The world of professional taxidermy is precisely as interesting a community as one imagines, if one has ever imagined it, that is. The documentary Stuffed investigates that worldwide community, looking at why these people enjoy spending time with dead animals and working to bring them back to faux life.
Oriented around profiles of particular taxidermists, Stuffed goes broad, attempting to stuff as much information about the discipline into its fleet eighty-four minute run time as possible. A few individuals stand out, including Allis Markham, a young, rockstar woman in Los Angeles whose work appears in fashion magazines and advertising campaigns; Ferry Van Tongeren and Travis De Villiers, a partnered pair of Dutch artists; and Daniel Meng, a young man in Indiana. Their individual stories are included more to show the types of taxidermy being practiced today and the professional philosophies that guide various taxidermists than they are to examine these individuals. Chef’s Table, this is not, though you could imagine a fur and formaldehyde version of that show based around each of these people and the others that pop up through the documentary sporadically.
The discipline and the principles that guide it are the real star here. These women and men consider themselves artists. I don’t disagree. Their work is in that grey area between what we consider “crafts” and what we consider “art” (kind of like documentary film). “Craft” generally includes a practical component in its affect. There is certainly something practical in taxidermy – it’s a way of displaying a product (of hunting, zooing, etc.) that would otherwise perish. It’s also a way of providing that product for the enjoyment of others. But there are intangible components as well related to how the animals are displayed. Taxidermists imbue the carcasses with lifelikeness. They call it “storytelling,” and for lack of a better term, that’s apt. Their best work features tension, a moment in the animal’s life frozen in time.
That’s where taxidermy overlaps with conservationism. Stuffed includes a history of the craft, which is rooted in the early Conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At first, taxidermists preserved dead animals because they expected those species to be eradicated due to industrialization. Taxidermied animals would be the only examples of those animals we had. But then, because people could see those species, they wanted to preserve them, and the taxidermists’ fears were never realized.
Taxidermy serves a similar purpose today, bringing the vibrancy of the animal into a space where lots of people can interact with it. Stuffed doesn’t broach the topic of trophy hunting except to feature a few taxidermists who believes well-regulated hunting is essential to animals’ survival, because it gives the animals economic value. Implied there is the idea that anything without economic value has no value at all and will eventually be unthinkingly destroyed. I believe humans are capable of considering value unrelated to monetary value, but I accept that monetary value is a shortcut to value for many people. When it comes to protecting animals, use every tool available, but let’s keep pushing for those higher values too.
Stuffed is a fun, light documentary highlighting a community of craftspeople seldom given the spotlight, and their work is beautiful. Check it out.