In a loft in a disused school in The Hague, Dutch artist Noortje Zijlstra takes a frozen crow carcass from a refrigerator and cuts it open, pursuing her latest “dead animal art” project. Wearing surgical gloves, Zijlstra gingerly cuts into the dead bird’s breastbone before going on to remove most of its insides.
“This is what I do. I take its ‘jacket’ off and use it as my medium for art. As soon as that happens, it ceases to be a dead animal,” Zijlstra says as she slices away at the defrosting bird with a razor-sharp scalpel.
Zijlstra, 28, is part of a new group of young Dutch artists gaining international recognition in the art world by using taxidermy as their creative medium. Their work has won critical acclaim for elevating the centuries-old practice of mounting animals to a “higher plane”, a review said recently.
But for some ordinary art enthusiasts, the sight of a stuffed dead animal remains macabre and sometimes hard to stomach, Zijlstra says. Many of Zijlstra’s unconventional works adorn her desk at her studio overlooking a drab working-class suburb of The Hague. Earlier in February, they were ready to be shipped off for display at the Rotterdam Festival of Contemporary Art.
There’s a stuffed squirrel standing upright on its hind legs, a test tube inserted into its throat that serves as a flower holder, and a white dove’s head mounted on a shuttlecock.
An artwork simply entitled Drumstick features a single preserved baby chicken leg, mounted on a wooden stand, covered in fluffy white feathers. Two goose heads blend into a strange new animal in another untitled work.
“My work fuses taxidermy and art, sometimes creating work that may shock or even revolt, but I hope (it) serves as a catalyst for conversation,” Zijlstra says. Wearing a purple dress and plaited hair, she bears an uncanny likeness to late Mexican art icon Frida Kahlo.
Elsewhere in her studio, a family of mice were mounted, but instead of fur, their hides had been replaced by decorative sugar in different hues of red, green, blue and yellow.
“Food often features in my art,” says Zijlstra, as she continues working on the dead crow, which now has its skin and feathers partially detached from its skeleton.
“I use dead animals because I want people to think about what they put into their mouths. My art has a lot to do with the concept that you are what you eat. And I am vegetarian,” Zijlstra says with a smile.
In the nearby Dutch city of Haarlem, Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren have just returned from exhibitions in Britain that earned rave reviews. Titled Darwin’s Menagerie, in reference to the famed British naturalist, the hugely popular expo by Sinke and Van Tongeren made its debut at the prestigious Jamb gallery in London in October before moving to the city’s Shapero Modern Gallery.
At Shapero, their creations recreating Dutch masters’ paintings depicting animals hobnobbed with works by top artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Damien Hirst, as part of the Natural Selection show. After the exhibit, a private collector scooped up the Sinke-van Tongeren collection for an undisclosed sum, according to Sinke.
“This is not quirky nature meets urban cool, this elevates taxidermy to a higher plane,” said art reviewer Henrietta Thompson of the works in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“Taxidermy as art is definitely making a comeback,” Sinke says, adding that works can fetch prices ranging from US$3,000 to US$30,000 (RM10,800 to RM108,000).
The revival started in the late 1990s, with German artist Thomas Gruenfeld using the medium to create new animals in his Misfits series, says Leontine Coelewij, curator at Amsterdam’s famed Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art. Today, the Dutch artists’ works “link into a larger trend about how artists use nature and think about nature,” Coelewij says.
“They want to raise important questions about how we as humans view the natural world – and how we relate to nature and use nature,” Coelewij says.
Back in her studio in The Hague, Zijlstra takes a second look at the crow’s skin and feathers, now detached from the skeleton. “I’m not sure what it’s going to become,” she says. “But whatever it will be, I hope it gets people talking.” – AFP