Memento mori 2011: still life with waterfowl

memento mori 2011: still life with waterfowl

From my field notes, June 2011, kitchen sink, Withington:

On Wednesday, I try to pull back the skin from the wings a bit further; I succeed partly on one side where I pass the elbow just barely; no way I can make it closer to the wrist. On the other side, I cannot even strip beyond the elbow joint.

On Thursday, I notice pinkish blood shining through at the wrist joints, and some white feathers on the belly are soiled. The meat on the under arm will rot, the horror! It is all seeping through! Shall I cut open the skin to get it out? Better a maimed than a rotting bird? I smear tanning liquid onto the spoilt feathers on the wings. The head remains all scrawny; I soak it again in Fairy washing up liquid, but the head is all greyish down now, not the white splendour when it hadn’t been skinned yet. The poor thing looks pretty lifeless. It is all starting to become a bit gruesome, and the smell is, well, surprising.

Friday June 17th. My taxidermist instructor laughs when I call and tell him that I am working on a sea gull. I explain that I can’t get it defleshed below the elbow. What I can do, he tells me, is make an incision where the feathers part naturally, with the bird lying on its back, and then take out the meat; I can always stitch it back up. He praises me for taking on a gull at all because next to a duck it’s the hardest thing to do, a completely different proposition from a magpie: all the grease is very difficult to remove, those long light-coloured wing feathers so easily soiled. I should approach the whole thing as another step in a learning process. He suggests I ‘disembody the head’ and try to make something out of that if the rest proves to be too difficult.

Afterlife, August 2011. Practitioners of taxidermy, the art of arranging skin, often claim that their goal in mounting an animal is to make it look natural. Taxidermists are in the business of replicating nature – nature vivante rather than nature morte. The mount must be lifelike. A trophy always includes the head, or consists in the head. This is where the nature and the life of the animal are seen to reside. From this point of view, it is not surprising that I was advised to disembody the head rather than to decapitate the gull’s body and work with that. The head can do without the body, the body can’t do without the head.

The gull still has an outline of a body, with a roughly sandpapered chunk of foam in its belly (why didn’t my manikin fit after all my careful measurements?), and legs and wings that are left unwired. The dear scrawny head cannot see, as I managed to bury a pair of red beads (wrong colour anyway) in clay behind shut and sunken eyes. But in its very death likeness, this half-baked mount resonates with something closer to home, which is an explicit reminder of death rather than life: its pose, I now realise with some pride and a lot of pleasure, evokes the catch in a Dutch seventeenth-century still life. It mimics a nature morte with waterfowl. Here, it is on display with another shell of some once known or imagined body, and I wonder, why are the desired aesthetics of representation in taxidermy so different from what we have come to appreciate in the classical torso, headless, dismembered, quite detached? Where does joy reside if not in imagination—but how, and how materially, is such imagination shaped?

Many thanks to Griet Scheldeman for providing me with the specimen: a black headed gull in winter coat.

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My taxidermist instructor laughs when I call and tell him that I am working on a sea gull.