By Terry Baynes
A line of people snaked down 7th Street outside the Bell House on Sunday night. The cluster of activity was an oddity in the dark, industrial streets of Gowanus.
“Nice to bring some life to this part of the neighborhood,” one man said to his friend. The smell of beer hung in the damp air. Another man made small talk with his female companion. “I was talking to Kenny before, and he was like, ‘Why are you even going to that? It’s gross!’”
Near the entrance of the club, a woman with bright yellow dreadlocks and a Marilyn Manson lookalike by her side handed her ID to the bouncer. She paid her $4 cover and received an invisible stamp on her hand, which turned out to be a glowing owl under the bouncer’s blue flashlight.
A man squeezed past the line and through the doorway. In each hand, he held a large chandelier made of goats’ skulls in ornate circles. In the foyer, an event organizer in a pink sports coat spoke to two British journalists with a video camera about his expectations for the night’s taxidermy competition.
Inside the main hall, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasted from the speakers overhead. Young people held plastic cups of beer at their chests and shouted to each other over the music. In the corner, one group listened to a man with an unkempt afro and beard. In one hand, he held his plastic cup of alcohol. With the other, he rested a large brown iguana on his chest.
“It’s a crazy story,” he began. “I’d been dating a girl for 6 months when she died from carbon monoxide poisoning. You know, like from her kitchen stove. I inherited her iguana. When it died two years later, I had it stuffed. It’s named Chris, after her, and it sits on a pedestal in my house.”
Next, a young woman stepped forward to tell the story of the garfish in her hand—its long pointy mouth almost poking her in the chin. “It has very sharp teeth,” she said and proceeded to tell the story of how her grandfather caught the fish decades ago and bequeathed it to her.
Soon the lights dimmed, and a woman took the stage for the pedagogical part of the evening. She wore zip-up fur vest, a mini-skirt and knee-high leather boots. Wooden bird earrings dangled from her ears. She was introduced as “beast mistress” Melissa Milgrom, author of the forthcoming book, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. She presented a crash course in taxidermy history and terminology. Taxidermy, she said, is “the science and art of creating the illusion of life.” Animals are not stuffed; they’re mounted. Animal skin doesn’t lose its elasticity; it loses its memory.
At one point, Milgrom mentioned squirrels, and the crowd erupted in cheers. She ran across the stage, grabbed a squirrel that had been mounted mid-scamper and placed it in front of her on the speaker’s podium. The audience went wild.
After the talk, contestants paraded their still life creations across the stage. First up was a middle-aged woman named Maureen who unveiled a large hawk on a pedestal. The bird was named Jane and had been in her family ever since Maureen was born. She reminisced back to when the bird was bigger than her, when she used to dress it in baby clothes. Maureen once returned home from college to find Jane in a closet with its head snapped off. She was shocked, remembering how she used to ride the bird like a rocking horse without breaking it. Nevertheless, she reattached the head, restoring Jane to her former glory.
Jane was followed by Chloe, a scruffy miniature dog curled up in a ball on a cushion. “She was the runt of the litter,” said the entrant who had attended taxidermy school in Montana. She explained that Chloe had not fared well in prior competitions. “She must have looked sad compared to the Billy goats prancing up a mountain side,” the contestant said. “Or the school of goldfish swimming around a treasure chest.”
The parade of specimens continued—some more horrifying than others. Takeshi Yamada, a Japanese man from Coney Island, presented his series of monster babies that he claimed to have made from samples of his own peeled skin and hair. One woman held up an earring made of a rat diaphragm in epoxy resin and then dropped it on stage. The judges joined her on hands and knees to hunt for the lost entry.
The judges eventually found the night’s winner in Felis Fightus Dansicus, a pair of interlocking cats. On their backs, the cats wrestled for dominance. Upright, they danced. Their owner stroked them throughout the presentation.
By the end of the night, the man with the iguana and afro had found the two British journalists with the video camera. This time, according to the journalists, he confessed to the camera that his story about the dead girlfriend was completely fabricated. The girl with him also admitted that she hadn’t really inherited the garfish from her grandfather. She bought it on Ebay.