Polly Morgan is an artist notorious for her taxidermied animal assemblages that skillfully transform a tradition often seen as kitsch or macabre into elegant and highly sought-after creations. Initially training with professional taxidermist George Jamieson, Morgan set out not necessarily to make art, but rather as a way to furnish her own flat. She continued to create, trying preserving the moments between decay and death, encouraged by many of the YBA artists whom she met while working in a bar in East London. Her pieces caught the eye of Banksy, commissions followed, and one of her first works, a small white rat curled up in a champagne glass, was snapped up at Zoo Art Fair in 2005 before it even opened. Collectors, exhibitions and infamy followed, and her story has since become one of urban art legend.
Morgan’s largest installation to date, currently on view at All Visual Arts in London, incorporates not only the taxidermic medium that drove her notoriety, but also hybrid mixed media sculptures, and drawings made from cremated bird remains, which remain true to her rather noir roots. The exhibition, entitled Endless Plains, was inspired by Morgan’s recent trip to the Serengeti and her own intimate encounter with mortality, interpreting the cycles of life and the inescapability of death through poetic and grotesque narrative forms. On the occasion of the exhibition, Morgan discussed with Michelle Schultz many of the inspirations for her latest work: those cannibalistic, parasitic and driven by decay.
Michelle Schultz: Could you perhaps begin by telling me a little bit about your trip to Serengeti and how this is interpreted in your latest work in the exhibition Endless Plains?
Polly Morgan: I was inspired by the dead bodies littering the landscape, many of which had been hollowed out from within by vultures. Their skins had dried on the bones and they looked almost taxidermic. Seeing the dead alongside the living and just born, I felt I could see the whole of life being played out in front of me. Endless Plains, the translation of Serengeti, struck me as a perfect term for the landscape, which felt like a hall of mirrors – the same routine stretching from the past into the future.
MS: Your own encounter with mortality is something that is spoken about in relation to this exhibition – how this has influenced your work? In particular, perhaps how you have come to perceive the boundaries between life and death.
PM: It was just another reminder that I am part of this chain of life and death and there’s no avoiding it. I was particularly interested in the fact that I had had gangrene – a part of my body had died and decomposed inside me – and that I was simultaneously living and dying. I had a post-operative infection, where bacteria was spreading inside me – this felt like an invasion, leading me to think about the relationship between hosts and parasites, and changed the direction of my show slightly.
MS: Yes, I feel as though many of your previous works are quite quiet and poetic, but these recent sculptural works appear to be more violent and aggressive, and perhaps grotesque in a certain way – this could be seen as a result of your recent experiences.
PM: It might be. It is also a result of my becoming bored of my old work, which felt unchallenging and too easy on the eye. As soon as I stop feeling anything, I instigate change, in relationships/work/anything. I didn’t want to sentimentalise nature, which I was concerned some of my work was bordering on, I wanted to show it as it is; cannibalistic, predatory and unnerving.
MS: It no longer seems to me that you are trying to preserve that moment between death and decay as you have spoken about in relation to previous work, but rather now trying to preserve the state of decay itself. Would this be a fair statement?
PM: I hadn’t really thought of it like that but it is a fair remark. I felt it was no longer enough for me to present the animal as an ornament, I wanted to take it further and to show, albeit in a corrupted unrealistic way, what happens to a dead body or why it is dead in the first place.
MS: Now going back to the very beginning, can we talk about what instinctively brought you to taxidermy as a medium in the first place? When you began training with George Jamieson, were your intentions always to use taxidermy to create art, or were you considering a career as a traditional taxidermist?
PM: I wasn’t thinking very far ahead as I’m not much of a planner. I was bored at work and wanted to learn something new and to become accomplished in a new discipline. I never saw myself as a traditional taxidermist – I thought no further than it being a hobby to start with. I noticed that many people I knew took a great interest in what I was doing and this inspired me to produce things that were worth looking at and perhaps purchasing. As I happened to be living in East London and socialising with people in the art world it was almost inevitable that they would be seen. I just wasn’t expecting people to like what I was doing as much as they did.
MS: Did you find taxidermy quite a difficult or challenging thing to learn?
PM: It takes a lot of practise and a lot of patience, which I don’t have much of. It is difficult to learn but then everything worth learning is. There were many frustrating moments where I would throw down what I was working on and myself on the bed in fury. All those moments make it even more rewarding when something works out so I am so happy I stuck at it, which is in part due to George’s support and part to my having been made redundant and the fear of having no other means of income.
MS: The series of drawings of bird’s nests shown in Endless Plains are very textural and quite delicate, and I understand they are made from cremated bird remains – could you tell me a little bit about the process involved and how they are made?
PM: I took the birds bodies to a pet crematorium, where they were returned to me as ashes. I started by buying a fine glue and doing invisible line drawings before scattering the ash over the paper to make the image appear. These worked but there was no shading or depth to the images which I wanted. I then bought some nibs for an ink quill and tried dipping this in diluted PVA. This way the line was much more varied and, coupled with a paintbrush, I managed to build up shaded areas. The shadow is created by finely ground ash (with a pestle and mortar), the lines by slightly grittier ash. It was a technique I took a month or so to develop.
MS: They are very impressive. Now, throughout Endless Plains, there is a great deal of narrative and symbolism imbued in the works – particularly in the mixed media sculpture – could you tell me a little bit about the relationships between the fox and the octopus for example, or the symbolism of the pigs?
PM: The fox could have been any animal. I was thinking more about the juxtaposition of colours and textures against the octopus when I chose to use it. The octopus was used as it was redolent of intestines and phallic in shape. I liked the way it wrapped prettily round something like a vine, yet would suffocate its subject in doing so. The phallus is a symbol of fertility, compounded by the bud-like suckers, which I have birds pollinating in my sculpture. The octopus is the parasite when situated against the fox, yet becomes the host when pollinate by birds.
The piglets I chose as they are almost human in colour and form, which makes them all the more disturbing for their familiarity. I wanted to convey the parasitical nature of suckling young. Their plump pink bodies also remind me of ripening fruit or chrysalids.
MS: With the piglets in particular, there is an interesting juxtaposition between taxidermy and mixed media. What drives the decisions behind what to preserve as taxidermy and what to sculpt?
PM: This was a practical decision. I wanted the pigs to look as plump and fleshy as possible. This wouldn’t work with taxidermy as they don’t have a dense covering of fur, which means the skin can look a little parched as it dries. In order for the viewer to get the full effect of these creatures, ripening on the branch so to speak, I think they needed to look almost hyper-real, far more achievable in silicone than taxidermy.
MS: Now, there is a lot of this mixed media work in Endless Plains, and while taxidermy continues to play a large part, it is not the sole focus – do you feel that you may eventually move away from taxidermy as a medium, or do you think this will always be a significant part of your work?
PM: I have no idea. But I would guess that I will eventually make work that has no taxidermy in it at all. I don’t want to discard a good idea that doesn’t involve animals just because I am concerned it won’t be recognisably mine.