April. Approved immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island where they underwent medical examinations and were asked questions regarding their occupation and the money they owned, it being preferable for them to have a starting sum when they arrived in the country. Two percent of the immigrants were denied admission on the grounds of suffering from contagious diseases or insanity, or alternatively by virtue of having a criminal background. In the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the percentage of immigrants arriving from various countries or ethnic backgrounds, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The facilities later served as a detention and deportation processing station, and during the Second World War, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were detained on the island.

Likewise, the portraiture of thenative’ and the foreign national (or criminal) has a complex and often rocky history.

Fittingly, around the same time that this book of Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits was released, Travis Louie started selling his paintings of neo-historical monsters – portraits in a faux-Victorian photographic style, about which I am currently writing. Nastia Voynovskaya describes Louie’s work as follows over at Hi-Fructose:

Through a unique process of applying thin, translucent layers of monochromatic, acrylic paint to a panel over and over, Travis Louie […] mimics the effect of 19th-century photography. Though filled with fantastical characters, his works have an effect of verisimilitude much like historical documents from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Though Louie’s monster portraiture draws on the North-American nineteenth century rather than the British one, visually his paintings are ambiguous enough to allow for a neo-Victorian reading. A sense of historical time is much easier to pin down in his artwork than a geographical space, partly due to the subject matter of his work. Louie has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.

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It seems quite possible that Louie is referring to Sherman’s photographs when he speaks of a convincing record of the North American immigrant experience. Specifically, Louie’s artwork targets the way these images invite a kind of casual racism, or a generalisation of peoples into stereotypes of national custom and costume. As he explains in an interview with Julie Winters of BienArt Gallery:

I created these characters as a sort of veiled commentary on racism and the immigrant experience. In many of my stories, my characters came to North America like any other immigrants, only I chose otherworldly types of beings to make the stories more universal.

Louie’s artwork frequently draws on a 1950s aesthetic as well as a Victorian one, specifically interested in the future-focused imagery of the Atomic Age. When combined, these two aesthetics work together to create a strange timelessness, and a general air of hopeful nostalgia. In the same interview, Louie writes: ‘I almost get that sense that people were more hopeful about the future in North America than they are now and that played into a sense of wonder that is very important to me’.

Given North America’s current culture of intolerance towards immigrants, it may be a long time before this sense of wonder returns to the American psyche. Until then, however, we have artists like Travis Louie to help keep that spirit alive.

travis-louie_beautiful-bizarre_12

You can find more of Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs via the New York Public Library. A sampling of Travis Louie’s portrait work can be found on his website.