The Making of
The Mounted Life by Danielle Van Ark

It started with a dead hamster. In the late ’90s, Dutch photographer Danielle Van Ark was living in Rotterdam, reacquainting herself with the charms of the grain-eating, wheel-chasing starter pet. Her hamster expired right around the time the Beastie Boys were coming out with a single called “Intergalactic”. “The cover of that single was basically a giant hamster attacking humanity, and it inspired me to have my hamster stuffed,” Van Ark says. “I found someone in a village near Rotterdam who does it, and I loved the place instantly.”

Van Ark became obsessed with taxidermy culture. She began buying up secondhand and antique specimens, and in 2006 she started an ongoing, medium-format photography series called The Mounted Life. The series documents the storage closets of natural history museums around the world, which tend to house an array of the petrified creatures, yanked from dioramas and plunked down in haphazard tableaux among boxes or on shelves. “In my work, I’m looking for something that’s off, a weirdness,” Van Ark says. “And in the storage rooms I found all of these emotional moments: a donkey looking at the door, or two animals standing next to each other when in the wild they would eat each other.”

Van Ark has also long been fascinated by signifiers of status and by places that are normally inaccessible to the public, both of which play into The Mounted Life. Though the furry creatures are now a staple of hipster dwellings, Van Ark points out that at one time “only very wealthy people had taxidermy, exotic species they had brought from other lands.”

Van Ark is in the midst of another series on art openings in New York — “where you have the 5th Avenue people and the gallery bums who come and drink for free” — and she recently received a grant to photograph the perfectly manicured gardens of Amsterdam’s ritzy canal houses. She’s also received a grant from the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts to visit 16 additional European institutions in the coming year to flesh out The Mounted Life. “The project will be really valuable when I start to have a couple hundred images — like a Noah’s ark,” she says. Before she heads off, we asked Van Ark to share with us the decisions she’s made, the places she’s visited, and a selection of the photographs she’s taken so far.

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'Untitled'

Since starting the series in 2006, Van Ark has photographed the storerooms of 13 museums, including the Natuurmuseum Brabant in Tilburg, where this photo was taken.

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Over the years, she's also amassed a taxidermy collection of her own: a groundhog, a fox, an owl, two mice, a couple of deer heads, a doe, some birds — and of course the hamster. “The owl is in a dome above my bed and I have a deer head above the door in the bedroom,” Van Ark says. “The rest are in the living room. I put them in a box like this when I was moving. It wasn’t very stable but I liked the way it looked.”

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The first place Van Ark visited when she began the project was Jac Bouten & Sons, a fourth generation taxidermist and rental shop in Venlo, a small town in the southern part of the Netherlands. “They were very easygoing and they let me do my thing — though at that moment, I didn’t know what it was yet,” Van Ark says.

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“I started photographing black-and-white animal portraits. I knew that I wanted to photograph something that wouldn't typically be seen by everyone,” she says.

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One of the portraits Van Ark snapped that day ended up on the cover of Crimson as Murder, a 2007 album by her friends, the Dutch disco-synth duo David Gilmour Girls.

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“At the end of the day, I saw this donkey staring at the door," she says. "I felt sorry for him, and I took his picture.”

'Untitled'

“Then I saw a deer looking around the corner of its box. He really looked like he wanted to go out! When I developed my film, I knew this was it. Not the portraits, but the way these animals are haphazardly stored by humans, which results in the most moving scenes.”

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Assorted monkeys at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland

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A baby chimp at the Naturalis museum in Leiden. “Usually the collection manager lets me in and then picks me up at the end of the day," Van Ark says. "It always smells badly of chemicals to keep the moths away, but every place is different — some are super organized, some are a big mess. Sometimes you have a shitty museum and a beautiful storage room. In Leiden, they had a whole herd of zebras.”

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Deer and skins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "The first time I tried to get in, I was turned away. I think they prefer to give access to scientists rather than artists. A guy I know from Rotterdam was doing research there and said there was a nice woman working there and that I could go back in with him if I just wanted to see the place.”

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“I started talking to her, and she didn’t really know anything about the permissions. She said, ‘Come back on Monday’ — which was Columbus Day, so everybody in the office was off — and she opened the doors for me."

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A rhino at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. "It's kind of weird that I have this big fascination with mounted animals," says Van Ark. "I've been a vegetarian for about 18 years now."