Saturday, November 01, 2008

Art Space Talk: Polly Morgan

Photograph by Gino Sprio

Polly Morgan is a British artist who utilizes taxidermy within the context of her work. Polly creates still lives with animals as her subject-- which she places in unexpected scenes. By observing these pieces the viewer is encouraged to look at the animals as if for the first time. The preserved animals are either road casualties or have been donated to the artist by pet owners and vets after natural or unpreventable deaths. Polly Morgan is rapidly becoming a name to watch among a new generation of British artists. Her work can be found in the art collection of Vanessa Branson and Kate Moss.

Someone on the Phone, 2006

Brian Sherwin: Polly, at the time of this interview you are currently exhibiting in New York having been included in gallerist Steve Lazarides exhibit titled The Outsiders. The exhibit includes works by Antony Micallef and Jonathan Yeo. I’ve been told that the exhibit has been very successful. In fact, one report suggests that the exhibit has received more traffic than the Gilbert & George retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. What can you tell us about the exhibit? Were you present for the opening?

Polly Morgan: I’m afraid very little. I couldn’t make the opening and wasn’t involved in the show other than to advise over installation of my work, sorry.

BS: An interesting aspect about your work is the fact that you are a legal taxidermist in the UK. You utilize your skills as a taxidermist in order to make still lives with animals as the subject. Can you tell us about your interest in taxidermy? Who did you study under?

PM: I’m only legal in that I don’t break the law, IE. By killing protected animals, there is no qualifications recognized by law in the UK that I know of-- anyone can do it. However, I did choose to learn from an expert, George Jamieson in Edinburgh who has been a taxidermist for 40 years, as I wanted to do as good a job of it as I could-- it’s easy to make bad taxidermy!
I’ve always loved taxidermy and was never creeped by it. I just loved the access it gave me to animals that, in life, would run away from me when I approached.
Former Things, 2007

BS: I understand that you did not begin working as a fine artist until 2005--- were you a taxidermist before that time or did you learn the trade specifically for your art? Did the process of meshing the two interests evolve over time or did you simply jump into it?

PM: It was all very unplanned. I simply wanted to learn taxidermy, which I did in 2004 and practiced over the year when I came upon a corpse. I was asked by a friend with a bar/restaurant (Bistrotheque) to taxidermy some animals for four belljars they wanted to fill. With no brief, I used my imagination and came up with what I liked. What was meant to be a small ‘unveiling’ turned into a big party with lots of art world people that I knew from running a bar in Hoxton Square.

Bizarrely, Banksy turned up and was an early champion of my work. As well as the artist and gallerist Wolfe Lenkiewicz, who encouraged me to make work for his stand at the Zoo Art Fair. I had much interest and many sales from then on and it all happened organically from there. I had a lucky start.

Understudy, 2008

BS: As far as art is concerned… can you discuss some of your influences?

PM: My major influences are my friends really as I don’t come from an art background and therefore don’t have much knowledge to draw on art history wise. I have lived in East London for ten years and become friends with lots of artists living and working in the area. The artist Paul Fryer has been a major influence on me, we’re very close and he has always given me advice on how best to realize my ideas. Mat Collisha is good at recommending shows he thinks I’d like and artists I should investigate and Wolfe Lenkievicz is good at giving me his very honest opinion on my work.

The only artist I have ever consciously referenced is Dali with my melting cutlery. Someone pointed out that a white-framed glass box I exhibited work in was similar to Damien Hirst’s display cases. I absorb things from people that work around me, but I am not always good at spotting it when it comes out in my work.
MS Found in a Bottle, 2008

BS: I recently interviewed Jessica Joslin, a Chicago based artist who creates sculptures involving various animal bones. Jessica made the legal aspect of her practice very clear. She also touched on some of the reactions that people have had about her work. Can you discuss some of the reactions viewers have had concerning your work? When faced with controversy how do you explain your intentions to an upset viewer?

PM: I have a disclaimer on my website making it clear that none of my animals are killed for my use, but it doesn’t stop everyone from being offended. I am generally impatient with people who take offense as none have come up with any very legitimate attacks.

I’ve had people say it’s irresponsible to show my work to children, which I find absurd as I’ve never met a child who isn’t intrigued and thrilled by it. Parents teach their children to recoil from these things-- the natural response is curiosity and children learn by being curious.

Another criticism is by people who believe I go around having animals killed for my work. That, to me, would completely defeat the object. To kill an animal in order to try to make it look alive again is perverse so I wouldn’t.

Another criticism is that it’s disrespectful to the animal to cut it open post-death. I’m not sentimental about corpses. I’d never work on a human corpse as it would upsetting to the relative of the person. Animals don’t follow the same codes as us-- they eat their dead. Birds don’t cluster around graves to mourn so I think the question of respecting a corpse is pretty redundant.

BS: Would you say that your work is a form of activism?

PM: I’m not sure what you mean. While it certainly has nothing to do with animal rights, I think animals are beautiful. I think their beauty can be lost in some traditional taxidermy. I’m a fan of traditional taxidermy, but if not done perfectly it can look unintentionally humorous. While I’m not the worlds best taxidermist, I hope the animals beauty is preserved through the poses or settings I put them in, as opposed to because I’ve rendered them anatomically accurately.

BS: Polly, can you discuss some of the legal aspects of your work. For example, if an artist is interested in learning taxidermy do you have any advice for them? At least from a UK perspective?

PM: Don’t kill anything-- there are plenty of animals dying for other reasons all the time that are obtainable from the side of the roads in the country or dragged in by friend’s cats, etc. Join the Guild of Taxidermists( where you can get the details of many taxidermists who are credited by the guild-- the highest stamp of approval available in Britain, and possibly tuition too.

Testament (Robin), 2007

BS: I assume a great deal of planning is involved with your practice. Can you give us an idea of your thought process while working? For example, do you have an idea of how you will utilize the preserved corpse of an animal as you are preparing it or do you create the environment that it will be placed in later? In other words, does the overall concept come first or does it evolve as you work?

PM: I should plan more. The best taxidermy is well planned as it is good to have an idea of how its going to be positioned while you skin it. My early work was rarely planned, IE. The bluetit on prayerbook was an accident that came from placing down the skin while I built the body and realized the powerful poignancy it had as just a small back of relaxing bones. As my work has progressed I have begun to plan more and to actively seek certain animals rather than to just work with what I have.

To Every Seed His Own Body, 2006

BS: Finally, what can you tell us about your current work? Also, will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

PM: I’m in the very early planning stages of a new show and can’t really give more specific details than that, but I will update my website as soon as I have any firm plans. I am working on two shows; one where the work is based around mans’ various attempts at flying-- with life-sized installations of my interpretations of Victorian designs for flying machines. These feathered carriages or cages being drawn by harnessed birds in the sky. The other show will be to do with superstition and the arbitrary significance we attribute to things.

You can learn more about Polly Morgan by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

1 comment:

Cliffords Taxidermy said...

Very intresting. The photos look great and I like the theme. Polly takes taxidermy to the next level.