In the Studio With a Pair of Ethical TaxidermistsOutside of Amsterdam, Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren make magic in their mad-scientist lab.
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.)
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.”