Death is not the end: an interview with Art of Death exhibition curator Rose Jackson

Art of Death curator Rose Jackson chats to Natasha about the inspiration behind the Metropolitan Clubs’ latest exhibition, why taxidermy is enjoying a female-led resurgence, and the life-affirming possibilities, often found in death.

​It’s the 21st century and taxidermy is back in vogue. Gone are the days where gentleman hunters were mounting the spoils of their morbid excursions, says Rose Jackson from the Metropolitan Club.

The Victorian art-form is currently experiencing a female-led resurgence that has a reverence for wildlife and conservation at its heart, she says.

A new multidisciplinary exhibition The Art of Death which takes place at rambling gothic mansion Highwic, delves into the renewed interest in taxidermy, and other Victorian art forms.

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Jaguar from the Auckland Museum collection, budgie on the nest table setting by Antoinette Ratcliffe and feathers and fruit table setting by Paola King-Borrero.

The exhibition, which runs until 27 October 2019 takes visitors from taxidermy of the past, with a display of historical pieces from the Auckland Museum’s archives including a jaguar, badger, wombat and sun bear as well as items from Highwic’s own collection, to the present, with room installations by artists Antoinette Ratcliffe, Karley Feaver, Hayley Theyers, Sophie MacDonnell, Jane Thorne, Paola King-Borrero and Kate Rampling.

Read on to find out more!

How did opening night go? 

It was fantastic! We had the artists and their supporters there, museum people, art people, press people, family and friends spilling out of Highwic, enjoying gin cocktails and admiring the stunning room takeovers by the artists Antoinette Ratcliffe, Karley Feaver, Hayley Theyers, Sophie MacDonnell, Jane Thorne, Paola King-Borrero and Kate Rampling. In this online age,  it’s nice to give people an excuse to get out of the house for a night!   

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Highwic, one of New Zealand’s finest Carpenter Gothic houses.

Tell us how the idea for the exhibition came about

Lots of different inspiration points came together to form the idea. The Victorian issue of Glory Days that we published back in 2015 was one touch point, as we got to delve into all the weird and wonderful things that the Victorians got up to… there was a lot of kink and strangeness under their buttoned up exteriors!

We used some of my friend’s taxidermy and her vintage store as the set in the fashion shoot for that issue and I really loved how alive all the animals appeared nestled among the china.

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Photography by Carlos de Treend for Glory Days magazine. Model: Tamsin Smith.

Then through working on the My Vintage Town guides, we also got to know many other stores around New Zealand that had fantastic collections, including Junk ‘n’ Disorderly who own many magnificent pieces including our favourite, Felicity the Fox. 

We also have a long and close relationship with Highwic, which was the perfect venue for an exhibition like this. I curated a vintage wedding dress exhibition there in 2017 and worked with the wonderful costume and textile historian, Angela Lassig.

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Photography by Carlos de Treend for Glory Days magazine. Models: Tamsin and Luke.

Back then we discussed the possibility of a taxidermy show but unfortunately, the timing wasn’t quite right to work with Angela again as she is currently in the middle of researching a new book. Highwic, however was still keen to pursue the idea as the previous exhibition was a finalist at the NZ Museum Awards and it had a really positive effect on visitor numbers and awareness of the property. 

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The previous exhibition run by the Metropolitan Club at Highwic, Til Death Us Do Part, 2017.

We discussed the concept with taxidermist Antoinette Ratcliffe, which through a series of happy coincidences led to the focus of the exhibition changing to encompass a number of Victorian art forms, rather than strictly taxidermy, which gave it a wider scope and broader appeal.

Not everyone likes stuffed animals but they might be into Vanitas still-life portraiture, bugs and insect specimens, Victorian death photography or gothic oil paintings that all feature in the rooms at Highwic. 

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Painting and dresser assemblage by Sophie MacDonnell. Photography by Peter Jennings.

Isn’t death quite a morbid subject to organise an exhibition around? 

To be honest, it’s the most certain thing in life but modern Western society has really lost touch with death and how to face it. The Victorians were very matter of fact about the subject. They used to prop up their dead relatives for photographs and do all sorts of things that we would be horrified about these days!

