when birds get lit: the art of taxidermist harriet horton

Being a taxidermist who hates taxidermy requires the sort of mental flip that could twist a brain like an animal-stuffer skins a cormorant. But Harriet Horton does hate taxidermy, at least the stereotypes of it.

Repulsed by the fusty impala torsos procured by macho trophy-hunting and goths shrinking squirrel heads to wear on velvet necklaces alike, taxidermist Harriet Horton has gone on her own way. Strictly ethical about procuring already deceased animals, she takes regular trips to her parental home in near-rural Stratford-Upon-Avon and makes use of a deep-freezer in her east London home. The animals are stuffed, dyed then positioned on marble and concrete plinths, lit by luminescent halos of neon. The site-specific installations are then soundtracked with eerie industrial-classical music. Following the success of 2015’s Sleep Subjects, shown in a crypt in Euston, Harriet’s newer ornithological creations will be on display as part of Camouflage at Mi Gallerie in Paris.

So, what first put you off of traditional taxidermy?

I knew that I wanted to work in the medium, but the more I looked at taxidermy the more I couldn’t connect with it. In antique shops, all these animals: lions, impalas, had been shot, they were trophies and you could sense something was off with them, there was no peacefulness, it was so vulgar. But I still had a fascination so decided to make something I’d want to see. I grew up in the country and people don’t like to see waste, when you see a dead animal that’s pretty much whole you feel it’s wasteful. There’s no shortage of supply, you’ve just got to find them in an ethical way. I also had to learn traditional taxidermy, the different poses to put animals into without destroying them. A lot of the poses I put them into aren’t natural at all, you’d never get that in the world.

What’s the difference between your carefully curled up magpie and a moose head on the wall of a pub, then?

It’s really unnatural to see something frozen in an aggressive pose, you never see that in the animal world. What I do is softer, more feminine. I also tend to keep the animals’ eyes closed - even the most amazing realistic eyes will still feel a bit too frozen for me.

And so where did you go from there to create your current work?

I was playing around with different aesthetics and thought of incorporating neon. My grandma lives in Blackpool and growing up we’d go there every year and we’d see the sex shops the fish and chip shops; the illuminations were sensational. I love the trashiness of it. When I used it, I realised its warm temperature and how relaxing it feels. It changes both your mood and that of the piece, and it makes the taxidermy less about death. I really don’t like the gothic side of taxidermy, it’s not for me. So instead I’ll place a magpie under simple white neon arc and the wings are down but the body’s curved perpendicular to the neon. It's surreal but unless you know a lot about ornithology it wouldn’t look very weird; it’s just a subtle change to its posture.

Do you retain a commitment to create feminine works?

I think there’s a femininity in using animals that are really common, like magpies, squirrels and foxes. When has anyone really studied a magpie properly? Most people haven't and what I want to do is put animals on a pedestal that’s not normally there for them and make you stop and analyse the familiar at a deeper level.

What will make Camouflage different to your last show, Sleep Subjects?

Camouflage is going to be much bigger brighter and bolder so the neons will be 17mm neon, which is the thickest you can get, whereas last time it was 8mm. There’s also a great basement room in the gallery where I'm creating a pink installation with digital projections as well as neon lighting. I'm really excited about this space as there's no outside distraction.

And what does Camouflage as a quality mean to you?

I find it interesting that, in death, camouflage becomes redundant. I do struggle with colouring the animals, because I’m constantly worried about being disrespectful, but I want to simplify them. They can be so opulently coloured, but it can be too distracting and noisy for the piece.

What mood would you like people to feel when viewing and experiencing your work?

Peaceful and meditative. Lighting is such a manipulative medium, it has the optical and emotional power to unconsciously isolate your thoughts. It forces you to concentrate on the taxidermy.

How does the score help that?

I always listen to repetitive and almost hypnotic music when I’m skinning, like Factory Floor, Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm and Four Tet, anything techno to make me focus. Further along the process I’ll listen to something more gentle, like classical music. That’s why music is so important, I want people to experience taxidermy how I experience taxidermy. So Rob [Shields, a producer who makes ambient electronica] has created a 12-minute score for the show. It’s trippy, with loads of synths and textures fading in and out. There’s no rhythm, creating this abstract sense of camouflage over the aural experience. It also creates a volume of space for people to view the taxidermy and also removes it from the traditional sort of work found in museums. Music creates such a mystique because it changes emotions, I don’t think I could do a show without music, that would feel weird.

It seems that, while many taxidermists might want to keep their subjects in stasis, you want to keep your viewer in stasis…

I like it when people walk into a show and they’re immobilised because there’s a lot of sensory things to take on board, but presented in an effortless way. I wanted someone to be totally immersed and forget about the world for like five, ten minutes or whatever. It’s hard to get someone’s attention to help let them escape and that’s what I enjoy doing for myself and in my work.

Who would you say you take influence from? The marble and cement, combined with these beautiful feathers in repose, all bathed in glowing neon always reminds me of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

I try not to take influence from other taxidermists specifically; In the fine art world, there’s only so many positions you can put the animal or bird into, and I prefer to be influenced by what’s around me and the escapism I love seeking. I do love that film, it’s like the perfect film. Romance is such a big thing for me I always say I want my work to be romantic. And lighting can do it; neon has such a bad reputation, for being at sex shops, but at its essence, it’s not offensive.


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