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July 9, 2010 11:07 pm
In a small studio in London’s Bethnal Green, Polly Morgan throws open her freezers to reveal an eclectic collection of dead animals. There are stoats, ravens, pigeons, canaries. Some still have all their fur or feathers; some are skinned, red raw. Morgan has a solo show coming up. She still has a lot of work to do.
Morgan, 30, is one of very few artists who work solely with taxidermy: dead animals are her medium. Unlike traditional taxidermists, she never mimics the natural habitats of animals, but places them in a discordant setting, expertly making each creature part of a visual riddle.
“When I first started working, I wanted to confound people’s expectations of taxidermy,” she says, “and free animals from the associations of their species. Now I’ve started using animals in a more symbolic way, not just to represent themselves.”
She cites her recent piece “Carrion Call”, in which chicks emerge, mouths agape, from a rotting coffin. “In a way I’m challenging people’s perception of chicks. But I’m also exploring the triumph of life over death and the fact that things die and things spring up all the time.”
Morgan is a member of the Guild of Taxidermists, and mounts all the animals herself. “I think my popularity is probably greater among those who are mistrustful of conceptual art as they can see I’ve put the work in and that appeals to their work ethic,” she explains. “I can sympathise with that ‘I could’ve done that and it’s not worth that’ feeling to an extent – it is more of a challenge to look at an unmade bed, reminiscent of the one you just dragged yourself out of to go to the gallery, and feel a sense of awe and wonder.”
Her career as an artist wasn’t planned. On leaving school she briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an actress but chose instead to go to university in London. The crucial step, though, was taking a job in a bar. “Working there changed everything,” she says.
The bar was east London’s Electricity Show Rooms, a key late-1990s art scene hangout. Morgan worked there for six years and became friends with many of the Young British Artists. She started going out with the artist Paul Fryer, an old friend of Damien Hirst’s from Leeds and a lynchpin of that group.
“I was really creatively frustrated at the time, and didn’t know what to do with my life,” she says. “I bought a big bag of clay and started sculpting and I was trying to write scripts and make short films ... Then I had the idea to try taxidermy.”
Morgan’s fascination with animals goes back to her childhood in the Cotswolds. “We didn’t have any money and my father was always trying to think up new ways to make some,” Morgan recalls. “First ostrich meat would be the way, then llamas or goats. We ended up saddled with hundreds of animals. Dad’s an eccentric and a real animal lover, he used to dissect them in front of me when they died to find out if they’d eaten something weird. I found that fascinating.”
She went up to Scotland for a lesson with the taxidermist George Jamieson in October 2004, and, inspired by the work of acclaimed Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter – whose anthropomorphic works include tableaux of squirrels playing cards – started mounting birds that her mother found for her by the side of the road, and placing them in unusual contexts.
Some of Morgan’s early pieces – a squirrel holding a bell jar with a fly perched inside on top of a sugar cube, a magpie with a jewel in its beak – were commissioned by another London bar; when the artist Banksy saw them, he offered her a pitch at his pop-up gallery, Santa’s Ghetto. She described her next piece – a rat curled up in a champagne coupe – to the artist and gallerist Wolfe Lenkiewicz, who gave it a place at the Zoo art fair in London. Vanessa Branson, Richard’s sister, bought it for £2,000 before the show even opened.
“Suddenly there was a piece about me in Art Review and I was interviewed on a news programme and I’d only been making taxidermy for a matter of months,” Morgan laughs. “I was friends with all these art college people who’d done art degrees and MAs and couldn’t get any press attention. And here was I ... I thought: ‘God, everyone’s going to hate me.’ But actually everyone was very supportive.”
What followed was a halcyon period when Morgan’s work began to sell for more and more. Then, in late 2008, disaster struck. “I was hit very badly by the credit crunch,” Morgan admits. “Suddenly everyone started withdrawing from sales and I realised I had nothing big lined up. I had to borrow some money from a friend and started looking for bar work. It’s almost worse to have a bit of success and then suffer failure. It was humiliating ... but also galvanising. Not selling anything for six to eight months meant I thought a lot harder about what I was making.”
The hiatus gave her time to work on a piece she had been thinking about for months. “Departures” consists of 30 birds – from finches to vultures – harnessed to, and appearing to carry, a man-sized cage. Loosely modelled on a whimsical Victorian invention, it was Morgan’s largest work to date and sold for £85,000. This allowed her to continue working as an artist full time.
Meanwhile, Morgan had started a relationship with Mat Collishaw, an artist on the fringes of the YBA circle, whose work is, if anything, more macabre than Morgan’s: his contribution to the 1997 “Sensation” exhibition at London’s Royal Academy was a large photographic study of a bullet wound in a head. At present, though, the couple only see each other at weekends, as Morgan is working hard for Psychopomps, her upcoming solo show. Named after the mythical creatures supposed to transport souls to the afterlife, it consists of four large winged sculptures – but this time the animals are monstrous hybrids.
As Morgan talks me through the exhibition, her Staffordshire bull terrier, Trotsky, jumps up and down, pawing her knees excitedly. If only he knew.
‘Psychopomps’ is at Haunch of Venison, London W1, from July 21 to September 25, www.haunchofvenison.com
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