If you haven’t had your head in the sand for the past six months chances are you will have heard of Polly Morgan – the artist who has brought taxidermy out of the curiosity cabinet and into the gallery. Her new show Psychopomps runs at the aptly titled Haunch of Venison and features four suspended taxidermy sculptures. These are psychopomps – mythical creatures who conduct souls to the afterlife. Her use of taxidermied creatures brings the viewer into a poetic, disturbing and rarely felt intimacy with death. Each stuffed bird’s gaping beak, curled neck and glassy stare uncannily re-stages the creature’s past living self to create fantastical and densely metaphorical forms. In this exhibition her work shows itself to have moved on from the decorative humour of curled rats in champagne glasses to become more distorted, nightmarish and psychologically unsettling.
How has it been exhibiting in the project space at Haunch of Venison? Has the space dictated the scale or themes of your new work?
It’s been really healthy to work within the confines of the space; it’s definitely shaped the pieces I’ve created. You can see the work from two perspectives, from the mezzanine and the ground, which is perfect for these larger scale works, which are flying objects.
Your work seems to have moved on from Victorian Gothicism. Why?
It’s natural to get bored of your own work as you are living it all the time, and it’s a good thing really. You don’t want people who see the work to get bored of it; you need to keep moving it forward. I make things I want, and by making them I cure myself of wanting them. It’s a weirdly cathartic process. I still love the domed works, cabinets of curiosities, and Victorian influence, but I’ve became more attuned to it, and started seeing it everywhere, so I wanted to move it on. With taxidermy there is an obvious reference to the Victorian, so now I’m trying something more poppy – like the balloon and telephone works. It’s about getting less ornamental and more monumental.
The titles of your works such as Black Fever and Systemic Inflammation in Psychopomps have a real sense of black humour, is this important to the interpretation of your work?
I almost didn’t title the works at all as each one is a Psychopomp, a flying escort from life to death. But I thought it would be funny to name each piece after a condition or illness that finishes you off. I was playing on themes like inflammation, as the birds are orange and have a flame like quality. Atrial Matter is a heart murmur, which is why I used the red bird curled up in the rib cage.
You have received a great deal of press attention recently. Have you become frustrated by the girl-doing-taxidermy angle?
I expected it really. I won’t complain, a lot of great artist make work for exhibitions and don’t get coverage. Its great that my work has been brought to a broad number of peoples attention. That angle does get boring though. If I were interviewing someone I would research everything about that person and be thorough, rather than ticking a few boxes and asking who they’re going out with.
Do you consider yourself the artist or taxidermist?
I am an artist who uses taxidermy. I don’t mind being called a taxidermist, but I don’t just stuff pets. Also there are a lot of amazing taxidermists out there who are much better than I am! I don’t define myself by the tools I use.
What would you choose if you had access to any body?
I can’t answer that. It varies due to what I need. I think that’s a taxidermist question. My ideas change regularly, so my needs change. I made this bouquet of flowers made out of bird heads, so I was specific about the birds I was looking for, ones with large beaks and spectacular colours. But once I’d made that I need something totally different to suit the piece.
Do you have reoccurring dreams or nightmares?
I do dream often – it depends. When we’ve been skinning birds, taking their wings off and de-fleshing them, something repetitive like that, I dream of it. I’ve had classic dreams that I’m working on a bird and that it comes to life and attacks me! Most of my interns and assistants say the same thing; we talk to each other in the studio about our dreams. Kim my assistant told me about one in particular. When you skin a bird there‘s all these fat globules underneath the feathers follicles, you have to make tiny incisions and cut it out. It’s boring and can be disgusting if the bird is smelly. And Kim had this dream where she was decorating her room and instead of putting up wallpaper she was scraping fat off the walls. And another one that she was scraping fat but it was off her arms, from pustules all along it!
Do the forms for new sculptures come to you in dreams?
Kind of, I’ve had dreams about work. Sometimes it’s more like a sense of something, or a specific bird. I dreamt of a whole show once that I never made, it was surreal.
Are you religious? Do you believe in the afterlife?
I’m not really religious. My grandfather was a vicar, so we were taken to church quite a lot, but it’s never been something that affected me greatly. I see these animals as raw materials, unless I knew the animal in life – and if I did I probably wouldn’t do it. I hope there is an afterlife, but I haven’t really decided one way or another.
What was your attitude to animals as a child? Were you pulling wings off flies?
I loved animals when I was little, but also found them intensely annoying as my family had so many running around the house. I was constantly having to compete with them for the attention of my parents. We had about 200 goats, dogs, cats, fish, chickens, ostriches, lamas – they were always needing attention in one way or another. I wish I could go back as I am now, I’d love it! But when I was younger I’d push them away like they were siblings or something.
So all this isn’t revenge then?
No! Someone else asked me that as well. Now I live in London being without animals is something I feel deeply. I miss animals hugely.
What are you up to next?
I’m taking part in an AVA exhibition at 33 Portland Square for Frieze week around the theme of Vanitas.
Psychopomps runs at Haunch of Venison, London until September 25.