It’s an exciting day for Bear Skin Blog. It’s the day of the first ever guest blog. Damien has been a reader and follower of Bear Skin for some months, offering feedback and suggestions which have led to this guest post. He introduces himself in his own words:
Damien Shalley is a highly caffeinated and totally overworked researcher for the Australian government. His artistic tastes lean toward the esoteric. His record collection includes Dean Martin and The Cramps. He is thinking about buying a sphynx cat and calling it “Geoff.” He lives near a store that sells three hundred varieties of cheese.
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Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan – by Damien Shalley
Death: the ultimate negative. No matter how magnificent one’s life was, death destroys it. Prince or pauper, all men are equal when their memory fades. Is it possible to salvage something from death? Christian tradition tells us that faith in God will result in salvation. But a sceptical, rational world isn’t always willing to accept this point of view. That’s why the works of English taxidermist and art world sensation Polly Morgan are so intriguing. Morgan creates unique pieces which seem to suggest that rebirth and resurrection are a true possibility, not simply the wish-fulfilment fantasy of deluded souls.
Many people possess preconceived notions about taxidermy, due in large part to traditional manifestations of the process as represented by three primary examples.
- The preservation of beloved pets;
- Hunting trophies;
- Anthropomorphic dioramas of animals engaged in human activities.
Morgan subverted the conventions of all three and delivered genuine artfulness in her pieces, due in part to her professional skill and in equal part to her thematic constructs or “point of view”. Her vivid and groundbreaking work – apparently inspired initially by her inability to find a suitable piece of taxidermy to decorate her flat with – caused a genuine sensation in the art world, the effects of which continue to reverberate.
The rebirth of doomed creatures into something beautiful and elegant has many parallels with spiritual concepts of resurrection.
One such piece is “Morning”, a robin impacting a pane of glass but retaining its physical form and essence. It has been noted by more than one observer that the scenario depicted by Morgan is not at all what happens when a robin crashes into a window pane. That is exactly the point. Morgan has presented something that suggests “breaking through” in a magnificent, glorious, ethereal way. And in a nutshell, that may well be the precise point of Morgan’s work.
Morgan’s ability to bestow dignity upon creatures that have died in ugly circumstances is a hallmark of her work. Evocative and uncanny, her artistry seemingly possesses the power to instil new life into empty shells. Cynics argue that this is purely superficial, but Morgan is genuinely capable of recreating the essence of a creature in her work – and instilling a sense of wonder into audiences.
There is something very positive in her imagery. Morgan’s “Fox and Chandelier “ bestows a quiet dignity and peaceful reverence upon a creature whose existence was unceremoniously obliterated. A viewer of her work was quoted by as saying that the beauty of her “corpses” somehow transcends death to demonstrate the beauty of the animal…in life”. This seems to be her motivation, so indeed she may be regarded as a success regardless of her “art world pop star” status and elevated public profile.
Morgan famously created “Carrion Call” featuring chicks breaking free from a coffin. Something universally associated with death becomes a vestibule or birthing place new life. Morgan said of this piece “Coffins are fairly egg-shaped. It’s a symbol of life triumphing, emerging from death.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard]. Her reference to this work as an example of life emerging from death might be soundly criticised as counter intuitive. Is she not in fact depicting death springing from death? No, she is not. She has spent her entire professional life drawing upon death to create something hopeful – transcendental – and her ultimate motivation is positive. Life will ultimately triumph over all obstacles – even death.
Anthropologists often describe Western culture as death denying. It is indeed quite uncommon for most people to see a deceased person in our society, or to engage with the often unpleasant realities of death. Even departed loved ones are regularly farewelled without family members viewing the deceased. We are interested in – some might say obsessed by – success, achievement, material wealth and the achievement of power. But to some degree at least, these pursuits are ultimately hollow. On an individual or personal level, they are all rendered void by our ultimate demise. We “pass away” – die – and all is lost.
