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  • Subject area(s): English Literature
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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P This essay will examine the work of Polly Morgan in terms of its value. The values which appear to be most relevant in the context of her work are the value to the maker, the user and wider society and these include aesthetic, cultural and traditional values. Polly Morgan is a taxidermy artist whose methods are traditional and her wider inspiration reflects the Victorian aesthetic, however the work she produces is unexpected and often challenging.  The works focused on here include Carrion Call (2009), Departures (2009) and her work Still Birth (2010). Polly Morgan’s training was unorthodox, initially she studied English literature and began as a journalist and a range of other occupations, however, she was inspired to make things, and said that during childhood she had wanted to keep the bodies of her pets after they died and she regards her work now “as an opportunity to freeze that moment" (Philby 2010).

 Morgan grew up among animals and was used to their mortality, also her parents autopsied their dead livestock and did not shield her from these events and she “I decided early on that I wanted to work with animals that had died natural or unpreventable deaths” (What do Artists do all Day? 2013). However her training began when she got on a train to Edinburgh and worked with professional taxidermist George Jamieson for a day, later she returned to Edinburgh for a week with Jamieson for some more training. “‘I started off learning taxidermy with no particular intention to become an artist but neither did I want to be a traditional taxidermist, mounting pets or hunting trophies’, nor part of the ‘creative’ tradition which was a sort of nineteenth century proto-surrealism of which the most famous practitioner was Walter Potter” (Haden-Guest 2010 pg12). David Gauntlet has written that “making is connecting” and that through creating and sharing objects ‘we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments”() Morgan does not do taxidermy on a personal scale, as she perhaps imagined she might as a child, but works on themes and issues which have universal relevance such as death, communication and flight. Her take on these issues is often laced with humour which adds appeal as well as complexity and so engages the viewer according to their own personal experience.  The delicacy of her work emphasises the fragility of the lives she works with. Bruce Metcalf writes of the place of art in our consumer society where we “constantly encounter anonymous, machine-made objects … our culture hungers for objects in which we can still detect a human presence” ()Morgan’s work is an example of how this human presence is manifested through a complex and creative process.

Fig 1 Morgan, P. Carrion Call (2009)

Carrion Call is a piece made up of wood and taxidermied quail chicks. This work shows a coffin shaped box bursting with chicks showing the life that comes from death like maggots multiplying on a corpse. The box is of re-cycled stained dark wood giving it the appearance of something that may have been disinterred, the chicks are attempting to escape wherever there is a hole in the coffin and their pale bodies contrast with the darkness of the coffin.  

    Fig 2 Morgan, P. Carrion Call (2009)

fig 3 Morgan, P. Departures (2009) fig 4 Morgan, P. Systematic Inflammation 2010  

Departures (2009) and Systematic Inflammation (2010) both featured metal and taxidermied birds which surround a circular cage like structure. These works show a flying contraption based on a drawing of a natural flying machine made in 1865, in this drawing a man stands within a cage and is being lifted into the air by multiple birds which are somehow attached to this contraption. Morgan spoke of this piece “My desire to make things a little bit less ornamental and more monumental. I wanted to see if I could be the sort of artist that commands a space.” (What do Artists do all Day? 2013). There are two versions of the work, Departures using brass, leather and wood with a variety of birds and is a much larger work measuring 400 X 250 cm, and the other Systematic Inflammation which uses steel and leather and dyed canaries and finches measures 130 X 113cm. Morgan states that the reason that the finches and canaries were dyed orange was to look like the cage was ascending from the fires of hell (Kennaway 2010 pg94) This work was sold for £85,000, and “based on a Victorian flying machine, is an enormous, ghoulish construction consisting of countless starlings, pigeons, canaries and three huge white-backed vultures, all in flight and strapped to a circular frame with leather harnesses”. (Philby 2010)

Fig 5 Morgan, P. Still Birth 2010

The final piece I will examine here is Still Birth (2010) this work shows a pheasant chick which appears to be suspended by a balloon inside a glass display dome which is very reminiscent of the domes used to display Victorian taxidermy and the shape chosen also resembles the shape of bird cages.  The taxidermied pheasant chick is not suspended but impaled on wire placed underneath the bird, the ‘balloons’ are actually made from resin and what appears to be the string is actually a vertical wire support. The birds droop with closed eyes and are apparently dead. This work is part of a series which includes a variety of colour, both of balloons and chicks.

