James Bartlett arranges the skin of Erin Derham’s documentary about the surprising world of taxidermy and the passionate artists across the world who see life where others only see death.
For many people, the word “taxidermy” brings to mind crumbling mansions or old men’s clubs filled with unnaturally-posed animals stuffed and mounted after boastful hunting trips to exotic climes. But that’s all changed now.
Right now, the interest in taxidermy – both as an art form and as something to actually learn yourself – is bristling with young people, many of them female. Lots of today’s practitioners tend to be tattooed or wear fab vintage clothes, and their Instagram accounts colorfully illustrate the trend towards creating animals in naturalistic poses, and especially advocating a deep commitment to animal conservation and education.
At the head of this very different kind of rat pack is Allis Markham, a taxidermist with her own studio in downtown Los Angeles, a bevy of celebrity clients, and a special love for birds. She’s the first person we meet – and perhaps most erudite and glamorous breakout star – of the documentary Stuffed, a film that is likely to challenge the old assumption that taxidermy is unpleasant and outdated.
The documentary meanders across the world talking to different practitioners.
There’s veteran mentor Tim Bovard, the only full-time museum taxidermist in the USA, and the amusing Dutch duo Sinke and Van Tongren, who excel at unusual installations like a clutch of birds that you’d never see together in real life – but look beautiful.
The baby-faced Meng wears a cowboy hat and works on a jaguar, snarling in mid-leap, while the softly-spoken South African de Villiers is in awe of the amazing wildlife he sees in his own safari-esque backyard.
There’s also time for offshoots like “rogue taxidermy” (i.e. combining animals for startling visual effect, or giving them human attributes like clothes or instruments. Some forms even use the bones, not the skins).
The world of scalpels, shaping foam, wires and skins isn’t all about animals either. The documentary also points out that taxidermy takes in other areas: trees, flowers, rugged landscapes, birds, insects, lizards and more. They look just as real and are just as painstakingly-created and posed as the big (or small) beasts that are usually the focus of any display.
Even at a brisk 85 minutes, Stuffed does lack an element or two; there aren’t many transitions between the interviews, so it often seems more like a series of vignettes rather than anything structured.
Also, though we see footage from the World Taxidermy Championships, there’s no sense that these taxidermists are preparing for that big event or, say, rushing to complete a complex commission.
Nevertheless, the group seem like a fun bunch you’d like to hang out with. They share a genuine friendship and respect, and are certainly making taxidermy seem less of a mysterious world.
Amusing and undeniably interesting, Stuffed will make you think (and look) again when you’re next in the local museum.
Stuffed is releases in US cinemas 16th October. Irish release TBC.