The creative Dutch duo known as Les Deux Garçons talk about the method to their taxidermy madness and their new corona-virus inspired exhibition at Jaski Gallery in Amsterdam
When it comes to taxidermy most people would think of an elderly woman who has had a beloved poodle stuffed for posterity or a hunter who’s mounted the head of his quarry on a wall for bragging rights. Neither image does the work of this duo poetic justice; their retina-widening, mixed-media work fuses taxidermy with wry satire, classically trained artistry and cartoonish kitsch.
For the past two decades, Michel Vanderheijden van Tinteren and Roel Moonen have been turning heads – and some stomachs – with their creations. After meeting at the Academy of Visual Arts at Maastricht, the two Dutchmen bonded over a love of incorporating ‘objets trouvés’ (found objects) into their art pieces. From there, stumbling upon some stuffed creatures in an antique store was merely a matter of serendipity.
Pretty much the first question anyone asks Michel and Roel about their work is from where do they source the animals? Some of the more exotic creatures like tigers come from zoos, whereas the lambs and pigs are from farms. All have succumbed to natural causes, and all are ethically sourced. To preserve the skins and furs in near-perfect condition, the duo work with professional taxidermists.
At their home and studio in the village of Landgraaf in southern Holland, Michel says, “Our approach is the love of the animal, and being able to recycle this beautiful material which otherwise would go lost. But also in the craftmanship behind it, we find that very interesting. It’s a combination of recycling, craftmanship and legally acquiring the animals. It’s the highest form an animal can achieve. Otherwise, the cadaver would just be destroyed.”
Clearly, in works like “Piëta,” (2020), which features two monkeys re-enacting the Michelangelo sculpture of Mother Mary cradling the body of the crucified Jesus on her lap, the artist’s obvious compassion for these creatures rises above any accusations of exploitation or sensationalism. The same could be said for their mixed-media sculptures of warriors or sci-fi soldiers with the heads of rodents. These images impart a sense of nobility to the beasts while also suggesting that the human condition can be ruled by animal impulses.
Their 2019 exhibition, La Revanche (The Revenge), deals with animals rising up against their human oppressors or at least mocking them in an image of what looks like a kangaroo wearing roller skates. In speaking about the rodent-headed superheroes in this exhibition, Michel says, “It’s time for a turnabout in nature. Governments should do a lot more to protect nature. These animals are saying, ‘If you’re not going to fight, then we’ll do it ourselves.’ We have a whole series with warriors.”
Organized crime syndicates do a roaring trade in trafficking imperiled species for big bucks to consumers eager to show off their purchasing power by buying into outdated superstitions like rhino horns curing cancer and pangolin scales serving as an aphrodisiac, when both are made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails. (The duo’s statue of a “Siamese tiger” satirizes such beliefs.) Lest anyone accuse the artists of being a party to such a nefarious trade, they keep their paperwork in order. Roel says, “When you use exotic animals, they come with CITES papers indicating their origin. With primates and tigers, there’s also a chip which they insert into the sculpture. I think that’s great [to combat wildlife trafficking].”
The duo does not work to a formula. Rather, each new creature that ends up in their artistic menagerie demands a different treatment. “The process? We don’t really have an outlined plan when an animal arrives. We let the animal speak to us and it clearly tells us what it wants us to do with him. The identity of the animal is so strong that it decides what the minimum and the maximum is of what you can do with it. Sometimes the idea has to ripen. It takes time.”
All told, it takes them about one month to make a large piece. The actual hands-on work may eat up two weeks. The tanning and dying process takes up the same chunk of time.
As for the themes that frame and color their oeuvre, the twosome, who are partners in life as well as art, distil many of them from the viral news stories of our time and major cultural shifts like the #MeToo movement.
There is no more overarching theme during our time than the ongoing pandemic. For Michel and Roel, who did not suffer any terrible bouts of sickness or income loss, this has been a time of soul-searching. At their private parties, where they sold a few pieces to keep themselves solvent, Michel and Roel noticed, “You could tell that people really craved a future, and something to look forward to.”
All the egg shapes and embryos in their new pieces are harbingers of rebirth. “The eggs represent the unborn future but also vulnerability and fragility, not knowing what the future might bring.”
It’s part of the reason why birds like swans and peacocks figure so prominently in their new exhibition, Les Porteurs de Réconfort (The Carriers of Comfort), running from October 30 to November 21 at the Jaski Gallery in Amsterdam. The new pieces are as tactile as they are emotional. In particular, the images of animals clinging to each other illustrates the importance of touch and compassion during this difficult time of isolation. “We wouldn’t have created such pieces otherwise,” says Roel.
Most touching of all, and perhaps the duo’s masterpiece so far, is Au Milieu du Commencement. In this taxidermy and mixed media piece, the whimsy and satire of their early work has been banished in favor of a beautiful and somber elegy composed of six swans who are as close in death as they ever were in life. As the ancient legend goes, swans sing their loveliest songs just before dying.