Imitation of Life

Max Watman, The New York Times Book Review
March 14, 2010

“Taxidermy” evokes hunting cabins and mounted white-tailed deer, pheasants in flight and lacquered largemouth bass—kitschy trophies memorializing a good kill—but in Still Life, Melissa Milgrom proves that the truth is more complicated and far more interesting. The people in these pages strive “to imitate nature with a fidelity that verges on pathological,” which requires not only a drawerful of glass eyes and fake polar bear claws but also artistic talent and encyclopedic scientific knowledge. The goal is the illusion of life.

In birding, the ineffable essence of a bird is its “jizz.” More than just the spark, it’s “the nervous action,” an expert on taxidermy tells Milgrom. “The jizz is made up of everything.” When the famed early taxidermist Carl Akeley was 12 years old, his neighbor’s canary died. Akeley consoled the owner: “I think I can fix the canary for you. It won’t sing, but I think I can make it look as if it could.”

For a time, making the canary look as if it could sing was a matter of scientific record, and men like Akeley went out into the world to catalog what lived in it. “In 1916, an expedition headed by Roy Chapman Andrews crossed southern China on horseback,” Milgrom writes, and it sent home “more than 3,000 zoological specimens (about 2,000 mammals and mammal skeletons, 800 birds and 200 reptiles), two-thirds of which had never been seen before in the United States.”

By the time Milgrom, a freelance journalist, takes up a razor and with her own unsteady hand scores the belly of a dead squirrel, the reader has been exposed to the pickling of carcasses, the splitting of eyelids and the sculpturing of skulls. She offers up careful considerations of animals posed as they would be found in nature, framed by detailed re-creations of their habitats, like Akeley’s “three-dimensional portraits of Africa” in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. Milgrom says experiencing the dioramas is “like peering out of a canvas tent onto bright, enchanted Africa—an Africa that existed only briefly in the early 1900s, when nature and a man with a prophetic quest to document a vanishing world intersected at exactly the right time.”

So, too, does Milgrom introduce Victorian follies like Walter Potter’s creations: “The Kittens’ Wedding” (featuring “20 kittens in black morning suits and cream-colored brocade dresses”), “The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match” and a re-enactment of the funeral procession from “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” One would think all this feather and fur would leave a reader inured, but when Milgrom picks up a scalpel, the scene is riveting: “I cut through the scored skin, then work my way to the outer edges of the body, loosening the pelt, which I peel off the animal’s delicate rib cage. The ribs are as tiny as a leaf’s veins; they protect the internal organs, now fully exposed.”

At an exhibit by Damien Hirst (the author spends time with Hirst’s taxidermist) Milgrom runs into Martin Gilder, who owns a slaughterhouse and farm. Together they look at a fish tank that Hirst filled with props and fake meat and titled “The Pursuit of Oblivion.” Milgrom asks Gilder to critique the meat: the color is slightly off, he says, and it should look wetter. “You could eat it, but it would need more fat to taste good.” Gilder doesn’t think the artwork would have been shocking had it been displayed 40 years ago “because even a small village had a butcher shop and an abattoir. People are so far removed from how meat comes to your table. They see it beautifully packaged in supermarkets and don’t associate it with animals anymore.”

By capturing the jizz of the taxidermic world, Milgrom has pulled back the curtain on a surprising and intense culture within which meat and animals—both dead and living—are very real.