Now that every dive bar in Bushwick has some, taxidermy rarely gets beyond the level of camp, let alone into a gallery. As a symbol of the nostalgia for poor taste, it’s been suspiciously underexploited by the post-internet generation of artists. Enter Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker, a Dutch duo who transform stuffed animals into staggering works of art. Together, they are Idiots, and no, that’s not an insult, just the name of their creative partnership. Their work combines animal remains with semiprecious stones, blown glass, and hand embroidery, taking hobby-ism to new conceptual heights. It’s tempting to strike a parallel with the native tradition of still life painting. Same appetite for detail. Same preoccupation with death. But if one is part of the canon, the other is still industry taboo.
The couple is big on visual puns: a cat head packed into a can of cat food, a cow torso swimming in a sea of hides, songbirds nesting in headphones, a vulture plucking jewels from an iron ribcage. Most impressive of all are the lions, an upper half bleeding gold globules and a bottom half inlaid with rounds of amethyst (a closer look reveals it’s not actually the same animal). Back when taxidermy was the domain of crotchety old men and upstate casino lobbies, people would have laughed if you’d told them it would someday be avant-garde. Now, it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity and opulence at play here. After all, the idea of upcycling an ironic pastime into an objet d’art is a pretty extravagant way of making a commentary on global excess. I spoke to Golsteijn about spinning carcasses into gold.
“Idiots” is a bold way to bill yourself. What’s the story behind the name?
The name is from a long time ago, when we were young and stupid and put all of our love and money into things that would never sell. In Holland, that isn’t really done. On top of that, to work with death. It was too much!
What drew you to taxidermy?
As a child, I was always outside climbing trees and digging up old cats and hamsters. I was always fascinated by and very scared of taxidermy. I thought the animals would just jump up and go out looking for revenge!
Some of your animals are pretty exotic. Where do you source your materials?
They’re all animals that died of natural causes, so, from farms, aviaries, the street, but also, from friends who offer us their dead pets and, last but not least, the zoo.
On your website, the sculptures are often accompanied by drawings. Do you always sketch out an idea before you set out to fabricate it?
Both things develop organically, sometimes with a lot of time in between. I sketch to remember my ideas, or to let things evolve. With jewelry, it’s nice to make drawings to find complications, make connections or communicate with the other Idiot.
Traditionally, taxidermy tries to recreate what live animals look like in their natural state. What are the challenges of getting stuffed animals into all sorts of unnatural poses?
The natural is funny in taxidermy. Posture and emotion are very close and an important part of our work. We take an existing piece of taxidermy and rearrange it ourselves or break it up entirely.
You work a lot with fragile materials like glass and embroidery. Would you say this emphasizes the timelessness of the medium or draws attention to its ephemerality?
I hope that the sculptures and the stories they tell are timeless, but you never know how a given sculpture or its story will end. My work is ultimately about fragility of life and the materials are meant to express these feelings.
You’ve been known to mount bird heads and wings onto brooches and bib necklaces. Where do you draw the line between artwork and commodity?
I don’t make that distinction, but our work is never commercial or something made for mass-production. Every piece is unique like each living creature.
Dutch art has a long history of dealing with death through still life and memento mori. Did you envision this project as an homage of sorts?
I think death is still a big taboo in Holland. It’s acceptable in painting, but an actual dead animal comes with a whole different set of emotions. But since I grew up with these images, they really did influence me.
Pieces like “Headphones” (2009) and “Whiskas” (2010) are big on visual pun. What role does humor play in your aesthetic?
Each of my sculptures has a story. Some of them are funny and sad at the same time. Duality is something that keeps my mind busy!
Recycling plays a huge part in your process. What do you make of the meat and fur industries, which use animal products in a much less self-aware way?
I’m working on that topic at the moment. I recently made a new collection of jewelry using rabbits that were waste from the meat industry and old fur coats that I recycled as “art.” I made the coats into carcasses again, to expose the face of something that people don’t want to know. But I don’t want to tell people what’s wrong or right, just to show my way of seeing.