About this episode:
Polly Morgan is a modern artist known for her sculptural taxidermy. Growing up in pastoral Oxfordshire, she’s been surrounded by animals from an early age. After moving to London to read English literature at university, she took a one-day course in avian taxidermy in a bid to decorate her new home. Polly’s interest accelerated from hobby to career when one of her pieces – “Rest a Little on the Lap of Life”, a white rat curled up inside a champagne glass – was sold to Vanessa Branson. Since then, her work has featured in an abundance of galleries including Banksy’s Santa Ghetto exhibition. In this in-depth interview, Polly talks us through her artistic techniques from observing and washing animal skins to forming casts, describes the feeling of creative loneliness that inspired her latest collaborative exhibition, and explains how her work is reinventing traditional victorian taxidermy – by creating abstract art that focuses on “form and colour rather than life and death.”
N.B. We apologise for the reduced sound quality of this episode due to circumstances outside our control.
Right off the bat, I need to apologise to Polly and to you, our listeners, for the poor sound quality of this episode. Kev, our sound technician, has done a brilliant job cleaning up the audio, but – being a new podcast – we’re still coming to grips with the reality that in a battle between Natural History enthusiast and ferocious air conditioning unit, the A/C wins hands down. Damn you technology! Another excuse perhaps for us to stop using energy draining temperature controlling machines. Anyway…
To be greeted at the Tram Shed restaurant by Damien Hirst’s “Cock ‘n’ Bull” was a brilliant way to prepare for Polly. My producers couldn’t have leapt quicker to take photos of the floating beasts as we arrived at the restaurant well before opening hours. The animals in formaldehyde placed Polly’s work wonderfully into a particular context: Polly following in Damien’s footsteps, yet present here in a collaborative exhibition with the next generation of conceptual artist, Robert Cooper.
Polly arrived wearing fur: a rabbit fur gilet which seemed almost “Arts and Crafts”-y in it’s blend of the functional with a natural aesthetic beauty. I’ve usually taken issue with people wearing fur in the modern world. It often seems garish, and spiteful. Flaunting animal cruelty in a world that need not exploit animals for their skins anymore. But seeing Polly in rabbit made perfect sense – like seeing a carpenter with a toolbelt. This was her childhood, her craft, her professional skin, and – as she would go on to say – she has never had an animal killed for her work. As if it wasn’t obvious from where we were talking in a room full of taxidermied snakes, Polly lives a life just a fraction out of sync (and brilliantly so) with most of society.
I had been looking forward to interviewing Polly for an incredibly long time. Ever since my encounter with “Hanging in the Balance” five or so years ago, I found myself in agreement with the women who bought Polly’s rat in champagne glass. I am shocked by how beautiful I find her work. In my opinion, Polly continues to celebrate the animals she immortilises. Her work has never seemed dark or troubling to me. Her work is witty in the face of our universal mortality.
For many, snakes are scary or indeed worse – I blame Medusa, Voldemort and Indiana Jones for this (not necessarily in that order) – and so I can image why this current exhibition may not be for everyone. Similarly so, seeing their serpent skins in rucksacks and refrigerators is a little discomforting – an animal out of context is jarring. It resurrected a shocking childhood memory – that of my bare foot finding a slug unexpectedly in my wellington boot – the wellie having been left outside overnight after a long walk. Her work (this exhibition being no exception) cannot help but elicit a dynamic response, and I hope you can find the time to go and see it.
For the record, the sunday school mentioned in the podcast that barred my childself’s access to Marwell Zoo’s Pythons was not one attached to my father’s church. I’m fairly certain Dad’s understanding of Christian Dogma would have been completely tolerant to snakes as biblical learning tools! Truth be told, I don’t know why we weren’t allowed to have snakes in the church hall. But I remain utterly grateful to the Sunday School Teacher for introducing us to animals and their symbolism. As is the way, one never forgets a great teacher.
POLLY MORGAN – WEBSITE:
HIX GALLERY, HOST OF “ARE THEY ALL YOURS”:
THE TRAMSHED RESTAURANT:
GET STUFFED (TAXIDERMIST ON ESSEX ROAD):
GEORGE JAMIESON (POLLY’S ORIGINAL TAXIDERMY INSTRUCTOR):
POLLY MORGAN AT THE HORNIMAN MUSEUM: