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'Death In East London' a critique of taxidermy by Charlie Phillips


A walk through East London should ideally not involve a confrontation with death. But increasingly it does, with corpses decorating the windows of Brick Lane, Mare Street, Cheshire Street and beyond, enticing hipsters to part with cash on the enticement that there’s a dead creature staring at you from inside. Capitalism has always scrambled for success by standing on the undignified rotting bodies of the less fortunate. It’s easy to formulate a campaign against Tesco, by tracing the death and destruction it wreaks to bring a supposedly innocent cheese sandwich to Kingsland High Street. But open your eyes and the apparently more ethically sound trading of smaller shops is doing as much damage to the honour of life, and in a more blatant way.

I’m talking taxidermy. And I’m saying it’s unacceptable, and should be confronted.

The introduction of the brilliant ‘Think’ section to Run-Riot indicates there’s a desire in East London’s art, culture and party scenes to have an ethical dimension to the fun and games. The people have got political, and the good stuff isn’t just about losing yourself in booze, stripping and decadence. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of them, but the increasing counterpoint of political thought to the fun in East London culture is a vital thing.

However any move towards raising political awareness and building a revolutionary social movement of the culturally-influential (which is what the point is, right?) should explore all ethical offshoots, or it risks opening up that movement to being patronised as a single-issue modish fad. The great thing about a collective like Climate Rush, for example, is that it’s not simply about saving the environment, it’s also about gender politics and consensus decision-making as a new model for organising society. It’s not about complete ethical purity but it does feel like a comprehensive attempt at having consistent morals.

So, to return to my point, if you care about social justice and respect for life, you should also care about the crime that is taxidermy. There is no ethical taxidermy. Finding a dead animal and stuffing it for the titillation of passing trade or (worse) for your own entertainment is an insult to that creature. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t kill it yourself, it’s always wrong. Regardless of the fact that displaying ‘found’ animals creates a knock-on encouragement for those who kill illegally for collections, the simple act of putting a dead Owl in your shop front is in itself morally repugnant.

Walk down Brick Lane and its side streets. I guarantee you’ll find at least 3 shops with dead animals in the window, and almost certainly more. This is a recent trend, apparently part of an upsurge in love for aristocratic English nostalgia. The Last Tuesday Society on Mare Street specialises in it, their premises offering a theatre of death dressed up as a revival of Victorian gentlemanly scientific curiosity.

I have a lot of respect for what the LTS do so this isn’t an attack on them. They’ve been champions in the revival of early-20th century values, ideas and style. Most of it’s amazing. But I don’t see them reviving casual racism and class inequality. The values of taxidermy – its arrogant implication of humans as the highest form of being with mastery over the universe – are relics of the age that should not be revived either. London loves its retro chic, but in waking the ghosts of early Modernism, you also wake its doubtful love for control over ‘weak’ nature and its love for the all-powerful upper-class gentleman.

If there’s really a commitment to thought amidst the decadence, then contemporary values have to be applied to revivals of old styles as well. And taxidermy should be acknowledged to be a horrific insult to an animal. So, next time you’re passing a business with a corpse being advertised to you, go and tell them so.


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