Art From Death: Taxidermist Morly Tse Proves Preserved Insects Can Make Beautiful Art
If it weren’t for the journey through an industrial building required to reach it, Terra House could fool visitors into thinking they’d travelled back in time to the study of some eccentric professor in 19th-century Europe. The small Kwai Fong workshop is packed with curios, including amber bottles, a glass phrenological head, dried plants and boxes upon boxes of insects behind glass.
Butterflies are Morly Tse’s speciality, but amid the framed and domed displays of glittering lepidoptera there are also cicadas and beetles great and small. Tse, the 26-year-old proprietress, taxidermist and artist behind Terra House, trained on mammals in the UK before turning her talents to the insect world.
Tse’s is an unusual craft in Hong Kong, where no other businesses offer animal or insect taxidermy and there are few public collectors. However, she has found her niche on Instagram, where customers, mostly based in Hong Kong, explore her designs before visiting her workshop for a private consultation.
In entomology, the preservation of insects for long-term collection and display is more accurately called “pinning” or “mounting”. The recently deceased butterflies Tse receives in the post arrive with their wings folded and protected with paper. She begins a painstaking process of first sanitising and rehydrating them for a week, before pinning them flat with special entomological pins, taking care to ensure their wings are symmetrical. Then comes another week of rest, so the specimen can dry out once more. After that, they are ready to be arranged into display boxes or used in decorative sculptures under glass cloches.
While taxidermy has enjoyed a resurgence in the West over the past decade, propelled by social media, Asia has yet to discover the appeal of having dead creatures as decoration in the home. Hong Kong’s humid, rot-accelerating climate, not to mention potent superstitions around death, all but ensure even the rich aren’t filling their homes with stuffed bears or mounted stag heads.
Then there’s the yuck factor: for many, their first instinct when spotting an insect is to stamp, scream, spray or swat. In Hong Kong, bugs are thought of as little more than pests to be expelled and kept away from homes and urban areas at all costs. Tse has seen initially enthusiastic customers balk as soon as they enter her workshop, while she herself was uneasy around bugs before she began learning to pin.
“I used to be afraid of lots of insects,” she says. “When I started working with butterflies, I was quite afraid of touching them. I was afraid of their legs. I started working on butterflies a year ago and now I am not afraid of insects any more. I’m hoping to start workshops for children or adults to help them overcome their fear too. If people learned more about them, they’d find it easier to accept their existence.”
She adds: “I’m still scared of cockroaches, though.”
Since she was a teenager, Tse has held an affinity for darker art forms, unusual flora and fauna and gothic, Victorian-era stylings. With formal training in art, she honed an eye for detail backstage as a prop and set designer for theatre and TV and enrolled on a short taxidermy course in the UK last year after making friends with insect specialists at the National Museum of Natural History while on a sculpture conservation internship in Paris in 2018. Upon her return to Hong Kong, she began volunteering at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, where she was due to help the wildlife park revitalise its pinned insect collection before the pandemic hit.
“I really enjoy the process,” she says. “I like the different colours, patterns and sizes, especially with species like the sunset moth. When I look at them, I learn more about what nature has brought to us.”
Tse speaks softly and with great care, uses steel tweezers to lift feather-light species of moth or butterfly, watching daylight cause iridescent wings to glimmer as she holds them aloft. Everything about her operation adheres to an exquisitely refined aesthetic—from social media posts to how boxes are stacked in her workshop, it all feels purposeful and carefully arranged. Her designs range from a few hundred dollars for a framed display to just over HK$1,000 for a cloche.
Customers can select one of her pre-made arrangements or choose their own. The techniques practitioners like Tse employ date back to the 19th century, but the results are long-lasting: many mounted insects on display in museums date back more than 100 years; without too much direct sunlight or humidity, Terra House pieces are expected to last for 50 years or more. She tells her customers to see their design as an investment. “You should come in and pick the pieces to make it special.”
A lot of customers bring up the concepts of life and death, and the link between living and dead
— Morly Tse
Tse sources her insects from organisations in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, like the Kipepeo Butterfly Project, a community-based Kenyan organisation that employs workers, who once would have relied on illegal logging for their income, to breed butterflies. Some are released into the wild and others are sold to museums, butterfly houses or businesses across the world. Butterfly lifespans average only several weeks; once they die, they are collected and shipped to taxidermists like Tse.
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As a result, Terra House does not sell any endangered species, and specimens occasionally come with defects to their wings from having fallen to the ground.
In a city with 245 species of butterfly, Tse wants to inspire appreciation for the natural world and dispel some of the revulsion around bugs and the taboo of death. Each of her pieces contains a note about the species and she takes time to discuss her art with customers.
“A lot of them bring up the concepts of life and death, the link between living and dead things, and myths surrounding them. I really like how scientists in the past studied anatomy, as well as the artists who would sculpt medical models,” she says, adding that she sees her own work inhabiting the same space. “Education and art: that’s my purpose.
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- Photography Stephanie Teng