Degustation by Julia DeVille

Julia DeVille, Degustation, 2013, Installation, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria

Julia deVille’s Degustation is part of an ambitious exhibition, which opened its doors at the National Gallery of Victoria last November as part of the project Melbourne Now. The goal was to celebrate the latest art, architecture, design and cultural practice in order to reflect the dynamic and creative landscape of Melbourne.

Born in 1982, deVille studied fashion in Wellington before moving to Melbourne, where she soon started training in gold, silversmithing and more unusually, taxidermy. Indeed, her interest in death and life emerged when she was a child. The artist recalls: “…as a child of three or four years, taxidermy and death interested me. I remember sitting in a wardrobe with my grandmother’s fox stoles with their heads, feet and tails. I felt they could come to life when I wasn’t watching”. She also points out that taxidermy has come out of a great love and respect for animals and nature. Practicing for more than ten years, she has now acquired lots of different sources to collect her materials from. In particular, animals come from farmers and taxidermists while others are friends’ dead pets or even roadside findings of strangers, who contact her. A vegetarian and animal rights activist, deVille has decided to donate her body after death to Germany’s renowned Institute for Plastination. Her wish is that it will be dissected and preserved to be exhibited in the future.

The way in which the ‘Memento Mori’ period of the 15th to 18th centuries was used to communicate mortality fascinates her. Characterized by a high level of mortality, Victorian society started to use sentimental post-mortem photographs to remember deceased relatives. The bodies were arranged to still seem alive, with children the most popular subjects. This is where Julia’s predilection for puppies and black pageantry come from. The result of combining nonliving creatures with precious metals and stones can be seen as a resurrection of the animals and the assurance of a new enhanced existence.

Degustation was showcased in a dark room, on the second floor, separated from the rest of the Gallery. The thick black curtains at the entrance hid a Victorian style leaving room. Visitors were allowed to move freely in the space without a specific path and wander amongst rich wood furniture on which plates, pots and trays displayed taxidermied animals such as cats, chicks, rabbits, finches, ravens and fawns.

The title of the exhibition, Degustation, was provocative in itself. These creatures seemed to be alive, innocent and pure, looking at the visitors and convening questions about their fair use. The composition was well-rendered and the animals shone in the dark, thanks to a calibrated use of lights and to the precious decorations the artist set in their skin. Central to the room, one of the most captivating animals was a small lamb crouched on a tray table. Lost and vulnerable, the lamb seemed to be waiting for its horrible end. Emotive music created a fascinating atmosphere, enhancing the beauty and the sacredness of the enchanted world displayed. The main idea conceived was of a magic whole, too beautiful to be sacrificed and eaten.

In an interview the artist described her decision of utilizing objects from her own personal collection at home, including furniture from her studio such as her own dining room table and chandeliers. The choice made was significant to deeply reflect and shape her personal world. The paintings on the walls instead came from the NGV permanent collection: still life themes and mythological scenes have been selected by the artist to round out her installation. They successfully fulfilled the environment and the reference of the whole to a sort of ‘cabinet of curiosity’ was evident.

Public reaction to the exhibition was very strong. The invigilators saw people getting very angry at the sight of this installation. The attempt of the artist was to focus the audience’s attention on the way our society treats and eats animals, with a sharp critique on our habits. By the way the methodology chosen was not common and not of immediate comprehension. This could be due to the fact that deVille’s practice of taxidermy is not often encountered in the art world and so may not easily be understood by visiting audiences. Moreover the use of informative panels inside the room was avoided and the effect produced could be seen as destabilising. Even though all the animals used have died of natural causes some people are of the belief that her methodology is not acceptable and that her art is being used to gain visibility and profit through such a disturbing and provocative process.

The materials she uses in her works are frequent reminders of our mortality as she thinks that if we are able to accept the concept that we are all mortal creatures we can better appreciate the significance of life.

Degustation can be considered one of the most representative exhibitions by deVille. Leaving it to the public to interpret her work she combines nature, jewelry and art to reach her goal of celebrating the beauty of life through the display of death.