The viewer of Morgan’s work is immediately faced with questions of life and death, taxidermy as a craft deals with death, this is inescapable and in traditional taxidermy the aim is to make the creature seem alive or at least appears as it might have in life. However in Morgan’s work death is frequently underlined and emphasised as in Still Birth, and even Carrion Call, where although the chicks appear alive the are coming from death and a coffin. Yet she has said "I'm not a morbid person, I'm actually really optimistic. I hate the fact that death hangs over us all our lives" (What do Artists do all Day? 2013). Her inspiration for Carrion Call was a decomposing blackbird which was ‘riddled with maggots … a corpse becoming a nest for new life’ (Kennaway 2010 pg 86) She however frequently denies a preoccupation with death:  “Very often when people look at my work certainly if they are not thinking deeply about it, they think it’s about death because I’ve used a dead animal but I would say to that a charcoal drawing isn’t about dead [sic] because it’s made out of dead wood” (Ibid). (What do Artists do all Day? 2013).

Alongside this necessary preoccupation with the process of death she has described her work as “part butchery, part sculpture." (Philby 2010) her work displays a black sense of humour, this is demonstrated in Still Birth where her use of ‘balloons’ could be interpreted as being used to lift the corpses to heaven, or womb-like the chickens are attached by umbilical cords Her humour is also sometimes manifested by the play on words through her titles Carrion Call, referring to clarion call, Departures could reference departure from life, departure on a journey or even bird migration, Receiver which features birds in a Bakelite handset and Dead Ringer a magpie placed across the telephone instead of the receiver handset. “Chicks are just mouths really, there’s very little more to them than the mouth, the mouth is really oversized in relation to the body and that’s all they are about at that point and there’s something very frenzied and terrifying about that need to be fed.”  (What do Artists do all Day? 2013). Morgan frequently speaks and writes of the significance and value of her work on a personal level, she does not want to be seen as someone who mounts pets and trophies but to challenge established ideas, at 17 she was “shocked and delighted when I saw ‘Sensation’; everything there was new to me and I couldn’t believe it was ok to show children with cocks for noses in a gallery. I’d always loved irreverence but it was rarely allowed and I’d trained myself to stifle it. It was exciting to discover a place for it” (Kennaway 2010 pg68) She has spoken of her childhood experiences and how they influence the work, and there seems to be evidence that she has a need to express her feelings and ideas through her work and although she admires the traditional skills of taxidermy she sees herself as an artist not a craft taxidermist and has said in interview “another reason is that I don’t have the same priorities as taxidermists who want as precise a representation of the animals as can be… I sometimes manipulate their forms to my own ends – a taxidermist would never do that. So I prefer sculpture, it’s a broader term.”   (Kennaway 2010 pg101)

However the ideas she intends to convey may not be those perceived by those who view her work, it’s possible that viewers who expect the naturalism and even monumentalism of traditional taxidermy may not appreciate the black humour and may also question her choice of animal in that the traditional choices were rarely magpies and day old chicks:  "I have no emotional attachment to the animals in my pieces, I don't dwell on their lives. It would be very different if I knew him or her." (Philby 2010)

There is certainly an element of wider cultural value in her choice of the craft of taxidermy to express her ideas and her use of Victorian articles such as the cages and domes in Still Birth and Departures and there is also a perceivable influence of Steam Punk in her combination of the traditional Victorian tropes and her contemporary and often uncanny challenge to the viewer.  

 

 

QUOTES

What do artists do all day?

 “I often have dreams that I’m working on a bird and it comes alive and attacks me”

 “There’s something touching about that humans need to fly, we’re earth bound creatures but yet we want to go deep sea diving we want to go up in the air we want to experience everything and we sort of have bird envy” (departures and systematic inflammation)

“I hate ornaments and never buy anything that I can’t use, yet ironically have always been compelled to make things that serve no obvious purpose.” CONCLUSION

“Chicks trying to feed I find personally quite a kind of shocking & alarming image any suckling babies really they are like parasites really and that’s all they do.” (Carrion call)

Carrion Call was made out of old floorboards and displays how life can come from death in a multitude of senses the old floorboards would have been thrown away, the birds would have rotted and disintegrated into nothing. And some bollocks about the circle of life.   

“. We need objects that somebody has already loved, so that we can more easily love them ourselves. By doing so, we find meaning in our lives.” –A Really Good Goldsmith – Bruce Metcalf CONCLUSION

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