Taxidermists know what you think of them. They know you see them as morbid creeps, maybe even twisted loners like Norman Bates in Psycho. Perhaps you imagine them killing innocent animals just to gut, skin, and stuff them into a still-life of their former self. But there’s a beauty, dignity, and deep compassion at the heart of taxidermy. And Erin Derham’s documentary, Stuffed is a guided tour through this misunderstood art form’s history, people, and politics.
Stuffed begins by introducing us to a wide array of colorful characters. There’s the chic LA artist who gave up a lucrative career to pursue her fascination with taxidermy, and now owns the high-fashion boutique Prey Taxidermy. A quirky cowboy, who once snuck roadkill home to secretly pursue his fascination, is now an expert on reconstructing realistic leopards. A dedicated naturalist travels the world studying live animals to better replicate their anatomy in his work. Then there’s the eccentric Dutch artists who reject such authenticity, preferring an approach that is more expressionistic or even surreal. They come from all walks of life. They each have a distinct approach and style in their work. And all of it is captivating.
Raised in town where schools give the day off for the start of buck season, I grew up around taxidermy to some degree. Deer heads stared out blankly from the walls of my grandfather’s living room. A massive bass struck a pose on a wooden plate, frozen forever in mid-swim. In high school, I dated a guy whose dad built an addition onto his house to better display the bear he’d brought down. As I got older, these pieces went from part of the furniture to morbid mementos I found a bit morose because I knew these animals had literally died to be put on display. But Stuffed taught me the same is not true for every stuffed creature. The doc takes us behind the scenes to conservation centers who donate animals that have died of natural causes in hopes of preserving their legacy. A museum taxidermist speaks about the importance of “archiving a species that no longer exists,” noting how animals might be preserved for future generations through this form of preservation. A passionate conservationist notes that seeing such taxidermy could inspire the new wave of activists to fight for the animals so carefully recreated in these displays, noting, “Action only comes from emotion.”
“Taxidermists do what we do not because we see death,” one explains early on, “They do what they do because they see life.” Again and again, Derham takes us into studios, workshops, boutiques, showcases, and exhibitions to show the life in this vocation. For some, conservation and preservation is a key component to their passion. For all, the goal is to respect the animals by giving it new life. And the different forms of appreciation this takes are astounding. It’s wild to see a work come to life. A leopard’s face is carefully carved using its skull as a reference. A hummingbird is stitched together by delicate hands. A rare and beloved tortoise is carefully reconstructed with not only his skin and shell but also the memories of the handlers who spent decades overseeing his care.
Some are both beautiful and bizarre. Diaphanous taxidermy scraps the skins altogether and focuses instead on the bones, dyeing them vivid colors and then recreating the animal’s shape with a “gummy bear”-like gel. Another taxidermist carefully breaks down a massive fish, then isolates the cartilage to create free-standing sculptures that seem at once alien and familiar. (She notes she also eats their meat, so very little goes to waste!) There’s novelty taxidermy, where creatures are given costumes and staged in cute or comical tableaus as if they were children’s toys. There’s Victorian taxidermy, which has a lavish flare, and rogue taxidermy, which creates dreamy hybrids like a “goth griffin,” made by merging a crow and a black cat. All of it fascinating, if not outright gorgeous. I particularly swooned over Allis Markham’s beautiful birds, perched and posed as statues and fashion accessories, like a fascinator that truly deserves its name. But my absolute favorite was the work of Terry Van Tongeren and Jaap Sinke, whose taxidermy is inspired less by nature and its limitations and more by 17th-century paintings.
They reject the constraints of an animal’s physical limitations and instead bend their birds and lizards to optimize angles and bring a dramatic dynamic to their taxidermy. They stage their pieces not in standard showrooms or dioramas but in massive mansions that are emptied save for their breathtaking displays that tease sensational stories. One is a tiger that’s tackled a birdcage. Though he has one bird in the hand (or paw), his gaze is on another, perched proudly on a nearby stand. Van Tongeren and Sinke speak about the folly of this tiger’s greed, and point out the jaw on their beast is a bit oversized to better accentuate his hunger and yearning. It’s the kind of detail you might not notice on your own, but might feel looking at this striking display. In others, they twist birds wings to the best presentation of their feathers or tangle snakes to form a scary yet stunning frame. All of it demands you give a fresh look to the natural world you thought you knew.
Stuffed is as rich in visual splendor as it is insight and information about this long-misunderstood art form. Derham, an animal lover and vegan, shares her own curiosity in taxidermy and her compassion for the people who create it. Her gently guided tour is full of fascinating stops. If I have one complaint about this doc, it’s that it feels more like a meandering tour than a journey. There’s no central plot and therefore no momentum or tension. It’s not like Stuffed is focused on one of the taxidermy competitions it displays or is following the career of a newcomer trying to break through. There’s no real conflict or story here beyond those captured in dioramas and talking head interviews. Nonetheless, Stuffed is enchanting.
Stuffed makes its world premiere at SXSW.
Header Image Source: SXSW