Sunday, August 19, 2018

Beautiful Dead Things

In the Studio With a Pair of Ethical Taxidermists

Outside of Amsterdam, Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren make magic in their mad-scientist lab.
A work in progress at Darwin, Sinke and van Tongeren. The scarlet ibis’s skin is drying after a soapy bath; its feathers are set in place with needles and thread.CreditFrederik Vercruysse
The New York Times  by Stephen Heyman  

In the Dutch city of Haarlem, in a cavernous former horse butchery filled with Victorian antiques, crocodile skins, anatomical models, glass eyes and animals in various states of mummification, a pair of whiskery former admen are creating some of the most exquisite ethical taxidermy in the world. Founded in 2012, Darwin, Sinke and van Tongeren is named for its two owners, Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren and, as they put it, their “sleeping” partner, Charles Darwin.

Unlike the kill-and-stuff method used for trophy taxidermy, Sinke and van Tongeren work only with animals that have died of natural causes, sourcing their specimens strictly from breeders, animal shelters or zoos. Like the complex compositions of 17th-century Dutch wildlife painters such as Jan Weenix and Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Sinke and van Tongeren make tableaus in which the animals are staged in dramatic poses alongside decorative objects — a scarlet ibis atop a marble plinth, say, or a black-and-white ruffed lemur on a carved lime-wood fragment from an 18th-century church. “This enriches the arrangement and ages it a bit,” van Tongeren says.

Taxidermy — when done properly — is practically bloodless and odorless. First, the animal’s skin is removed by scalpel. The pelts are then dropped into large stainless steel tubs filled with soapy water and a tanning agent. Floating, the flattened animal skins assume a transfixing, abstract form — not unlike an exotic flower that’s been pressed between the pages of a book. (The disembodied fauna are so beautiful, in fact, that the pair decided to document the process with an arresting series of limited-edition photographs.)
Inside their studio in a former butchery in Haarlem, the Netherlands, van Tongeren (right) skins a mute swan while Sinke (left) works on a military macaw.CreditFrederik Vercruysse

Resin models of lion and tiger teeth and skeletal drawings of a lion; the drawings serve as a reference in recreating the specimen’s underlying structure.CreditFrederik Vercruysse
A Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, part of Darwin, Sinke and van Tongeren’s “Stills from a Courtship Dance” series of small exotic taxidermy birds. The work sits atop an antique velvet base.CreditFrederik Vercruysse
Next, Sinke and van Tongeren sculpt each animal’s frame by hand, unlike most taxidermists, who slip the skins over standard, prebuilt molds. In one, a ring-tailed lemur latches onto an antique porthole like an exotic stowaway. In another, a caiman sinks its teeth into a giant rainbow boa, making the snake’s iridescent orange skin tighten in terror.

When in full swing, Sinke and van Tongeren’s studio resembles a steampunk Noah’s ark. Exotic specimens — like an ostrich or a pair of white Siberian tigers — require hundreds of hours of tinkering, which means the duo can only accept between four and six commissions annually. Their full process, which includes everything from anatomical sketches and skeleton reconstructions to tanning hides and blow-drying fur, takes up to a year.

It’s not surprising that they consider themselves artists — Damien Hirst bought nearly every single piece from their second gallery show in 2014 — but “nature deserves most of the credit,” van Tongeren says. “The colors, the textures, the variety, the richness — you can’t even approach it with paint.”

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