Birds, Bears & Beyond

All images courtesy the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory, Toronto, unless otherwise noted.All images courtesy the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory, Toronto, unless otherwise noted.

Tucked away in a charming, three-storey apartment building, located between Little Italy and Little Portugal in Toronto’s West End, is one of the city’s most unique spaces. The Contemporary Zoological Conservatory, which houses an ever-growing collection of vintage taxidermy animals, is the brainchild of the young artist/curators Morgan Mavis and Christopher Bennell. Mavis, a pink-haired,  buxom (her word), vivacious young woman with the fashion sense of a vamped-up Donna Reed, and Bennell, whose more reserved manner and lanky frame suggest a young John Waters, started the CZC in March, 2008. One of those places that has been talked about in the press, it has been visited by a rare few. In May, Mavis sat down with Bill Clarke (over white wine and cupcakes — which Mavis, in Donna Reed-mode, baked herself — and surrounded by stuffed animals) to discuss the Conservatory, and share thoughts on the various uses of taxidermy in contemporary art.

Bill Clarke: What was your very first piece of taxidermy?

Morgan Mavis: A deer head I got for my 17th birthday. At the time, I asked for either a toy poodle, a deer head or a live dwarf goat. What I got was a Discman, but it had a remote control, so I was actually pretty happy about that! And then, later that day, the doorbell rang at the inn my dad ran, and I just figured it was guests arriving. He told me to answer the door and, when I did, there was a mounted deer head hanging there! That deer head has been across Canada with me; it’s one of the few things that I’ve always kept even during fits of purging.

Morgan Mavis & Christopher BennellMorgan Mavis & Christopher BennellBC: Where do you find pieces for the collection?

MM: From antique dealers, mostly, though we have gotten things from the Christie Antique Show [not the auction house], where taxidermy comes up, occasionally. We’ve also gotten things off Craigslist, and we’ve even had some donations, which I totally encourage! But, antique dealers are usually the best places to track things down. Dealers often want to move taxidermy quickly because, technically, taxidermy should be accompanied by documentation and permits, indicating the animal was killed or imported legally. Of course, over the years, most pieces of taxidermy have gotten separated from such documentation, but we do have some of their original papers.

The problem with taxidermy, though, is it can be expensive and it’s not very transportable. We didn’t buy much when we were travelling and moving more often but, once we moved in here, the collecting took off.

BC: How many pieces are currently in the collection, and do you have a favourite one?

MM: The Conservatory has about 71 pieces right now, a few more if you count the pairings of birds, individually. My favourite is the bear, definitely. I’m pretty sure it’s a female, and it’s the same height as me! [Editor’s note: The bear is on its hind legs, and stands about five-foot-four-inches.] It is built upon a wooden frame, which means that it probably dates from 1940 or earlier, and it was a ‘mascot’ at a fur store for a long time in Peterborough. It eventually wound up at an antique dealer, where we found it. Once, a friend who grew up in Peterborough was here, and she recognized it. That bear was a Peterborough icon!

BC: Does the bear have a name?

MM: No, we don’t name them, though some are more special than others.

BC: What is a reasonable price to pay for such a thing?  

MM: A taxidermy bear, depending on the size and its condition, of course, can go for around $1,600. But, we got this one for $200! It was very exciting; in art terms, it was like finding a Damien Hirst in a junk shop for a few bucks! But, we’ve almost never paid what the dealer was asking; we always try to bargain.

BC: Is there anything that you are coveting?  

MM: Oh, so much! I want a full-size horse, standing on all four legs. In a perfect world, it would be a white mare. I’m pretty sure the ceilings here are high enough that we could accommodate a horse rearing on its back legs, too. I’d also love a narwhal to hang from the ceiling. The Arts & Letters Club here in Toronto has a narwhal horn that was donated. If one of your readers has a stuffed horse or narwhal they want to get rid of, they can donate it to me! 

But, on a more practical level, I’d love a peacock, but with its tail down because that would be much easier to clean and maintain. Oh, and a black swan and a white swan. We tend to stick within North America for our wants. I’m not against animals from outside North America but, like I said earlier, there are issues with permits, importing…

The Contemporary Zoological ConservatoryThe Contemporary Zoological ConservatoryBC: Caring for taxidermy must be tricky.

MM: Yes, it is. This building is over 100 years old; it is not air-tight. Taxidermy, especially the birds with their feathers, is delicate. We vacuum the pieces carefully with panty hose over the nozzle, and we use corn starch to combat dust build-up. But, the biggest problem is moth infestations. I have nightmares about moths!

BC: So, what do you consider taxidermy to be? Is it art? Collectible kitsch? Historic relic?

MM: Well, when taxidermy first came into being, it was as an educational tool. In the first public museums, taxidermied animals were simply a way for the public to experience the natural world up close. Taxidermy, as a teaching tool, has the power to make palpable the wonder of science and nature. In Victorian Times, churches were known to hang 'great lizards' …alligators…from the ceiling to inspire awe of God in the parishioners. It is the aesthetics of nature and the artistic interpretation of the natural that fascinates me. But, in contemporary terms, I consider it an art form. It’s like portraiture, or the embodiment and passing on of a story. Taxidermy is a powerful communication medium, but now by artists rather than natural history curators.

BC: Earlier, you mentioned, jokingly, Damien Hirst, but his preserved animals, especially the sharks, are probably the most well-known contemporary examples of animals in art.

