Wanted: Dead or Alive
Guest writer Holly McGrane gets under the skin of Bristol based artist Amy Timms.
My friend is a fashion photographer in London (although he will forever remain the zitty, 14 year old Spice Girls fan of yesteryear to me) and this week he has been shooting the creations of a famous fur designer. The millionaire in question is a former finance tycoon who has turned her passion for pelts into a lucrative clothing brand. Her new collection includes, most notably, a floor-length coat made entirely of lynx hide. Apparently wildlife protection law only permits four of these highly endangered animals to be culled each year. It appears that all four of 2013’s unlucky sods are stitched together for all double-breasted, high-necked eternity in this one item of clothing.
It got me thinking, and not just about the turn of events that led my friend into this surreal line of work. It seems that we humans have an unnatural fetish for the natural. Despite the fur trade receiving as much bad press in recent decades as Gary Glitter in a playground, the taste for skin, tusk, horn and claw has not yet been sated. The rich and ridiculous will happily pay through their silicone-injected noses for the chance to sport a carcass. As far as cultural phenomena go, paying the price of a two bed semi for a mink romper-suit has got to be among the most gruesome and nutty.
So much for the billionaires. But what about us simple folk? As with all things, those that can’t, copy, and the high streets are permanently stuffed to the gills with a veritable Serengeti of animal prints. The proposition that ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery’ cannot have been made by any man who had ever encountered a Primark cheetah onesie.
On the other end of the living dead spectrum, taxidermy has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years and trendy wendys are merrily buying up every mummified shrew, stoat and seagull going. I admit there is something uniquely awe-inspiring about a vignette of tropical birds, frozen mid-swoop and captured in a bell jar. Less appealing are the novelty corpse-curios – the stuffed flamingo sidetables or sparrow desk lamps. It’s all a little too reminiscent of that American psychopath who made armchairs from his victims’ flayed skin and stuffed the cushions with their pubic hair. Ten points for resourcefulness but ultimately a bit daft.
I have recently been introduced to the work of an artist called Amy Timms. Amy is one of those unique creatures that us hardened urban dwellers (identified by our black bogies and wads of coffee shop loyalty cards) cannot quite fathom – she lives in the city but her heart is happiest when roaming the countryside. A trained illustrator, Amy is also a Science scholar and naturalist.
She draws and paints with a limitless tenderness for the natural world and a clearly meticulous understanding of its working parts. However, Amy doesn’t go in for shady groves and pastoral idylls. Instead, she focuses on a far meatier subject – death, decay and rebirth.
There is a darkly wicked sense of humour at work here. Take a double glance at her beautifully executed portraits of fallow deer and foxes, and you will see that their subjects are in the early stages of decomposition. The critters are lying in pools of their own blood, their fuzzy-wuzzy tummies are disembowelled and feasted on by insect swarms. In another work, a red deer’s heart and lungs lie in a sticky heap surrounded by butterflies. Visually arresting, stark and a little unnerving, each scene is then topped by a cutely-coloured ribbon, saucily tied around a hoof or ventricle.
Perhaps it is the faux innocence of these paintings that makes them so endearing. We can almost hear the painter sweetly shaking her head and saying ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about, it’s just death’ (as she finds secret delight in another viewer suddenly realising that the pretty fox is sprouting mushrooms from his abdomen). Yes, death is a part of life and, yes, the circular eco-systems that Amy depicts are fascinating – as are the informative ‘field notes’ that accompany each piece. But the thing that makes her work so attractive is the unflinching depiction of death in all its grim poetry.
This is death with an eerie smile on its face and decay at its most beautiful and creative. Perhaps what we are seeing in these images is the meeting of an artist’s scientific and artistic halves.
So as my photographer friend will testify, after being tipped a £50 note by the fur designer’s butler, there’s gold in them there corpses. Our morbid fascination with dead animals is part of our natural instincts, perhaps more so in some cases than when alive and kicking. But why? Maybe we are trying to assert our dominance over other life forms. Maybe we want to make sense of our own impending demise. Or maybe the answer lies in something much less cerebral, something that the child who chops a worm in two knows only too well. Curiosity probably didn’t kill the cat, but it made us poke its eye socket with a stick.