I am at Void, Derry, to see ‘Dead Time’, Polly Morgan’s show, and talk to curator Maolíosa Boyle. I have been here before, and yet Gallery 1 feels unfamiliar as I enter it. It is dark green, dimly lit, and recalls the muted hush of a museum. Boyle explains that she is always interested in changing the atmosphere of the space, and sought a traditional, Natural History Museum quality, to highlight the nature of Morgan’s work: skilled and intrinsically linked to the natural world.
I realise I am holding my breath, but as I carefully inhale I can smell only fresh paint. I expected an unpleasant scent, a hint of death in this room containing cadavers. Taxidermy birds feature in all the work. Some, like the one in To Every Seed His Own Body, are displayed lifeless, while others, like those in Receiver, are animated, protruding from a black telephone receiver mounted on the wall, tiny heads crammed into a compact space, beaks frozen mid-chirp.
Polly Morgan uses animals “in the same way other artists use paints”.1 As raw materials, animals cannot be enhanced, for they are perfect down to the last minute hair. The only option is to distort, displace or mutate. The birds function as objet trouvée, ready-mades, and are combined with other found objects: a leather-bound prayer book, a miniature chandelier, to create uncanny, three- dimensional still-lives. In Still-Born, three pheasant chicks hang side by side, suspended from coloured balloons floating in mid-air. They are displayed in tall domes, like specimens in an eighteenth century Cabinet of Curiosity. Boyle was attracted to Morgan’s work because she feels these are evocative objects, relics almost, and this is reflected in their presentation. In this atmospheric space they are the focal point; spot lit, placed on plinths and morbidly beautiful. They have a magnetic allure, perhaps because the only way we can ever really get close to these animals is when they are dead.
Gallery 2 there is no forest green, just raw concrete. A flurry of movement catches your eye as you enter the space. In the back of the gallery hangs a creature that turns out to be a ball of pigeon wings. Blue Fever is the stuff nightmares are made of, an animal without a face, strangely familiar, yet utterly alien. It is suspended from the ceiling and casts a severe shadow on the opposite wall. The room is filled with the sharp, chemical smell of insecticide and preservative. Not even Morgan can manipulate death entirely.
‘Dead Time’ is curated with sensitivity, not just for the feel of the work but also for the diversity of Morgan’s practice. Boyle juxtaposed two prints with the three-dimensional work. The etching, Blackbird with Maggots is perhaps a little overshadowed by the otherworldliness of Blue Fever. There is also a lithograph, Myocardial Infraction, which evokes the type of prints commissioned by wealthy Victorians, where an artist would sketch, etch and then hand-colour each image drawn from life – or more precisely, the taxidermy version of life. Often the faded colour of the feathers was replaced with invented, fantastical hues. Morgan’s subject matter, parrots feeding from a bleeding heart, is macabre, but “beautifully crafted”.3
Much of the literature surrounding Morgan focuses on her fascination with taxidermy. Repeatedly her eccentric past is mentioned: the myriad animals in her childhood home, constant competitors for her parents’ affection. I suspect we want to be soothed by explanations, because we are not comfortable with death, and those who approach it. Discussing this new medium, (for that is what the traditional art of taxidermy has become in Morgan’s skilful hands) Boyle states, “We don’t want to think about the process”.4 It is much easier to marvel at the material and the maker than to think about the gutting, the blood, and the stuffing.
Morgan is part of a new generation of celebrity artists, and everyone wants a piece of her work. Some individual pieces in ‘Dead Time’ run to 50 editions, yet each remains unique. No seemingly identical pheasant chick is exactly the same. When seen as photos the pieces can be mistaken for visual one-liners, yet in the flesh they draw you in, creating a fascinating dialogue on the universal act of living and dying.