TALK: with taxidermy artist Polly Morgan
On Wednesday 14 March, Messums Wiltshire was delighted to welcome internationally renowned taxidermist Polly Morgan to speak on her work, life and inspiration in our thirteenth-century barn. A twenty-foot screen served as the backdrop for huge photographs of finished and in-progress creations. The visual result was certainly awesome and impressive. Taxidermy, stemming from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’ and ‘derma’ meaning ‘skin’ together mean the ‘arrangement of skin’.
Polly Morgan has always had an intimate experience of animals, from the very beginning of her life. Her family owned farmland in Oxfordshire which was inhabited by creatures as exotic as ostriches. It was not uncommon for sick goats to be nursed back to health in the family home. Morgan herself bred hamsters in her bedroom. When an animal died, her father would be determined to discover the mortal cause himself. Morgan remembers viewing her first ‘autopsy’ distinctively, watching as her father ‘nicked’ the goat’s stomach and being amazed at the presence of yet-undigested, intact grass. That grass looked the same internally and externally to a body resonated with the young Morgan in a way which would ultimately shape her life’s interests.
She moved to London to study English, fulfilling a life-long dream of relocating to a city. She settled in artistic Shoreditch – the stomping ground of the infamous yBas. Looking for taxidermy to decorate her home, Morgan realised it was a good deal cheaper to travel to Edinburgh for a day course in making a taxidermy bird than it was to buy one already ‘stuffed’. She booked her ticket and commenced her professional relationship with master taxidermist George Jamieson. Over the years she has built up a network of clients who supply her with animals which have met their maker due to natural causes or the fate of an unpreventable death. Morgan has previously said that she ‘hates the fact that death hangs over all of our lives’ and that she sees the aesthetic of the dead body – one without its soul – as a beautiful ornament. She admits to being squeamish but ‘only with smells’, which are produced by the ‘slipping’ or malting of the animal’s surface caused by bacteria. Maggots, frozen, are also a nasty part of the job.
Morgan has a strong sense of curiosity, seeing taxidermy as a mirror to a fascinating dissection in a biology lesson. It reveals the anatomical structure and sub-layers underneath a familiar body. The idea of the human self as an animal resonated acutely for Morgan during her pregnancy and experience of giving birth, though she believes she is probably more in tune with her biology than the average human. After returning from the Serengeti to England, she discovered her appendix had burst and she had also contracted gangrene. The experience of a segment of her body as rotten and dead influenced ‘Hide and Fight’ (2012), a taxidermy stag (pictured above) with bats nesting in its open stomach. This is one of her few autobiographical pieces and coincidentally is also one of her largest. She commented that big animals are very heavy and require more hands than she regularly has.
She first exhibited in Reconstruction #1(2006) where Vanessa Branson famously bought ‘Rest a Little on the Lap of Life’ (2006) a Surrealist-influenced piece of a rat lying in a champagne glass, underneath a dangling, decadent chandelier. Morgan surprisingly stated that this is not a narrative piece, but a reaction to spending time with animals and their intrinsic forms. Yet I would argue that a viewer could clearly read a tongue-in-cheek undertone to this work in particular and that it is all the more stronger for it. Unlike birds or other creatures, rats seem to take on the shape of the object they are placed within, here the rat is like a furry scoop of ice-cream. Yet Morgan is interested in semiotics, believing that all viewers can have an opinion on her pieces, even if it differs to her own.
Her more recent work is minimal and abstract. As such it takes animals further away from their biological and recognisable forms. Three examples: ‘Ins and Outcomes’ (2017), ‘2 North A’ and ‘3 East B’ (both 2016) can be viewed in Messums Wiltshire’s Long Gallery. They have a limited palette, inspired by the colour scheme of hospitals; so to bind the ‘body’ of work together as a series. Morgan decided to experiment after a period of dissatisfaction with her work. She did not recognise herself as the artist she was described as. She said it is ‘important to get bored of your own work before everyone else does’. Her inspiration arrived in the form of a snake serendipitously frozen into an impossible, Escher-like coil in one of her freezers: a beautiful, modernist sculpture. She loved the idea and executed it in a mad rush. Focusing on snakes was new and required new ways of working. She could no longer depend on feathers and fur to hide the bumps caused by wood-wool stuffing. Instead, she would fix the form of the snake in cling film, freeze the mould and then cast it in dense rubber. The time it takes to complete a snake depends, obviously, on its size. It could take at least three days, plus drying for several weeks, for a small species. The colour can then fade, so painting, varnishing and mounting on a plinth are the final stages. It can take weeks for a massive snake before drying.
At the beginning of her career she was the recipient of death threats. The recent renaissance of the practice in recent years, Morgan postulated, could be down to its rebrand as being more ethical. Taxidermy no longer needs to invoke or be the product of mass murder or hunting. Incredulously Morgan has even been asked to taxidermy a human being, an offer she graciously refused. Bizarrely it is not illegal in the UK, although Morgan admits that along with many ethical reasons she would not want to identify too strongly with a subject close to her own image. I would suggest that the increase of taxidermists could result from the rising ‘neo-Victorian’ movement. Victorian-inspired practices such as taxidermy, scrapbooking and collecting, even making jewellery from hair and artwork from animal skulls are being recast as ‘retro’ and thus all the rage. Perhaps in the internet age these Gothic pastimes offer us a more direct engagement with our own biology and mortality. In the 19th century, death was a daily threat, with the death of a loved one commonplace. A sense of supernatural horror and imminent extinction was grappled with in a more concrete way. Artists inspired by this ‘neo-Victorian’ movement in the Long Gallery arguably include Bouke de Vries ‘Still Life with Kingfisher’, 2017 as well as his two birdcages, Kate MccGwire’s ‘Sentient’ and ‘Sissure’ (Ommateum) (both 2016) and Alastair Mackie’s ‘Untitled’ (sphere) 2004. Interestingly, all of these pieces can be described as still-lives and/or still-deaths. ‘Nature morte’, the French expression for still life, works better as a literal translation.