In a new body of work after a hiatus of several years, British taxidermist and sculptor Polly Morgan has returned her attention to questions of etiquette, critiquing codes of conduct as social control. While earlier works, such as Morning (2007), with its robin suspended midway through a shattered pane of glass, explored similar themes of entrapment and restriction, they concentrated on animal forms in their entirety. Morgan’s new sculptures take a more abstract approach, placing greater emphasis on materials and textures to focus on surfaces both physical and metaphorical. Imprisoning the protean malleability of the snake within rigid concrete and cast polystyrene forms, these tightly composed works enact the contortions and constraints necessary to social interaction while revealing their limitations.
Rajesh Punj: When we last spoke, you talked about the “problem” of narrative. Your works of the 2000s were considered suggestive of a story, but you were equally convinced of them as “sculptural entities” in and of themselves. Is narrative a more relevant device in your new works?
Polly Morgan: Not really, no. I don’t want to make work that is literally “about” something. I prefer making a body of work, each thing connecting to the other in some way, with a shared shape, surface, or color. This draws links between disparate objects and raises questions. I’m not trying to answer those questions, to tell anyone how to think, or to tell a particular story.
RP: There was a sense then that you were an outsider, creating very unconventional works on the margins of the art world. Is that still the case, and how have you negotiated that in establishing yourself?
PM: I have never felt established. I am unrepresented; though this can bring benefits, it also makes me question my legitimacy. Curators, buyers, and art enthusiasts are generally reassured by the endorsement of a gallery because it reaffirms their judgment. It can be hard to keep putting work out into the world when no one is asking you to make it. It’s a very strange space to occupy, but one I have so far managed to survive. I do appreciate not having to answer to anyone and having time to develop my ideas. I have felt rushed into shows in the past, and the result was standing in an exhibition of my work and wanting to hide.
RP: How do the new works differ from earlier pieces like M.S. Found in a Bottle (2008) and Systematic Inflammation (2010)?
PM: It is as though they were made by a different artist. I had five or so fallow years, raising two children and working without fanfare in my studio. During that time, I feel I metamorphosed into the artist I am now. The only common thread is the sense of containment and the spillage of flesh, which I had touched on in M.S. Found in a Bottle and Rest a Little on the Lap of Life (2006) in which a rat is spilling out from a champagne glass.
RP: In the new works, you conjoin materials that appear alien to one another and that serve to form a plinth/platform from which a less-than-complete animal form emerges. This gives us less creature and more creative interpretation of textures and associations. How do you see these works?
PM: I use snakes to represent the spillage of flesh, which in turn represents the impossibility of absolute restraint, be that physical or mental. Their physical containment in the corset-like blocks I create for them looks uncomfortable, impossible even. I feel the mind works the same way; we can try to shut down unwelcome desires or thoughts, but it’s like playing whack-a-mole—the repressed idea will just spring up somewhere unexpected. A Victorian book on etiquette was the starting point for my new show “How to Behave at Home”; I took the title from one of the chapter headings. Etiquette is a metaphorical straitjacket, used as a way to keep people’s baser instincts in check. These days, we are less likely to call it etiquette, but we still have mostly unspoken codes of conduct that, thanks to social media, rapidly evolve. I see us, as a society, contorting to meet these changing social strictures, and it feels dishonest to change to please others and even more so to expect others to change to suit your own mores.
RP: Your broader range of materials and processes seems to have widened your sculptural vocabulary. Has that led to more formal and conceptual possibilities?
PM: After learning taxidermy, I learned to mold and cast; now I have learned to paint—with each new skill, my work takes a new direction. Casting was a natural progression from taxidermy. It’s like the taxidermy of objects. You can take a perishable object, cast it in a durable material, and paint it to look life-like.
RP: With the new works, what interests me is the juxtaposition of the animal (the snake) and the industrial (the rucksack, the refrigerator, concrete), and where that takes you. Is it as much about the natural as the manmade?
PM: I see “manmade” as still being natural; it’s just a manipulation and an evolution of natural materials. I also see the stamp of nature in everything, which is why I find snakeskins so interesting. There isn’t a pattern or texture that hasn’t appeared in nature already. The cellular balls used to make expanded polystyrene resemble egg clusters and the hexagonal structures used in aluminum core panels resemble honeycomb.
Polly Morgan’s solo exhibition “How to Behave at Home” is on view at the Bomb Factory Art Foundation in London through November 2, 2020.