During a recent excursion to Los Angeles, I discovered a line of art called Stuft Acquaintances. Each piece is a plush, synthetic stuffed animal mounted on a wall plaque like a hunting trophy. Each is made from patterned fabric that clearly distinguishes it from real animals. Each one is named, and comes with a unique personal history. But the pieces are more than just cute accoutrements for your living room wall. These charming and affordable works of art provide commentary on trophy hunting. In order to fully understand the discourse embedded in Stuft Acquaintances, it is useful to explore real life preservation of the dead.
J. Desmond (2002) is an animal theorist who writes about animal bodies (living and dead) that are viewed and recreated by humans through taxidermy. In her essay, “Displaying Death, Animating Life: Changing Fictions of “Liveness” from Taxidermy to Animatronics” Desmond explains that beheaded and mounted animal heads are trophies that celebrate the animal’s absence of life. Simultaneously, the ultimate goal is one of realism and liveness in death.
Taxidermy is historically limited to animals (aside from funereal embalming and mummification), and the display of human dead is rarely undertaken. Yet there are some striking exceptions, and we can possibly learn more from these unique human exceptions than from mounted animals. One hundred years ago, the Parisian morgue had an open door policy that thrived on the spectacle of anonymous bodies. Native American skeletons in the US were collected and sometimes displayed in museums before the twentieth century. Desmond explains that such examples demonstrate a reclassification of ‘other’ in the bodies of unidentifiable humans, or people who are not white. Anonymity and non-whiteness were used as rationale to treat these humans as things – or, more specifically, as animals.
In the contemporary work of Dr. Gunter von Hagens, “Body Worlds” is the display of dead human bodies, manipulated into active poses with skin removed to expose the inner-workings of muscles, tendons and bones. Desmond explains that the explosive response to von Hagens work is in stark contrast to lackluster response to contemporary exhibits of animal taxidermy. Human understanding of the human body is uniquely tied to the body’s representation of an individual person. This means that the viewer will identify with the body as a fellow individual. By contrast, the animal body represents a species, group or category, not the individual who “‘inhabited’ the living body (p 169).”
Desmond argues that human bodies that are displayed are stripped of their humanity. They are anonymous, poor or are designated as different and less-than because of race. The derogatory status of these bodies puts them on the same level as animals who can be displayed and used. She charges that this removes not only humanity but also individuality. If an animal merely represents one of an entire species then so, too, do these degraded humans. In both instances, the personality, life history and individual significance of the being are ignored and erased. Instead, the beings become specimen. Rather than representing themselves, they represent a category. In so doing, they become irrelevant as individuals. Acknowledging the role of dead humans in taxidermy is important because it demonstrates how people draw the fine, malleable line between human and less-than-human. In large part, degrading the history and individuality from a body does this. Then the living cannot (or will not) personally identify with the dead.
The creators of Stuft Acquaintances have turned traditional taxidermy on its head by utilizing whimsical imagery and individualized personas in their mounted creations. The cute, offbeat charm of these animals beckons the viewer to fall in love with them. The pieces borrow from cartoony representations of animals and encourage memories of particular stuffed friends from childhood 1 . In direct contrast to the anonymity that Desmond describes in traditional taxidermy, these artworks highlight the individuality of each animal. They force the viewer to identify with the creature. In doing so, the artist draws the viewer into a discussion about real mounted trophies. The artist seems to be stating: If a fake, pretend animal deserves individuality and personality, history and identity, surely a real one does. If you can fall in love with a fabricated animal, how could you deny those feelings for a real animal? Stuft Acquaintances breaks down the walls of anonymity and reminds the viewers that we decide how we see animals, living and dead, real and fake. If we choose to ascribe living qualities to a manufactured creation, we can choose how we see the real animals (as individuals, or as anonymous representations of a category), as well.
Purchase Stuft Acquaintances at their website http://www.tafriendly.com
Desmond, J. (2002). Displaying Death, Animating Life: Changing Fictions of “Liveness” from Taxidermy to Animatronics. In N. Rothfels (Ed.), Representing Animals. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1 The relationship between animals and children is highly theorized and debated in the fields of human-animal studies and childhood development studies. Often, attachment and interest in animals (with the exception of biological interest) is viewed as a child-like pursuit, one that demonstrates a juvenile emotional state. This is often used to dismiss the legitimate and substantial contributions of animal-studies scholars who see worth in understanding all dimensions of animals in culture. I believe Stuft Acquaintances is an example of how childhood attachment can be used responsibly and intelligently to create contemporary commentary on adult relationships with animals. With sharp wit and thoughtfulness, the artwork contributes to the legitimacy of human-animal studies.