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...