This exhibition is a gentle way to start exploring the subject, through a female gaze and given that both taxidermy classes sold out before the show opened, it seems people are keen to delve into it. 

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Fred the polar bear by Karley Feaver for Junk ‘n’ Disorderly. Photo by Peter Jennings.

What is it about Highwic that makes it the perfect venue? 

The Bucklands who were the original owners of Highwic had 21 children and most of them were girls, so it’s utterly fitting that it’s now been taken over by female artists. The family were also actively involved themselves in preserving their pets which was quite common in Victorian times. Their pet parrot was stuffed and now proudly sits in the hallway of the house. 

Highwic​ is also built in a ​G​othic style, which suits the artworks perfectly and up until the 1970s this was a functioning house filled with people and parties and social engagements. The more we can use these precious historic places as community gathering spaces to delve into some of life’s questions the better. 

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Photography by Peter Jennings. Wombat courtesy of Auckland Museum.

I love the stillness that exists in heritage properties, but unfortunately in an age where there is so much to distract people’s attention, they need to offer visitors new and innovative reasons to visit them.

Recontextualising them as exhibition spaces with experiential layers gives them a modern lease of life, that rather ironically takes them back to their original use – a house filled with activity and life and the rooms being shuffled about every so often. As well as a few gin fuelled parties thrown in for good measure! 

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Art by Jane Thorne. Photography by Peter Jennings. 

Why do you think that taxidermy is having a resurgence- especially with women? 

Most of us are removed from a connection with death in all areas of life these days and because we all eventually die there is a strong human drive to understand mortality and get comfortable with it.

There’s also a renewed appreciation of the beauty of nature that comes with the realisation that we are fast losing it, perhaps in part because of our disconnection with it.

Taxidermy allows people to anthropomorphise animals thereby connecting with them, appreciating wild nature close up and gaining a greater empathy with the animals and world around us. 

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Photography by Peter Jennings. Artwork by Antoinette Ratcliffe.

Interestingly, women have been involved since the beginning of taxidermy’s popularity, because during the Victorian era, it was not always driven by scientific research, nor was it all about the preservation and presentation of travel souvenirs or hunting trophies.

There was also a more ‘feminine’ aspect which is not always considered – taxidermy as a form of domestic interior decoration. It wasn’t all stags heads and big game.

Victorian drawing rooms and sitting rooms around the world, including houses like Highwic, would have been adorned with beautiful arrangements of birds and flowers under glass domes, often created by women. 

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Pleasure/ Pain by Paola King-Borrero. Photography by Peter Jennings. 

As for the modern resurgence, it’s that exact question that fuelled our desire to put this exhibition on. 

How did you choose the artists to feature in the exhibition? 

It was a fantastic example of serendipity and word of mouth. Once we agreed with Antoinette that we would curate the exhibition and agreed with Highwic that we could stage a ‘takeover’ of the house, we started being introduced to all these women doing interesting work in taxidermy or death/mortality related art forms. 

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Can you talk us through some of the highlights from the exhibition programme? 

We’re very excited about the Absinthe tasting and the Death Drawing, both of which are experiences rather than straight events. When you consider that people are entertaining themselves more and more at home, we as curators have to work harder to give people good reasons to leave the house and provide unique experiences that you couldn’t easily replicate in your lounge. 

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Photography by Peter Jennings. Artwork by Hayley Theyers Photography

We also want to connect this exhibition and Highwic’s beautiful garden with children, so we have artist and curator Jane Thorne running a bug hunting art workshop for them.

Kids aren’t scared of death and taxidermy at all, it just intrigues them and they love the exhibition – especially the huge wombat and jaguar that we got to borrow from Auckland Museum, they’re a hit. 

Find out more about the exhibition

Exhibition events: 

Death Drawing – 17th October 

Absinthe Obscura – 19th October 

Bugging Out Kids Art Workshop – 19th October 

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Art by Kate Rampling. Photography by Rose Jackson.

 

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