Start a conversation about British contemporary art and Polly Morgan's name will undoubtedly come up. Her work is critically acclaimed, and also attracts the interest of celebrity collectors such as Kate Moss and Courtney Love who willingly offer six-figure sums to have one of her pieces in their lives.
Morgan is also one of the reasons why we have seen an upsurge in taxidermy, a fact she fully acknowledges and is not entirely comfortable with. With no regulatory practice in place, it seems you can't swing a stuffed cat in East London without knocking over a scalpel-wielding wannabe. As someone who has studied the craft of taxidermy for over ten years, Morgan couldn't be further removed.
Ahead of the opening of her latest exhibition at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in Mayfair, London, we met with the artist to discuss her first time with a snake, taxidermy posers and the many meanings of the word box.
How did this exhibition come about? Did The Box inspire the concept or was this an existing idea that you wanted to do anyway?
It was a little bit of both. I'd wanted to deconstruct taxidermy and show the inner workings in some way but I hadn't had an idea that I liked enough. I knew I wanted to do it with a snake because they're quite phallic and banana-like and the idea of peeling back on something cylindrical like that seemed to work. So there was a germ of an idea there, then Pippy Houldsworth got in touch and asked if I'd be interested in doing a project for The Box.
Suddenly that initial germ of an idea started to materialize, because it felt really appropriate -- the idea of the snake and the branch being quite phallus-like and then the box, slang for vagina, which is obviously an opening.
How did you find working within the space?
I really like being given restrictions to work within, like when you have to create something for a particular space or a piece that aligns with a particular idea. Although my first reaction is always to panic and think, "oh no I can't do what I want," but then I find it really helpful as you can suddenly discard so many things and it narrows down your focus.
You're the first person to go through the glass and branch outside of The Box...
Yeah, "outside of the box," I keep saying that and Jon [exhibitions manager at Pippy Houldsworth] was like, "You have to stop saying that." Apparently I am so we'll see how that goes down. I've done quite a few things like that before. For the Endless Plains show I cremated some birds and drew the nests with the cremated remains and then put a dead bird on top of the frame. It was shown in a museum in Scotland and one of the invigilators wrenched the bird off and threw it in the bin because he thought a bird had flown in, got stuck and died on there. When the woman from the museum called me, she expected me to freak out but I thought it was really funny and quite sweet really.
What is this work about?
It's about things unravelling. They start very perfectly, then slowly the inner workings become apparent. It's like when you get to know someone or something really well. Your first perception and the reality are always so different and I wanted to somehow illustrate that with taxidermy. So I made the head of the snake and the branch perfectly rendered. But once the skin has been stitched up, it starts to fade drastically so I had to paint it to look like the real thing, but as you go down the body it's really faded and the real materials come through.
I don't want to be as specific as to say it's about two people in love and the breakdown of a relationship, I use that as an example because it's the most obvious thing I suppose. I'm thinking much more generally about the difference between initial perception and reality and how different the two are. There's a huge gaping chasm between them, and taxidermy is a perfect way of illustrating that. The whole idea is to make something look like something else, it's a kind of trick I suppose.
Can you tell me more about the process?
I did the snake from the tail to the head and I was really peeling it like a banana and that takes a while because you have to cut through the membrane and be careful not to knick the skin. Then you defat and deflesh the skin and build a body based on the original one so you're effectively building a sculpture based on what you've just removed and putting the skin back on it. Because this one is wrapped around a branch I used quite a lot of modeling material called Compo which is a mixture of paper pulp and plaster. But you have to imagine how the body would have moved or responded to the branch so you have to do that from observation and looking at lots of pictures. I carved the head out of some foam with a little bit of modeling material and then used glass for the eyes.
I really enjoyed it, it's the first snake I've ever done.
Do you think you'll work more with snakes?
Yes, definitely, I've got a show coming up in Exeter where I'm going to shape a snake in a figure of eight with no head or tail. My assistant has been trying to get hold of some for me, calling up pet shops and places and we were having no luck whatsoever. Then on Monday, after literally spending the whole day on the phone she said there's a guy with a whole freezer full of snakes and you can have them! So on Friday she's going to a reptile centre in Bristol with a suitcase and she's going to fill it with dead frozen snakes and come back again. I know! Mental.
Where did this snake come from?
It was this guy's pet. He normally sends me birds, the snake was kind of thrown in. Totally unexpected!
So you have regular suppliers that you source from?
I have loads, I've got a book full of people who keep birds and various animals. If I'm looking for something specific I'll target, actually target sounds much more aggressive than it should do! I'll look online and find out who breeds the animals or who was there at the point of death and then I'll start calling around and say that if in the future anything dies can they let me know. Generally people respond pretty well to it but you do get the occasional "fuck off." Trial and error really.
I read that you're moving away from taxidermy?
I'm not moving away from it, I just don't want to crow bar it into my work for the sake of it just because I think that's what is expected of me. I have made some works without any taxidermy in at all and it's quite scary in a way because I wonder if anyone will take any notice or care! So far they've been quite well received but they're few and far between at the moment.
The taxidermy craze seems to still be in full swing. I can pay £80 and sign up for a course where I go home with my very own bat in a bell jar. What are your thoughts on it all?
I don't mind that it's become popular, I don't own taxidermy. When I started 10 years ago all the practitioners that I knew were really concerned that it was going to die out so it's great that it has become popular and an old craft has been reinvigorated. But I am so sick of seeing stuffed heads with crystals dripping from them and all that crap. The issue is that people are doing it very badly, there are people running those courses who can't do taxidermy and they're teaching some very poor skills.
You can't learn it overnight. I wouldn't feel confident holding a class and I've been doing it for 10 years. Unfortunately, there's no regulation so people can capitalize and rip people off because it has become a trend. And then there's this weird thing of people trying to get famous through taxidermy, like these girls on Instagram calling themselves "hot taxidermists" stood next to a dead animal. I don't like the fetishizing of death that goes with it, people posing with the corpses with red lips and high heels on. Very weird and pretty tasteless.
Saying that, I'm optimistic. Cream rises to the top.
How do you feel about being becoming a pin-up for contemporary British art?
I don't know about that! I mean it's great because obviously I want my work to be seen but I've never courted the press and I say no to a lot of things, especially TV. I would hate to get to a point where I thought it was taking over the work and I did feel a bit like that at one point so I pulled back a bit.
What TV did you say no to?
There was this awful one where the production company said they would get however many Z list celebrities on and I would have to teach them taxidermy. Loads of weird reality stuff that I would just never do. On the other hand I did this amazing thing called What Do Artists Do All Day? which was great. I was really nervous about it but it was all about the work and it was a nice old fashioned documentary which I really liked. I don't really like being filmed though, I find it hard to get on.
Images courtesy of Polly Morgan
Text by Leila De Vito for Crane.tv