Call of the Wild: Polly Morgan

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Installation view of Polly Morgan's Receiver in Revival

Installation view of Polly Morgan’s Receiver in Revival

Polly Morgan (b. 1980, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England)

Growing up in the countryside, Polly Morgan always had a pack of unusual pets keeping her company, forcing her to learn about living with animals. Only after she moved to London did she realize how fascinating their bodies became in death. Today, Morgan makes a career out of crafting haunting sculptures from taxidermy animal carcasses.

Morgan’s work straddles scientific and artistic disciplines. Although she follows in the footsteps of scientific convention, she endows even this process a meaning beyond preservation. Her work forces viewers to contemplate death even as she incorporates taxidermy animals into vibrant sculptures, marking a simultaneous rejection and acceptance of death’s place in life.

The Artist’s Voice:

“I’m not a morbid person, I’m actually really optimistic. I hate the fact that death hangs over us all our lives. I see [the aesthetic of the body] as a raw material to work with; with no soul left, the body becomes a beautiful ornament.”—Polly Morgan, interview in The Independent

“Taxidermy is an ultimately futile effort to harness nature, it allows us to manipulate and control the body of an animal in a way we would struggle, or in my case would not wish, to in life. . . . Most objects can be art; a urinal, a bed, etc. A dead animal presents a problem in that it decays and can therefore only exist a finite amount of time before being altered irrevocably. Taxidermy has thus allowed me to incorporate animals in my work the way other sculptors use ‘found objects.’”—Polly Morgan, interview in Broad Strokes

Polly Morgan, Receiver, 2009; Taxidermy quail chicks and Bakelite telephone handset, 9 x 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Ilene Gutman; © Polly Morgan; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Polly Morgan, Receiver, 2009; Taxidermy quail chicks and Bakelite telephone handset, 9 x 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Ilene Gutman; © Polly Morgan; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revival Highlight:

Receiver (2009), featured in Revival, illustrates Morgan’s capacity for duality in her work. In this piece seven chicks poke their heads from the receiver end of a telephone, beaks agape. Though their tiny heads and nestled bodies imply a tender helplessness in youth, the mere sight of their open beaks evokes a grating shrill in the viewer’s mind.

Morgan incorporates the natural into the artificial, drawing revealing parallels between the chicks and their unexpected nest. Despite representing the possibility of tender interpersonal connection, too often technology like the telephone becomes an outlet for aggression rather than affection, replacing compassion with confrontation. Even as the chicks evoke nurturing tenderness in the viewer, their implied proximity to the listener’s ear makes their pleas a confrontational disruption to gentler discourse. By combining the natural and artificial Morgan draws discomfort from what should represent convenience, calling into question the intention and functional use behind communicative technology such as the phone through deliberate visual dissonance. 

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Questions with Polly Morgan

The fourth installment of NMWA’s biennial exhibition series, Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition’s artists redefine the relationship between women, art, and nature. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Polly Morgan
Nominating committee: Friends of NMWA, U.K. / Consulting curator: Lisa Le Feuvre, Henry Moore Institute

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Systemic Inflammation relates to the broad theme of nature? What does the use of taxidermy in your works allow you to do that you could not do with any other media?

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Taxidermy is an ultimately futile effort to harness nature, it allows us to manipulate and control the body of an animal in a way we would struggle, or in my case would not wish, to in life. Systemic Inflammation reimagines a Victorian invention for a flying machine; where a passenger would be transported by birds shackled to a carriage. Flight, or more specifically wings, is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Seeing these birds outside of, but harnessed to, the cage presents a paradox: who is free, passenger or bird?

Most objects can be art; a urinal, a bed, etc. A dead animal presents a problem in that it decays and can therefore only exist a finite amount of time before being altered irrevocably. Taxidermy has thus allowed me to incorporate animals in my work the way other sculptors use “found objects.”

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does it fit into your larger body of work?

With this work I was thinking of the mythological Phoenix rising from the ashes. I chose to use only orange birds as I wanted them to resemble flames, and to blacken and burn the cage to make it look as though it had been dragged from a fire. Like many of my works it reflects on the cycle of life and death, so in this way is representative of my oeuvre.

Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus

Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

It might sound trite, but my brain. My practice is more and more varied and the most consistent tool I use is my imagination. Practically speaking I wouldn’t be able to get very far with just one tool, but a scalpel would be high on the list of essentials!

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

I never know what or whom I’ll be inspired by so it’s just important to try to keep spending time with interesting people, reading books, watching films and seeing exhibitions. Many of my favorite ideas have come to me when I’m walking my dogs as it’s an opportunity to rest my mind and to cut back on aural stimulation.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I recently saw the work of American artist Sarah Sze at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. I love her use of everyday, even scrap, objects and think of her as being one of those alchemical artists who can elevate the mundane and give it depth and beauty.

Victorian Decadence & Visual Decay

Polly Morgan’s Systemic Inflammation is a striking artwork in Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015. Featuring small yellow and orange birds rising from a tethered position atop a charred metal cage, this work exemplifies the way that the exhibition addresses modern society’s complex relationship with the environment.

Morgan spoke about her work during Member Day at the museum. A literature student, Morgan never intended to become an artist. Unsatisfied with decorative taxidermy options for her home, Morgan decided to make a work herself. She trained with a Scottish taxidermist and adopted the scientific process as an untapped contemporary art medium.

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photograph by Laura Hoffman

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photography by Laura Hoffman

Morgan is absorbed by the idea that humans, “as earth-bound creatures,” constantly attempt to push the limits of flight. Her use of birds and focus on wings highlight her fascination. Morgan also draws heavily from Victorian imagery—as seen in her works containing large ornate cages and glass terrariums. Systemic Inflammation pays homage to a drawing of a Victorian flying machine. affixed with a delicate bouquet of birds and evocative of a rising phoenix.

The use of dead animals in art immediately alludes to themes of death—but Morgan’s objective is not fully focused on death. She sees the triumph of life and discusses how terrifying the fight for life can be versus the peaceful state of death.

Departing from smaller works like Still Birth (Red), Morgan attempted to “command more space, become less ornamental and more monumental.” Her focus became more about juxtaposition and finding new ways to view nature. Her most recent work creates abstract forms from the bodies of snakes—resulting in a surprising and new type of sculpture.

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Another work in NMWA’s collection connects visually to Morgan’s art. Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 is an immense wax sculpture—both incredibly foreboding and lush with excess. It seems to grow and decay before the viewer. The sugary white and pastel pink of the work do not immediately recall Coyne’s darker works. Untitled #781 is part of a series about the experience of being a woman. It references the beautiful and fanciful expectations Coyne had as a young girl. The work is both feminine and sexual in nature, reminiscent of a cake or a wedding dress. It is a work fit for a modern Marie Antoinette.

Coyne’s art is influenced by literature, personal memories, Catholic theology, and baroque sculpture.

The macabre beauty of Coyne’s art brings a Victorian flair—similar to that found in Morgan’s art—to her incredibly modern oeuvre. Coyne changes her medium constantly, using taxidermy animals and dead fish in other works.

Petah Coyne and Polly Morgan are influenced by the art of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. Both artists bring forth otherworldly creations through extremely labor and time intensive processes. The results are stunning works of art which connect to nature and have a monumental presence.

Visit the museum to see Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 through September 13, 2015 and watch Polly Morgan’s gallery talk to learn more about the artist.

—Brittany Fiocca is the education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.