Dead Mouse Walking: New Yorkers Revive the Creepy Art of Taxidermy

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Urbanites are rediscovering the Victorian pastime of stuffing animal carcasses. What's behind this morbid fascination?

taxidermy-top.jpgContestants at the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest in Brooklyn (photo by Mark Dee)

Proteus Gowanus, an artists' complex in Brooklyn, hides amid the former factories and warehouses of the Gowanus shipping district. The way in, says a weather beaten chalkboard resting out front, is through the crusty brick alley around back. There aren't many windows, but the inside is clean and fluorescent and shut off from the surrounding streets. It is, in many ways, the perfect place to teach taxidermy.

A class meets here every other week, put on by Morbid Anatomy, a blog dedicated to all things old and odd. It's taught by Sue Jeiven, a tattoo artist from Greenpoint who serves as an ad hoc instructor. The classes last four hours and cost $60 -- materials and mice included -- and are booked solid three months in advance, with more than 75 people on the waiting list.

For most of us, stuffed trophies still inspire images of paneled basements decked out in hunting lodge décor: shag carpet cut through with Marlboro smoke, sightless whitetails assessing the humans below. But the Morbid Anatomy class is at the forefront of a larger taxidermy trend in New York City.

Lifelike dead animals can now be found far outside the exacting dioramas that populate the American Museum of Natural History along Central Park. Since 2010, at least three full-length books have documented the growing taxidermy subculture. New York Magazine took notice even earlier, writing in 2007 about the increased intrusion of mounted wildlife into the city's high-end eateries: "Once an art confined to frat houses, Upper West Side beer bars, and New Yorker cartoons, taxidermy has made its way into restaurants all over town."

A mounted animal crosses boundaries of all sorts: domestic vs. feral, human vs. animal, life vs. death.

According to a 2009 Times style section piece, taxidermy is also popping up in homes all over town. The article called this a "hip-yet-comforting decorating trend," and offered an increasingly common explanation: "For many, the smooth surfaces of modern design have lost their allure." (For those on a budget, New York's 10 Urban Outfitters offer cardboard cutout deer trophies for $30. You can upgrade to the larger, 14-point buck for $50.)

Even high-brow, mustache-and-monocle galleries have picked up the growing taxidermy trend. Damien Hirst -- the world's richest living artist, according to The Sunday Times -- deals extensively in taxidermy. His 14-foot tiger shark preserved in clear formaldehyde sold for a reported $8 million in 2004, though some claim it went for $12 million. Over the new year, the Guggenheim Museum featured a retrospective of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, including his signature taxidermized animals hanging from the ceiling. "Although an ironic humor threads much of his work, a profound meditation on mortality forms the core of Cattelan's practice," curators wrote in the exhibit's program.

That weird conflation -- the mapping of life onto death -- is unavoidable in the face of, say, someone's freeze-dried pet dog (pet-preservation is a growing niche within the taxidermy industry). For modern city folks, especially, it can be a lot like seeing a corpse. And that feeling is probably a big reason why taxidermy has earned itself a macabre reputation over the better part of the 20th century. Hitchcock's Norman Bates, in addition to being a psycho and an innkeeper, was also a taxidermist.

***

At the Morbid Anatomy class, the room was set up as though for a picnic: four tables are draped in vinyl cloth, surrounded by five folding chairs. In the middle of each were all the implements necessary to turn a dead mouse into a somewhat lifelike mouse: wire, clay, needles and thread, white mounds of Borax, a versatile detergent, and improvised desiccant. Next to that was a box of folded latex gloves for the squeamish.

At the front of the class stood Sue Jeiven, an inch or two over five feet and pale, with lips painted the color of a Coke can, and impossibly black hair. Everything from her neck down was a mural, etched with monochromatic, blue-grey tattoos so densely packed that her body appeared to have a different tone than her face. Jeiven, a Brooklyn native, has a bachelor's in art education from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. ("I mostly taught special-ed kids," she tells the class, "so forgive me if I get too supportive.")

While her assistant defrosted the mice in a sink one room over, Jeiven addressed the group. "In my experience there are different types of taxidermy," she said. "There's the traditional type -- hunters and trophies. Museums fall into another category. Then there's rogue taxidermy, which is more using the animal in an art piece. Wet is a type I'm just hearing about, when you preserve the animal in a jar. And then there's anthropomorphic, which is what I do. What we're making here tonight is a Victorian-era tableau."

