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Taxidermy expert and author Rachel Poliquin talks with Takeshi Yamada from AMC's Immortalized about creating creatures from other universes and surviving Hurricane Sandy.
Q: You've been making art since you were a child. How did you get into taxidermy?
A: Where I grew up in Japan, it was near tropical temperatures, and you have a lot of bugs... When there are a lot of creatures living, that also means there are a lot of creatures dying. When I was in elementary school, I really loved collecting those animals. Mostly those beautiful colored, fascinating shaped insects...dried frogs, mummified lizards, snake skins, those kind of things... And I realized that some of the specimens that I collected were not really complete, meaning that sometimes the insects I found would be missing legs or arms or such and such. And I felt that it was a shame. And I think, they are talking to me: "Get me back my missing part" or "Give me a little more extra." I hear this from them. So I started reassembling their bodies by using other creatures with missing parts so that they can become more complete or become what they wanted to become.
Q: How did you parents feel about you collecting dead insects?
A: In Japan, pet insect culture is already there for many centuries. You can go to the department store to buy insects as pets. People are not really scared or afraid or "Ewwww,"... you know, running away from the insect. So basically, it is in the culture. My parents never stopped me from playing with the insects or keeping them alive as pets or when they die, keeping their bodies... My father was at the time an elementary school teacher and my mother was also an elementary school teacher. So they understand the importance of science.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration for your creatures?
A: I believe in the concept of the multiverse or the parallel universe. Some people might call them hallucinations, imagination, or dreams, but I just see them all the time. So what I am doing is not creating from my own head. I am seeing through the small holes that appear in front of me -- or sometimes a big window -- seeing through into different universes or times of the universe, and I am bringing what I saw in that universe into this universe... For me, rogue taxidermy is like digging a rock from the ground. It is already there.
VIDEO: Who is Takeshi Yamada?
Q: How does your native Japan view the art of taxidermy?
A: Preserving animals goes back many, many centuries from the dawn of time. They are part of peoples' heritage in religion and myth... In Asian nations such as China and Japan, we developed a different kind of preservation of our religious deities... Mermaids were created to visually show people that this is the vision of a real creature, of a god living in the sea. Taxidermists sewed together monkey's upper body and fish's tail and they created this mythic taxidermy and enshrined it in religious institutions for people to worship. And this religion is continuing in Japan. It is called Ningyo Shinko. Ningyo Shinko literally means Mermaid Religion.... In today's world, these are the rogue taxidermy. But for ancient religions, these are the lifelike, life-sized representations of the mythical creature or religious creature to be worshiped.
Q: Tell me about Seara, your "Sea Rabbit"...
A: One day I was taking the trash out to the dumpster -- there I saw an abandoned fur coat, and I saw the creature in it... It represents the history and culture of Coney Island. The island used to be called "Conyne Eylandt" -- conyne means rabbit in Dutch... When they came to this island they called it Rabbit Island because according to legend, since the island was separated at the time from the mainland, people saw swimming rabbits... People have only heard about it in ancient documents but they have never seen it because it has the head of a rabbit, the front paws of the duck, the body of the hairy seal or hairy fish, and a forked tail. So again, this sort of thing doesn't just come from my imagination, I saw it when I saw the fur, and a gate opened, a window opened, and I see it. And once I see it, it is just easy.
Q: You won the "Most Twisted Prize" at the Carnivorous Nights taxidermy contest. What did you create?
A: The Most Twisted award is given for my series of freak baby originally that I created for my own Freak Baby Museum, which is a sideshow and freak show. I show them pay-for-view freak babies at the amusement park in Coney Island...one dollar per view. I show two-headed baby, which is a baby with two heads. And octopus baby has three arms and four legs. Mermaid baby, she has the body of a little baby with fish-like tail. Lobster baby arms and legs look like lobster claws. Snake baby has a long, long snake-like body. Those kind of things I created. I brought it to the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest sponsored by the Secret Science Club and the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. What is interesting is that in these creations, I actually used my own skin.
Q: Your own skin?
A: Yes, some of the time I peel off my own skin and I save it. I've done this for multiple years. I used to keep all my nails and hair. When my eyebrow hairs get long I just tweeze them out and save them. When some of the nose hairs sticking out, I save them. When nails chipping off, I save them. The same way that I save my peeled off skin, naturally. For many years I save it between typing sheets and I used them on the surface of these babies. So these babies are actually with not only paper and glue and polymer, but also containing my actual skin... I am a sculptor and I consider everything as art supplies.
Q: Were you affected by Hurricane Sandy when it hit Coney Island?
A: One of the themes of the show was "Odyssey;" it was exactly what happened... I faced Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Sandy tried to kill me. It actually destroyed my house with over five feet of water lashing into my sculpture room, bedroom, and living room. And I saw it before -- that is why I shipped my first art work [for Immortalized] a week before... If I hadn't sent it, it would have been completely destroyed... The first floor and basement of my house were completely destroyed. So, I stayed at the second floor of my house but there was no heat, no electricity, no telephone lines, no cellphone connections, no gas. No nothing. Like medieval days. Freezing temperature. But I had to stay there for several days to finish my artwork... I created as if I was an ancient caveman... So just like the gods gave trials and hardships to Ulysses to transform him from a man into a hero, I came to overcome these difficulties and I created the most heroic work.