When gallery owner Giovanni Giusti expressed an interest in bidding on a saint’s skull during an auction in Co. Meath in 2011, his wife Deirdre Nuttall ruled it out.
He pleaded that this was, after all, the only head in the world belonging to St Vitalis of Assisi, who some consider the patron saint of venereal disease, he said.
Nuttall did not budge, but the argument did lead to a deeper conversation between husband and wife, says Giusti.
“We started discussing taxidermy and discussing using dead bodies, dead animals as material for artistic expression. And that essentially is what rogue taxidermy is,” he said.
On a recent Friday afternoon, at Gallery X on South William Street, Giusti was preparing for an upcoming show, Still Lives: Honouring the Dead.
It grew out of that conversation, and, as he tells it, it is Ireland’s first collective exhibition of rogue taxidermy.
“It turned out there were quite a few artists working in that medium,” says Giusti. “Now that the exhibition is about to start, I keep getting new names.”
At the moment, the gallery shelves are empty; the works are in transit to Dublin for the opening on 16 February.
Unlike the rigid fox or upstanding stoat in stuffy country hotels, these have been re-purposed as works of art.
Whereas traditional taxidermists place preserved skin over Styrofoam and other materials, an artist working within the medium has a bigger challenge, says Nuttall, who curated the exhibition.
“Rogue taxidermists are working from scratch,” she says, starting with the process of taxidermy and the moving on to making an artwork from the result. “It’s almost like paint and clay so the works have to be technically good.”
To some, it may sound a grisly practice, but the exhibition is meant to challenge us, says Nuttall.
It breaks with the historical practice of stuffing animals for sport and displaying them like trophies. “Philosophically it’s quite different to ordinary taxidermy, which often – used to anyway – involve the shooting, hunting and killing of an animal,” she says.
“These artists are using deceased animals that died in accidents or of old age, and, in some cases, were by-products of industry,” she said.
Across several media and featuring five artists, the show aims to challenge our preconceptions about life and death, waste, and our relationship with the animal world.
In one of Arlene McPadden’s pieces, You’ve Been Served, a stuffed rabbit stands on a bed of black carnations, brandishing forks.
In another, I Have A Dream, one squirrel stabs another through the chest with a small blade.
They may seem playful, like scenes from a Redwall novel, but they’re intricate and take time.
McPadden works closely with a local taxidermist in Co. Sligo for her larger works. The smaller ones she creates herself, skinning, slicing and pickling skins before they are ready to be transformed into still lives.
Last summer was good for McPadden, although not so much for the birds. “We’d such a dry spell at the time, they were so dehydrated. They couldn’t get water,” she says. “They were dropping from the sky.”
Like most crafts, it involves trial and error. “With taxidermy, you’ve got to screw up a lot of jobs before you get them right,” she says. “There’s lots of different ways of going around things.”
Not everybody reacts well to her work, she says. “There’s lots of haters out there for sure, but I did have a comment from a guy saying, ‘Mum, we’ve seen all that roadkill in the last month and I thought I’d make a work out of it, and you told me I was crazy!’ ”
It makes her wonder how many others are out there like that, thinking the same.
Gwen Wilkinson, another artist whose work features in the exhibition, said her road to taxidermy was somewhat unusual.
She doesn’t consider herself an artistic taxidermist, but it found its way into her photography, she says.
Wilkinson uses stuffed animals to tell short stories through photographs. “I’m definitely influenced by a lot of Victorian culture,” she says. “The photographic technique itself comes from the Victorian era.”
After the daguerreotype – which was how people took photos in the 1840s and 1850s – came the wet-plate collodian process, which is what Wilkinson uses.
“The work, I suppose, is very Beatrix Potter like,” she says. “They’re playful. I call them short stories.”
Wilkinson uses a camera from the 1870s and borrows stuffed animals from a neighbour to create her stories, which have names such as The Magpie and the Mysterious Egg, The Mouse and the Very Big Leaf.
Wilkinson says there are challenging aspects to the upcoming exhibition at Gallery X. But isn’t that the point? “It’s good to be challenged,” she says.
Towards the Show
Gallery X co-owner and exhibition curator Nuttall says some works may not suit all palettes, but she wants the show to make people question our relationship with the animal world.
“Some of the works are quite challenging,” she says. “For instance, one of the pieces we’re exhibiting are these shoes made out of horses hooves.”
Created by German artist Iris Schieferstein, Horseshoes will sit alongside another Schieferstein work called Thoughts, in which a dozen or so white mice are clumped together to form a cloud.
“Her work (…) makes us think about our position in the food chain,” Nuttall says. “The works make us think about many things, but I think animal rights is definitely one of them.”
For Giusti, it’s a chance to offer something different to Dublin’s art-seeking public.
“I think that good art has to be very skilfully made,” he says. “The audience, unfortunately, is very much forgotten in contemporary art. Good art speaks for itself without any explanation.”
And to those who might object to this use of dead animals, he says: “I know a lot of people have problems with killing animals for gain, but these animals were not killed for this.”
Still Lives: Honouring the Dead runs from 16 February to 11 March at Gallery X.