MM: As an art student, I loved Damien Hirst. How he used animals was really provocative, but also traditional. Those pieces, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992), hark back to the first museums with their vitrines. But, Hirst’s shark has such a presence. It inspires awe, and that was the original intent of taxidermy; to inspire wonder and respect for nature, and to consider our place in it.

BC: One of my favourite pieces of taxidermy in art is by the English artist, David Shrigley. It’s of a stuffed cat standing on its hind legs, holding a sign on a stick that reads, “I’m Dead.” Do you know it?

MM: I think so. Depending on how well a piece of taxidermy is done, it can have different effects on a viewer. Being confronted with something that was once alive, but is now dead, always prompts an emotion; often a visceral one. Taxidermy can provoke awe when it is really well done; you can sense the power. When it is done badly or ineptly, whether intentional or not, it can be humorous. I’d say that Shrigley’s cat is an example of anthropomorphic taxidermy done tongue-in-cheek, for a humorous effect.

BC: But, what both Hirst and Shrigley want viewers to contemplate — mortality — is the same. They are just approaching the idea and using animals in completely different ways.

MM: Absolutely, though I’m not really a fan of anthropomorphic taxidermy…Oh, god, is that a moth?! [Mavis jumps from the sofa and claps her hands together in the air a couple of times, and then displays the powdery remains of a moth on her palms before brushing them off against her skirt.] See? Moths! Ugh! Sorry about that…

Do you know Thomas Grunfeld’s work? He is a German artist who created a series of taxidermy ’amalgamations’ called The Misfits (2008). He’s taken pieces of taxidermy animals and combined them, sewn them together. So, you’ll see a St. Bernard’s body with a sheep’s head, or a cow’s head on a ostrich’s body. There is something very confrontational and perverse about them. They are impeccably constructed, but I find them very disconcerting. They have something to say about Man’s dominion over Nature and genetic engineering, I suppose, but they certainly aren’t something I could live with.

BC: What is a piece of contemporary taxidermy artwork that you could live with?

MM: There is a piece by Maurizio Catellan that is simply dandy! It’s of a squirrel that looks as if it has just committed suicide at a kitchen table (bidibidobidiboo, 1996). And, I absolutely love Cai Quo-Qiang, though he doesn’t use actual taxidermy. Did you know that his wolves aren’t real wolves and the tigers aren’t real tigers? They’re fabricated! Isn’t that incredible? He is fooling us, which makes him a magician, I think.

David R. Harper, The Last to Win (2009): Polyurethane, cow hide, embroidery floss, ceramic epoxy, glass, synthetic hair, nylon. 216 x 234 x 74 cm. Courtesy the artist and the Textile Museum of Canada, TorontoDavid R. Harper, The Last to Win (2009): Polyurethane, cow hide, embroidery floss, ceramic epoxy, glass, synthetic hair, nylon. 216 x 234 x 74 cm. Courtesy the artist and the Textile Museum of Canada, TorontoBC: I feel that all of these artists are using animals to talk about the human condition.

MM: Oh, absolutely. Animals in art are often allegorical. But, if any of these artists tried to substitute the tiger or the squirrel with a life-like sculpture of a person, our reaction would probably be completely different. We’d probably be more defensive but, when it is an animal, we can be a bit more impartial; our responses will be more considered.

Back to artists for second, David R. Harper is another favourite of mine right now.  He’s originally from Nova Scotia, and currently has a show at the Textile Museum of Canada [until Oct. 17].  I have always been interested in the idea of what constitutes “the masculine” and “the feminine”. His work combines those notions for me, taking taxidermy with its masculine connotations of hunting and trophies, and then doing really delicate embroidery on the skins, bringing a traditionally feminine element to the work.

BC: Do you see similarities, or differences, in what you are trying to do with the Conservatory and, say, a traditional museum?

MM: Like a traditional museum, we are interested in the idea of people’s drive to collect, catalogue, curate and, occasionally, cull.  But, I’d say that we approach things more conceptually; we are less about education than a traditional museum, though we do appreciate the collection’s Canadian historical referents. The taxidermy is just one of our collections, actually. We also collect completed paint-by-numbers sets, and vintage needlepoint. I feel like these are all ‘collections of discarded sentiments’; people have had to work on all of these things and they obviously meant something to someone at some time. But, eventually, the family decided that they were no longer worth keeping.

BC: Are people able to visit the Conservatory?

MM: We used to have people come up to see the collection quite a bit but, because we also live here, we’re doing less of that. The Conservatory has been used for several fashion shoots and music videos, though.  If someone has a really keen interest, though, they can contact us through our website and make an appointment. And, the tour will include tea and baked goods!

BC: Have I mentioned that I’ve got a taxidermy golden-crested pheasant? Perhaps, I should leave it to the Conservatory if I tire of it?

MM: Oh, for sure! I’m starting my Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto in the fall, so there will only be money for tuition, not taxidermy purchases. So, yes, donations of taxidermy to the Conservatory will be very welcome; we promise to give it a good home!

The Contemporary Zoological Conservatory’s website is:

David R. Harper’s exhibition, Skin & Bone, is on view at the Canadian Textile Museum in Toronto until Oct. 17.

David Shrigley: I'm Dead (2007): Taxidermy kitten with wooden sign and acrylic paint. 94.5 x 50 x 50 cm (37 x. 20 x 20 inches). Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.David Shrigley: I'm Dead (2007): Taxidermy kitten with wooden sign and acrylic paint. 94.5 x 50 x 50 cm (37 x. 20 x 20 inches). Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.