Where the Wild Things Are Stuffed

In the west end of Toronto, artist Morgan Mavis runs the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory along with her partner Christopher Bennell. She's the director, and he's the conservationist, and together the two have created a space full of taxidermied bears, deer eagle, and a wallaby head. The conservatory is part of an ongoing conceptual art project Mavis has been creating since graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2004, and has turned her rented apartment into a curated art gallery/home.

Morgan spoke with Rented Spaces about the genesis for the conservatory, her collecting habits, and the particular struggles of living in an art tableau.

Rented Spaces
: How did the idea for the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory come about?
Morgan Mavis: I've always been collecting. When my partner and I came back to Toronto, I found a dream place in the west end and it was perfect – very large -- so we had space. I wasn't interested as much in being a practicing artistwhere I would be in galleries. I was really concerned about being misrepresented. So I was really only interested in representing myself and curating everything I own. Rather than relying on a curator, I was going to curate my life and everything I acquire from that point in.

RS: Is this your only art project?
MM: My other practice is all about domesticity and femininity. I've had this pink hair for fifteen years. I like looking at things that are the polar opposites: the juxtaposition, the masculinity. For a while I collected childrens' toy handguns predating the sixties. And then I was collecting taxidermy. I'm interested in things pretending to be something else. I was interested in exploring the role of like a Victorian dandy, or an aristocrat who would be played by a wealthy man. The CZC took shape, and my collections and acquisitions started just rolling in from there.

RS: Who funds the acquisitions?
MM: It's privately funded by me – so I look for deals. I'm an art teacher and I teach cooking at a private school. I have a student loan, I rent, so it's really just me knowing how to negotiate, knowing what things are worth to me and just being patient and coming up with the right acquisition.

RS: How frequently do you acquire new pieces?
MM: It's about every two months. Something I won't get anything for four months, and then I'll get four things at once. We went to Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona and that took a large chunk out of acquisitions. But when we were there we got a wallaby head and then an African butterfly in Paris. So our acquisitions for this year are smaller in scale but they have wonderful stories.

: How do you see the stories behind your pieces?
MM: I'm really interested in the preservation of discarded memories. I also collect needlepoints and paint by numbers. Taxidermy is the embodiment of a story. Most of the pieces are hunting trophies. But it's a memory for someone, and they either preserve it themselves by stuffing it, or commission a taxidermist, a son inherits it, doesn't want it, it gets discarded.
So instead of thinking of it as I'm killing these animals, I'm rescuing them from a junk shop, someone's basement.

RS: Who comes to see the Conservatory? How is it run?
MM: Originally it was open the second Sunday of every month. People would make reservations – and then not show up. So now we rent the space for fashion editorials and newspaper stories. We've been getting into that more than tours – although the College of Art and Design did a walkthrough and we had tea. When people come to the conservatory now they get baked goods and a story. It's like a salon.

: Is it hard to live in such a curated space? I'm trying to imagine you putting your feet up on the sofa and just relaxing with a magazine, and it's a little difficult!
MM: My partner always teases me I walk around barefoot all the time, and no matter how much I oil the floors, I always have gritty feet walking around barefoot. One of our sofas was custom designed in the 1940's - my feet are always gritty so I have to think before I put my feet on the sofa, and dust them off. I never want to sit with my feet directly on the sofa. I am always aware, it's not the space where you hang out in your pajamas. It's wonderful having a space that's so curated and tailor-made for yourself, except I'm constantly vigilant and worried about it.

Apartments-Turned-Galleries a Growing Trend [RS]
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