08/24/2010 05:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Polly Morgan's Psychopomps Escorts One into the After-Life

By Kiša Lala

Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010, Taxidermy finches and canaries, steel, leather © Polly Morgan
"Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010, Taxidermy finches and canaries, steel, leather © Polly Morgan"

UK artist Polly Morgan's artworks have rarely been exhibited across the pond, and for that matter, they may well be quarantined before we get a closer look. Morgan trained early in her career as a taxidermist, specializing in skinning and mounting animals before recontexutalizing her work in a gallery setting, presenting the stuffed, trussed specimens like bizarre Victorian curios: rats in champagne glasses, dead chicks spilling out of the crevices of old coffins, and exquisite corpses entombed in jewellery cases. But within these fanciful visions lie an implicit meditation on death.

Flight of Fancy (Nuthatch)
"Flight of Fancy (Nuthatch), 2009 Crystal jewellery box, 2009 Crystal jewellery boxtaxidermy Nuthatch, © Polly Morgan"

In Psychopomps, her latest solo-show at Haunch of Venison in London, she presents the animals as mythical flying creatures that convey souls into the after-life. The suspended taxidermist sculptures are fabulous allusions to their mythological counterparts, death's escorts like Hermes and Charon and Anubis the jackal-headed Egyptian God, or the Norse Valkyries, who choose those who die in battle and bring them into Valhalla.

"Carrion Call, (Detail) 2009 by Polly Morgan. Wooden coffin, taxidermy quail chicks"

"Left: Polly Morgan Still Birth (Purple), 2010, Taxidermy pheasant chick"

In one such Psychopomp, a preserved cardinal is suspended inside a bare white ribcage and in another, the birds carry off their cage rather than be imprisoned by it. A composite of crow feathers like a monstrous swarm suggests a metamorphosis, a transitional state for the soul in its flight from life.

Morgan is not unique in her fascination with stuffed dead things, Maurizio Cattelan and the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping are among those who have brought humor and poignancy to the morbid world of corpses. When Deyrolle burned down in Paris, many artists rushed to salvage the crisped mummified bears and tigers from the ashes - but Morgan alone has apprenticed in the art of preserving the moment of death before the onset of decay.

The artist grew up in the Cotswolds with rather an eccentric upbringing, surrounded by goats and llamas and an animal-loving father who insisted on dissecting them to ascertain the cause of their deaths. Morgan has said she would not create taxidermies of an animal she had known when alive, but has become habituated to using the animals as material for her art much like an artist might use paint. Instead of a fear of death, Morgan's sculptures evoke a magical sense of transformation, a celebration and anticipation of the journey beyond.

Polly Morgan, Psychopomp, Haunch of Venison, 6 Burlington Gardens, till September 25th 2010

All Photographs Courtesy of Haunch of Venison