Animais de Estimação de Valter Vinagre

Life in death

Sérgio B. Gomes and Valter Vinagre

There are photographs that insist on treading the thorniest, least obvious paths. These kinds of photos revel in provocation, suggestion, irony and artfulness, without ever having to resort to floral gameplaying or Baroque zigzags. This is not about taking the bend at speed to see if the vehicle can take it; it’s about taking the bend just for the pleasure of the skid, to go at the limit and watch the dust rising. Valter Vinagre is one of those photographers. They asked him for the breath of life and he gave them the gaping mouth of death. They asked him to take the pulse of nature and he gave them glassy eyes and tongues sticky with varnish. They asked him to celebrate the unstoppable dynamic of biological diversity and he gave them the monotony of taxidermy in its attempts to wound time, staunching it with a terrifying expression, with a body that is a mere capsule of nothing.
The series Pets (Animais de Estimação) acquired form (and life!) following an invitation to the collective kameraphoto to participate in the E.C0 2010 initiative in Madrid, which brought together photographs from twenty collectives from Europe and South America. And yes, in the midst of all the other images of living nature were these theatrical still life shots, which powerfully evoked a much broader idea of nature in all its infinitude and complexity.
There are photographs like that – which cannot be corrected. And that is for our good.

What was the challenge that launched this work?
It was to photograph some subject related to biodiversity in Portugal. Various collectives from different countries in Europe and South America were invited.

Is taxidermy an endangered activity? Was it easy to find people that devote their lives to it?
No. Most of them are already very old. I met one person that was still doing it at 80 or so years of age. He was always criticising people that took up the work without really knowing what they were doing.

What gave you the idea to focus on this kind of “wildlife”, which still survives in many Portuguese homes?
I can never say exactly when the idea for a big job arises. When I was working on this project, I tried to recall the moment when the subject crossed my mind and made me think, but I can’t isolate it. The theme of death, of “rabid dogs”, a certain sense of decay has always been with me… I wanted to record human obstinacy, the need we all feel to try to perpetuate memories, in this case natural memories in danger of extinction. When this challenge was put to us [kameraphoto] and we began to discuss what we should do, I immediately thought of those stuffed animals that you so often see in cafes. And so I went out looking for them in more private spaces. For this group of thirteen pictures, I ended up choosing only one that had been taken in a cafe. The others were all taken in private spaces.

This series could, of course, also be read as the antithesis of biodiversity, if we understand the term in its more restricted notion of the totality of all species and living things in their ecosystems…
This counterpoint with the suggested subject pleases me. There’s also a certain irony with regard to the title of the series, Pets, considering that these were actually wild animals which ended up being tamed after death. They were loved by people and were therefore embalmed and not destroyed. In some cases, they were domestic animals that the owners wanted to immortalize in this way.

Another extraordinary thing is that this activity may actually limit biodiversity even more, given the hunt for rare and exotic animals to embalm…
Yes, it’s true. But there’s a curious thing: this activity has become increasingly rare because of a law concerning it. A rumour went around that you couldn’t keep stuffed animals in your home if they were endangered species, and so many people threw away those that they had and the activity itself suffered… Ironically, this means that some stuffed animals may be doubly rare. There are few that have actually been done well, and most of those are in museums.

It also seems to be saying: “Watch out! One day, this’ll be the only way we’ll be able to see a particular species…”
Yes. There’s an aspect of this work that functions as a kind of warning.

What about your approach? All this taxidermy stuff is a bit kitsch…
It’s very kitsch. As well as the animals, I also wanted to show something of their surroundings. I’m interested in the memory of places, environments in which things appear and are constructed.

The series as a whole offers a frightening landscape, reminiscent of Z-movies. Although these animals are “tamed”, they look ominous, aggressive. This is emphasised by use of flash, so that it seems like you’ve caught them in flagrante in their natural habitat…
It’s also a way of emphasising the illusion of life that embalming tries to create. On the other hand, by showing part of the scene where they’re presented, I also refer to their domestic –and definitively domesticated – side. They’re being used like ornaments.

Are you going to shoot more of this kind of thing or will you finish with this series?
Yes, I’m going to keep on. The subject interests me a lot. For now, I want to continue shooting in the Beira-Baixa region.

The subject is biodiversity, but this is more about death than life…
It’s more about death, clearly. I didn’t want go into the hunting trophy side, but more into the attachment that people show for these objects, which were live animals before they were decorative objects.

A short conversation between Sérgio B. Gomes and Valter Vinagre about the exhibition Pets. May 2010.