Stuff: David Shrigley in conversation with Katrina Schwarz

Curator Katrina Schwarz interviews David Shrigley about his taxidermy works, focusing on his 2009 work, Ostrich. This is an excerpt from the full interview, which is printed in Animals, the catalogue that accompanies the British Council Touring Exhibition Lose Your Mind.

This exhibition finds quite an icon in your taxidermy sculpture Ostrich. The flightless bird that buries his head in the sand has not only lost his head, he is now, by virtue of entering a touring collection, destined to fly far and wide! Is this an appropriately absurd fate for your creation?

Ostrich is really a continuation of a series of works I have made of animals that have their heads removed; or rather of animals that are made to look as if they never had heads. I’ve made a headless cat, a headless monkey, the headless ostrich and there might be a headless dog at some point in the future.

Since I got my own dog there’s been a sort of moratorium on my taxidermy work, perhaps for obvious reasons. In the case of the ostrich, its behaviour of burying its head in the sand can invite this other reading of headlessness, but I’m wary of obvious puns.

For me the proposition is about an animal that doesn’t have a head, doesn’t have a brain; it never had one and doesn’t need one. Like a lot of the works I make, the meaning is ambiguous to start with, but as you make a piece and time passes, you see it in different contexts and its meaning can change and develop. That, for me, is what is nice about showing my work in a different cultural context.

The ostrich is a bird that isn't native to where we are from, and I am very pleased it has found its way into the British Council Collection because it means it will be looked after, its story will continue to be told and its meaning will evolve." David Shrigley

How and where does one source an ostrich, and other taxidermy, specimens?

Well, you let it be known that you would like a specific creature. The taxidermist is in contact with veterinary practices, with zoos, farms and other places that keep animals.

It took a few weeks, or maybe a few months, to source the ostrich. He came from a farm and passed away from natural causes, a donation was made to the farm and they let us have the carcass. There is no grave-robbing or killing to order, it is all very above-board. I wouldn’t want to make a work if any animals were harmed in the process.

As for the specifics, I made drawings of how I wanted the thing to look. I generally send a drawing, in this case of an ostrich with no head, and there is always a discussion with the taxidermist about the practicalities of making it; is there enough skin to do it properly and to make it look as I want it to look, which is weirdly absurd.

The taxidermist, Robert Sinclair, is apparently the go-to guy in the UK and his company (Get Stuffed) has been around for a long time. I have never actually visited his shop and I have never met him although I have spoken to him a few times on the phone.

I am in the process of moving to Brighton so I might get to see him (London being quite close) although it may coincide with me not wanting to make taxidermy anymore. We’ll see how that pans out. I’ve been living in the countryside among farms and farmers for the last few months so maybe I will become less squeamish about dead animals. We will see... 

Just at the point that taxidermy seemed ready for the mothballs, there has been a contrary proliferation of taxidermied animals in contemporary art. What is the appeal of this ‘material’ for artists?

I think there is a certain perversity to taxidermy that appeals to me, a certain awkwardness to treating the remains of a once-living thing.

As human beings we get rid of our remains, but with lesser beasts we are quite happy to take off the hide and make it look vaguely lifelike as a curious decoration. It is at odds with the way that we treat our own remains, so there is something slightly comic, something slightly inappropriate, about the way we then deal with the remains of an animal through taxidermy.

For example, when it’s my dog’s time to pass on – you see, I’m very attached to the dog – it would be a very difficult moment and I certainly don’t think I would want the remains to be used in taxidermy.

It is awkward, inappropriate and therefore interesting and worth thinking about. I suppose that is my interest in taxidermy.

Also if you want to have a representation of an animal then I suppose taxidermy is the ultimate representation you can have and that is also why it is interesting to use it in sculpture.

I know this is outside the frame of reference for these works, but the fact of these animals – the sign-bearing puppies and kittens – declaring their deadness within the gallery does get me thinking about those instances in which, controversially, the death of an animal constitutes the artwork. The artist who placed live goldfish in electric blenders, with the open invitation for audience members to push the button; or the exhibition that in 1971, with its planned electrocution of catfish, oysters and shrimp, caused Spike Milligan to smash the window of the Hayward Gallery.

Of course, the proposal to kill an animal as part of an artwork is rather different to using its remains in a sculpture. Obviously I wouldn’t want to create an artwork that necessitated harm to any animal or any person.

The subject of all the taxidermy pieces that I have made is very much about death and about what happens after death, but that discussion is not specific to animals – that rumination is about life and death as it pertains to all living things. Again, where that discussion goes is up to other people as much as it’s up to me.

I am always keen to resist any single definition of what the works mean, maybe that’s an acknowledgement that I can’t really be in control of the whole thing anyway. I can’t be in control of that debate completely, so that is the way I leave it.