There’s more to Mathieu Miljavac than taxidermy. The artist is a poet, and like his work, he conceals a delicacy visible to those who perceive the world with intensity, and a hint of melancholia.
His birds – noble, gracious, fantastical beasts with manifolded wings – seem to be surfacing from a surrealistic dream where light and darkness become one. Always rising in style, frozen in a perpetual ode to movement, they are that which our minds cannot grasp, a pure and peculiar beauty that only nature can achieve.
Following Oscar Wilde’s path, and others before him, Miljavac’s work suggests that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Lurking in the shadow, it emerges, keen to be tamed, a beauty that beckons, longing to reveal itself in all of its luminous glory.
Leclaireur: You started in Fashion.
Mathieu Miljavac: I did. After fashion school, I worked different jobs in the industry, for quite a while, in several capacities. I even worked as a graphic designer, an event planner, and a floral arranger!
L: Taxidermy still has somewhat of a reputation. Are animals killed for mounting?
M: No, we don’t ever kill animals just for mounting. There are very strict regulations. Live animal cannot be taken out of their natural habitat to be used for taxidermy. All the exotic animals seen in shops or museums, for example, come from zoos, where they have died of natural cause.
L: From fashion stylist to taxidermist, there’s a stretch. Or isn’t there?
M: I’ve always love taxidermy, since I was a kid. I remember being utterly fascinated by a stuffed owl at my grandparent’s house. One day, I came across an article in a magazine which discussed a new generation of artists who often use taxidermy. There was a before and after, for me: I opened the magazine, and suddenly, sounds around me faded. It was a revelation. I see taxidermy as just a technique I use that allows me to express myself with something of unusual beauty, whether in traditional taxidermy or pertaining to the animals I use. But I don’t really see myself as a taxidermist.
L: How do you reproduce the movement of a bird?
M: I look into contemporary dance, mostly. Each time I do a new installation, I find myself watching DVDs of Pina Bausch or Trisha Brown. It’s a continuing source of inspiration. Then I start with the movement of the animal. I’ll stretch the wings out as wide as they will go, for example, to create a sense of movement that is not exactly natural but which exaggerates the sense of flight, the natural attitude of the bird, taking it to its paroxysm.
L: When do you think the switch, from bizarre and strange to beautiful, happens?
M: I think deciding line between bizarre, strange and beautiful involves the respect we give to the animal. If the animal is respected, there is automatically a thing of beauty. When you stop respecting the animal, when you deform and add things, that’s when it can become bizarre and strange and, therefore, disturbing.
I add wings to a pigeon for a few reasons. Firstly, to play with reality, secondly, because it allows me to deconstruct the movement of one animal, a bit like Muybridge’s photographic work, when he shot every stages of movement of birds, horses, humans against a black background… Adding wings allows me to deconstruct the movement of flight, the flapping wings, bringing another dimension to the natural movement of the animal.
L: Any other particular influences?
M: Contemporary dance, as I’ve said: Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Preljocaj too…
In terms of visual artists, there’s Francis Bacon and the way he manages to convey the violence of movement in his subjects, his portraits. There is a sort of deconstruction of movement in his work which fascinates me. I also love the way he frames things. I work on structures too. It was somewhat unconscious at the beginning but when I see his paintings, I understand his influence on my work. Literature inspires me as well. I adore Murakami, because of the way he subtly passes from reality into an imaginary and fantastic world.
L: Why do you use metal structures around animals?
M: I wanted to twist the idea of the cage, but it rapidly took on a significance above and beyond that idea for me. I’ve done a lot of soldering and structural metal work around the crows, particularly, and I realize that it has a strong personal significance for me. The word psychoanalytic might be a bit strong, but it does say something about my intimate self. As I completed my first structure around a crow, while looking for a title, what came to mind was ‘Pretending I can’t see’. Suddenly I saw it as a direct response to an emotional situation I was going through with someone at the time, which manifested itself in my work.
L: How people react to your installations?
M: Taxidermy inspires strong reactions in people, they either love it or hate it. After the initial surprise, people manage to see beyond simple traditional taxidermy. And it makes me happy to take them beyond their preconceived notions around that subject, to show them something beautiful which will speak to them, which will touch them….
L: When was the very first time you met Leclaireur?
M: As a fashion student, around twenty years ago, I remember being taken to the boutique in St Germain. It was a revelation to see the clothes and Armand Hadida’s vision, which he had developed and maintained since…Twenty years later, I sent an email to Leclaireur to show them my work. We came up with a project together, which is this huge installation of black birds flying in a sort of whirlwind pattern. From the beginning, I wanted to do a specific project for Leclaireur, I wanted something moody and dark with fifty flying birds, destined to their space, rue Hérold. I wanted it to be light, and a bit disturbing, too, both eery and beautiful. This collaboration with Leclaireur was interesting. Armand Hadida shows clothes in a totally new innovative way, and I try to do the same with pigeons.