She paused, and began passing around a stack of pictures. "Kitten's Wedding," "Rabbit School," "Prairie Dog Band": the work of Walter Potter, a pioneer of anthropomorphic taxidermy and master of Victorian whimsy. The pictures get chuckles and awwws and some altogether serious analytic gazes as they circulate through the room.

***

When we think of Victorian England, we tend to imagine corsets, geometric hedges -- images of containment and propriety. But having a mounted animal -- a dead, feral thing that looks very much alive -- crosses boundaries of all sorts: domestic vs. wild, human vs. animal, life vs. death. It seems odd that Victorians proved to be such enthusiasts of taxidermy. But in the long history of the craft -- which, some claim, dates back to the prehistoric practice of stretching hides over mounds of mud -- perhaps no other era greeted the stuffed animal with such warmth.

Consider Potter, easily the most notable taxidermist of that era working outside of a museum. He pioneered the anthropomorphic dioramas ("tableaus") that Jeiven's class emulates. Think nursery rhymes in 3D: everyday scenes, but where the people might be are kittens, rabbits, birds. His work is amateurish. His mounts are hunched and misshapen and almost entirely without musculature. Yet, to many, they are also endearing, dripping with kitschy sentimentality. They tell children's stories through figures easily remembered from childhood. Not to mention they are often huge: "The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin," based on a Mother Goose nursery rhyme from the era, consisted of 98 specimens mourning (appropriately) the death of a song bird. At an auction of Potter's estate in 2003, it reportedly sold for £20,000.

Creations like these are the specialty of antiques dealer Mike Zohn. His shop, Obscura Antiques and Oddities on the Lower East Side, sells everything from postcards to antiquated medical devices, kidney stones to dead animals.

You may recognize Zohn from TV. The hulking, middle-aged man with an increasingly exposed forehead and wholesome, ruddy cheeks, stars on the Science Channel's Oddities with Obscura co-owner Evan Michelson. Zohn's presence on the show -- and at flea markets along the eastern seaboard -- has garnered him something of celebrity status amongst those so interested in Obscura's wares.

I first met Zohn last December at the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest, an annual exhibition hosted by the Secret Science Club, a Brooklyn-based group that hosts a series of events in Gowanus. That night, the Bell House was stuffed to capacity, around 350 people at $7 a ticket. Many men looked like people who might kill their own trophies: heavy flannel, calf-length boots, facial hair ranging from rustic to creative. A lot of the women wore feathers.

In the contest's seven-year history, Zohn has been a prominent presence. His first victory came three years ago when he reconstructed a 19th century bird automaton. Last year's entry featured a coyote (salvaged from a 1930s Philadelphia department store), perched, mid-howl, on a wooden crate. On its back sat a capuchin monkey about the size of the coyote's head, holding a bottle opener. The mount had function as much as flair: in the crate was a pump -- fill the tank inside, press a button, and your drink would shoot through a tube and be, well, excreted into your glass. It won top prize.

"In Victorian times, taxidermy was thought of as bringing nature into the home," Zohn says. "You know, it's odd, it's exotic, it's a little bit strange. People have really strong reactions to it -- it really creeps some people out. But others are fascinated."

Zohn thinks our current fascination rises from similar impulses. The Victorian era was a period of rapid modernization. England was transitioning into the Industrial Age, its residents migrating from farms to factories. It isn't hard to see this 19th century obsession as an attempt to hold onto something in nature. For city dwellers, Zohn says, taxidermy creates "a bubble of nature" -- an attenuated, non-threatening reminder of the wilderness they left behind.

Many modern-day purveyors see something similar happening now. Over the past two decades, the world has gone digital. Things we could once feel -- handwritten letters, photo albums, the grooves on vinyl records -- have become incorporeal. "The personal computer is the new wunderkammer,"says Robert Marbury, a Baltimore-based artist, referring to the "cabinets of curiosities" popular in the 19th century. "Ultimately, we're collecting more and more for the computer -- mp3s, images, all kinds of stuff. What used to be on display in your house has been compressed into an iPhone." Taxidermy, he points out, may be a tactile response to modernity's 1s and 0s.

Next: How to stuff a rodent, and when taxidermy becomes illegal

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Mark Dee is a writer living in Connecticut.

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