I marvel at taxidermist Charlie Tuesday Gates’ dead animal assemblages arranged on a display table as the seating area begins to swell with guests. She calls these abject creations her “sculptures” and tonight they are up for grabs as £5 raffle ticket prizes. I am both fascinated and repelled simultaneously as the confrontation of all that is dead forces me into a reflexive state; I cannot allow myself to get too comfortable being a voyeur of the deceased. To find pleasure in another’s misfortune stabs at the moral makeup of what it is to be human. I am wholly repulsed yet my stare goes on.
I let my eyes meander over the fissures of the dead animals’ matted feathers, dull furs and mangled claws. I feel self conscious as I cannot help but consume this sight. It is as though I am stuck in a freeze frame with these animals, strung up between two beats of the heart. I stare at limbs that have resigned in the fight for life and left trapped in a scene of perpetual struggle. In the mind’s eye I see the legs of the poor drowned squirrel frantically jostle around and his stomach squirm as it floods with water. I look to the fox’s pained expression and see his parted mouth baring teeth lined like jagged white railings protecting a tongue about to curl around one last ball of oxygen. The torture these animals must have experienced in their last moments makes my heart want to bleed.
As Charlie pulls out a curved blade and several flaccid squirrels for audience volunteers to skin she confirms the brutal reality behind her animal finds – victims of roadkill, rubbish heap discoveries and bodies dumped by wasteful food industries. She makes it clear she is a vegan having witnessed the brutal way animals are killed for our dinner table delights, not to mention the way others are beaten by their owners and left to rot. Perhaps this is why, when Charlie announces that the skinning of her own departed pet cat is to take the limelight, I actually feel somewhat reassured. At least this one died of love. However, through the sound of skin splitting and bones cracking under pliers as she wrestles to rip fur from flesh you may question what kind of “love” this is. I urge you to see her side.
It seems our encounter with death is exacerbated by its visual representation as in all other instances we systematically rid it from sight. It burns to ash, it is scattered, it goes underground, it decomposes. Then we move on. A dead body is not compatible with our ritual pretence at finding the elixir of eternal life. We perform this through building a complex obstacle course of prescription tablets, surgery procedures, hygiene regulations and the next food faddism and lay it all out for the grim reaper hoping he will trip. But in the end he will always come and the truth is we are scared. So to be presented with death on a platter here tonight as it boldly pronounces its dark reality over these carcasses forces us into a dialogue that some of us are simply not prepared to have. One couple in the audience get up and leave. Thankfully Charlie can push the gloom aside.
With an ability to remodel death into something not to be feared but loved instead she lets us into the world of making use of lost lives and forgotten memories – and I think the cat Douglas is our access point. We discover he has been frozen for fifteen years ahead of the taxidermy and in her words is “waiting patiently for resurrection”. As though a funeral the demonstration begins to amass ceremonial value through the sharing of photographs and treasured memories. I even start to imagine the stand from which Charlie speaks at become a pulpit. Here taxidermy is a moment of rebirth and she seems excited about the prospect of a reunion with the lost friend.
Now I would be a liar to tell you that the process does not make me squeamish or not want to retch at the smell of exposed insides, but I am convinced the thought of it will soon ebb away. What will remain is the honour of witnessing Douglas being delivered into the next form of life. Focus on this and there lies something beautiful; the rest is merely a by-product.
Words: Laura Yuen