Charlie Tuesday Gates is an artist living in London who has been performing live taxidermies (as in performing the process upon dead animals in front of audiences, not on live animals) since 2010. On the eve of Halloween she invited those in the know down to the animal-carcass laden basement of the Book Club in Shoreditch, to watch her immortalise her beloved pet cat. As Gates whacked out 'Wicked Douglas' from his fifteen-year freezer storage and proceeded to skin his fur away, amateurs came up to practise at her side on roadkill squirrel carcasses. It was quite the eye-opener - literally, in the case of Wicked Douglas.
Gates is currently the Public Enemy Number One for an animal rights group in Germany, entailing that before she began her masterclass show she had to make a call-out in case anyone was planning to, like, totally attack her. No one in the audience having owned up, she got stuck jovially in, splitting the cat's fur with a knife along the spine - 'never start with the guts,' we were told, 'it gets messy.' She wrinkled her nose. 'Sorry, he is a bit squiffy.'
The irony of Gates' vilification by the animal rights activists is that her work is designed artistically to illustrate the reality of how animal life is wasted in human industry. A stop-clock video of a lamb coming out of its skin and its innards gambolling away may have been grotesque and gruesome to watch, like the process of live taxidermy itself, but it has an underlying point. Gates explains afterwards that lamb carcasses are some of the easiest to obtain, due to the technique of farmers taking lambs from their mothers and killing them, so that the richer and more coveted milk of the lactating ewes may be reaped.
However, the real fascination of this sold-out show was its very visceral demand that you engage with death. Here Charlie Tuesday Gates was making us consider both the absolute reality of what happens to us all and the inevitable truth of what our bodies are without life. If death is the last taboo, then here it was tackled to the floor, skinned and stuffed. As Gates says of herself, she would never call herself a true taxidermist, for their goal is to provide the illusion of life, whereas she preserves the reality of death.
What helped ease the more explicit parts of this show was the fact that Gates is young, pretty, immaculately presented (she is also a talented designer) and a consummately charismatic show-woman. As she hacked, sliced and diced at dearly adored Douglas, crunching off his paws with a huge pair of secateurs, she charmed and beguiled her audience, telling jokes, anecdotes and her potted history of how she 'got into' taxidermy. 'It all began with a disabled duck chick...' she commenced. We were hooked.
Down in the incense-laden basement boudoir that Gates had festooned with her glamour-of-death artwork, the process began to seem, if not normal, at least 'not weird' either. It has to be admitted that the beer I was sipping churned a little more than normal in my guts as I saw the more of Douglas' guts, and I chose not to get up-close-and-personal with the taxidermy table during the break. Yet overall I felt, seemingly like most other people in the room, that I understood and stood by Gates on her artistry and view of the world. And it's not like the room was full of crazed would-be taxidermists (well, there were a few); it was mostly the typical Shoreditch crowd, young, hip and fashionable. A few couples even appeared to be on dates.
But up in the real world of Facebook, my check-in 'about to watch my first live taxidermy' had received a distinct lack of likes. After a couple of beers, combined with the eery sense of what I was watching, this made me paranoid. What if people start thinking I'm really 'into' death? That I'm a little mentally off-kilter? When someone commented enquiring what I meant by 'LIVE taxidermy', I found myself getting overly defensive, using phrases like 'that would be sick' to disassociate myself from what was, clearly, a humorously intended pun.
Perhaps it's all part of Gates' overall intention, to make us question why we whitewash so much of our lives, pretend there's no such thing as death. Anyone who shows too much of an interest in the subject is generally deemed creepy, when it's an ingrained truth of us all. I mean, it's not like I'm going to go up to that boy I fancy in a bar and kick off the conversation with 'I went to see a cracking taxidermy recently.' Yet art, I believe, can serve several purposes, and if one of them is to challenge convention, then both Gates' work and her show are a must.