Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Stuffing & mounting


Kate Clark, Rivalry, from Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury (Artisan Books), copyright 2014. Photograph: Robert Marbury
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Earth is experiencing its Sixth Extinction, the first caused by humans. Well, we weren't around for the other five. The Fifth did in the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to rise up in the jungles 65 million years ago. At the top of the heap came homo sapiens, who are mere primates, not fearsome carnivores. Nonetheless, we have the ultimate weapon. The huge human brain, developed to juggle complex social relations, has led us inch by inch to total dominion over our fellow creatures. One of the most uncanny expressions of our power is the practice of taxidermy. As part of Litquake, Robert Marbury's Taxidermy Art (Artisan Books, $18.95) is being celebrated at Paxton Gate on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m.

Freud developed the concept of the Uncanny to explain how familiar people, places, or pets could suddenly exude bad vibes without a dreamer being able to articulate the reason. The Uncanny flips the cozy into the demonic. The secret switch lies somewhere in the dreamer's unconscious, struggling to speak but forbidden by societal or parental taboo. Whether it's guilt, desire, jealousy, rage, paranoia, or a compound of these, the dread we feel belongs to us, not the screen onto which we project our messy urges, asleep or awake. Nothing provokes dread like dead bodies, especially when stuffed, mounted, and made to assume lifelike postures.

On the walls of Paxton Gate, a store on trendy Valencia Street in San Francisco full of animal relics cleaned up for sale, the preserved heads of animals stare out over the living heads of curious shoppers. The gap is great between the living and the dead, greater even than that separating human from animal, and rarely are both displayed in clearer contrast. Of course, living humans can buy dead animals. We do and have done it for thousands of years. Religion or law rarely impede this traffic. Why, then, did I experience such a shock when I entered the store and saw a horse's head with a horn glued to its head selling for thousands of dollars?

Animals make me cry. When I visited the San Francisco Zoo on its monthly Free Day two years ago, having not visited a zoo in 50 years, the presence of giraffes and gorillas made me weep. I was so glad to see them. And yet, their presence, in captivity, was a signal all was not well with them. Indeed. Most zoo animals are listed as endangered, or critically endangered. Official terminology designates the precise desperation of each species' plight, but simply stated, if humans don't stop gobbling up habitat, wild animals are doomed. Except cockroaches and water bears.

The Idiots, This Seat is Taken, from Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury (Artisan Books), copyright 2014. Photograph: The Idiots

I had a very pleasant conversation with the store's owner, Sean Quigley, whose quirky name is wedded to watery blue eyes and facial hair that would've done credit to a midshipman on the Pequod, that whaler out of Nantucket that quested after Moby Dick in Herman Melville's masterpiece of the same name. And the Victorian reference is not far-fetched. The store's name is derived from that of Joseph Paxton, Quigley confided, pointing to a portrait of that 19th-century autodidact architect and gardener, whose design of the 1851 Crystal Palace was inspired by giant water-lilies he'd transplanted from the Amazon.

Once I'd overcome my zoo dread, I volunteered to clean stables, then trained as a docent, which means I'm now familiar with the collection and can tell a monkey from an ape. When I walk around the Zoo, my pleasure at seeing animals is matched by my sorrow they're captive. This uncanny admixture is not unlike what I feel when confronted with carcasses, heads, and bones displayed for sale. I myself recently bought some antlers at a garage sale to adorn my wall. I am not indifferent to the allure of animal body parts, even though I now realize animals have been hunted to extinction for food, glory, or merchandise.

Author Robert Marbury lavished intensely considered responses to my emailed questions. "I am not very Victorian at all," he claimed, but how else to characterize the vade mecum that is Taxidermy Art? A catalogue of contemporary objets of taxidermy, in which craft impinges on art, is preceded by a timeline running from Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) to Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), she of the furry tea cup. A 50-page Do-It-Yourself taxidermy manual completes this exhaustive introduction to an uncanny genre.

"The artists involved all love animals and have devoted their work to investigating some aspect of animals in human culture," Marbury reassured me via email. "Perhaps it's difficult for some viewers to imagine being with death, working with animal remains. It isn't easy, but neither is driving past road kill. Some people look away, some feel guilty, others say a prayer." He added, "I always ask people who come to events to keep an open mind."


Litquake 2014 runs from Oct. 10-18; info:

Paxton Gate, 824 Valencia St, SF; info:


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