This isn’t your gun-toting great-uncle’s taxidermy: there are no hunting trophies mounted on smoking den walls or Teddy Roosevelt-inspired museum dioramas. In Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself, Robert Marbury introduces a world of bionic crocodiles, pigs in Chanel bowties, impalas with human faces, and polar bears climbing on refrigerators (get it?).
In 2004, with two friends, Marbury established the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART). In the decade since, Rogue Taxidermy–a genre of pop-surrealism that fuses traditional taxidermy with mixed-media sculpture–has evolved into a veritable subculture of people obsessed with turning dead animals into art. “Not since the Victorian era has taxidermy been so popular,” Marbury writes in the book’s introduction. (The Victorian era saw a trend of taxidermists like Walter Potter making anthropomorphic tableaux of squirrels smoking cigars and kittens having tea parties.)
Why has taxidermy art experienced this great 21st-century resurgence? Aside from the influence of art stars like Damien Hirst, “it’s the return of the hand,” Marbury says. With all-digital-everything, “we want to have more involvement in making things with hands, in having an experience that isn’t quantified by a photograph.”
Ironically, the Internet has enabled this old-school art form to regain popularity: “Social media have allowed taxidermy work, art, and ideas to be shared in real time, all around the world,” Marbury writes. The common trait among all these artists, he says, is “a curiosity about death.” For the book, Marbury profiled a series of creatively morbid Rogue Taxidermy artists around the world. From zombie weasels to puppies in tiaras, the work of six of these are featured in the slide show above.
Brooklyn-based Kate Clark makes some of the most fascinatingly disturbing work in the scene. By endowing the bodies of wild animals with faces based on those of actual human models, she drags us right into the uncanny valley. Resembling undead centaurs or werewolves or satyrs, her sculptures deconstruct binaries between human and beast.
Marbury himself practices what he has dubbed “vegan taxidermy.” He uses traditional taxidermy techniques and tools, except with discarded plush toys instead of actual carcasses. His freakish chimeras have names like “Nardog” (part narwhal, part dog). But his work’s “vegan” aspect doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried his hand at brain tanning the skin of a road-killed squirrel, using the barbecue grill in his Baltimore backyard. (Fun fact: “All animals have just enough brains for the amount of skin they have,” he says.) “I don’t think anyone is going to rob my house any time soon, what with the bones in flowerpots and squirrel hide out drying on the grill,” he says, with a hint of pride.
Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself is available from Artisan Books here for $14.