Morgan puts all this before us too. She does not soft sell death, nor does she promote a sentimental approach to the stark reality of extinction. Death is often ugly, and many of her works present this ugliness in a very confronting manner.
Prior to her studies at Queen Mary College, London, Morgan struggled with the death of one her best friends from an accidental heroin overdose. She viewed the body – the lifeless shell of a previously vibrant young woman with whom she had recently holidayed, laughed and loved. Does this represent the genesis of her fascination – some might say determination – to rescue something positive from death? Not according to Morgan herself, who is a resolutely practical woman unimpressed with psychological interpretations of her work and disinterested in self-analysis. “It was upsetting mainly because it didn’t look like her: that’s not her. It’s surreal. Very hard for a human being to get their head around.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard]. It is very possible that this sad event did subconsciously inspire her artistic endeavours at least in some way, and it is certainly a pointer to where much of her work would lead. Morgan goes to great lengths to create beautifully realistic taxidermy which captures the quintessential beauty her subjects possessed in life.
Morgan has also previously spoken of her country upbringing in the Cotswolds, where she was regularly exposed to the realities of the natural world through her participation in agricultural life. She observed the cycle of existence first-hand – both the confronting and the beautiful –.and developed a sensibility capable of recognising both the tragic and the redemptive.
Morgan herself represents “life” in all its fullness. She is young, attractive, intelligent, articulate, accomplished. The juxtaposition of her beauty with the morbid subject matter of her work may well be part of her appeal. She fits the “acceptable” pop culture celebrity model. She is very much a member of the current coterie of English art stars, alongside Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Banksy. (Banksy invited her to exhibit in his Santa’s Ghetto gallery in 2006). When the world’s most famous purveyor of street art thinks your work is worthy, you really have “arrived”. She is unpretentious but self-assured, and her work possesses a strong ethical foundation. She utilises only pre-deceased creatures – nothing is killed for her work. She frequently uses donations from vets and pet owners as source material for her artworks. Morgan has been quoted as saying that “…killing something and trying to make it look alive again is not a very natural thing to do.” [Collinge, M. (2010) Polly Morgan’s Wings of Desire, The Guardian]. Her underlying commitment to the ethical use of her animal subjects seems to inform her inherent confidence in her work, and also represents an effective repudiation of critics who might argue that her art is morbid or ghoulish.
In recent times, Morgan’s work has become more expansive. Her pieces are larger and some of the intimacy of her earlier work is – perhaps – missing. This could reflect an artist’s response to the challenges of career evolution. One cannot stand still in the art world, nor be a “one-trick pony”. A rise in the popularity of taxidermy after Morgan’s well-publicised career success may have something to with this as well – there is nothing more pressing than the need for differentiation when one is facing persistent competition. Regardless, Morgan does not appear to have lost sight of the essence of art, and even if she is no longer subverting conventions to quite the same degree, her work retains the power to inspire.
It is often said that where there’s life, there’s hope. Polly Morgan’s amazingly evocative work suggests that – perhaps – where there’s hope, there’s life.
Polly Morgan Exhibitions
- Still Life After Death, 2006 at Kristy Stubbs Gallery
- The Exquisite Corpse, 2007 at Trinity Church, 1 Marylebone Road
- You Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil, 2008 at White Cube
- Mythologies, 2009 at Haunch of Venison
- The Age of the Marvellous, 2009 at All Visual Arts
- Psychopomps, 2010 at Haunch of Venison
- Contemporary Eye: Crossovers, 2010 at Pallant House Gallery
- Passion Fruits, 2011 at ME Collectors Room
- Burials, 2011 at Workshop Venice
- Dead Time, 2011 at Voide, Derry
- Endless Plains, 2012 at All Visual Arts
- 10,000 Hours, 2012 at Kunstmuseum Thurgau
- Foundation/Remains, 2013 at The Office Gallery, Nicosia, Cyprus
- The Nature of the Beast, 2013 at The New Art Gallery, Walsall
- Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland, 2013 at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art