Interview by Christof Häberle
Polly Morgan, an artist almost by accident, has helped pull the traditional and somewhat forgotten craft of taxidermy into the art world. Her works, initially just a hobby, received support from Banksy and gained broad media attention just months after she’d taken an initial lesson in taxidermy.
Since then she’s become one of the most collected current artists, sold sculptures to several institutes and art foundations globally (Anita Zabludowicz, Thomas Olbricht, Omer Koc, David Roberts) and has developed her work further away from her craft based beginnings to more conceptual pieces. Her art is playful but also, at times, challenges the viewers’ perception of the animals used.
I caught up with her for a brief phone interview, prior to her her live demonstration at the Victoria Gallery & Museum.
Polly Morgan: Live and Stuffing, Victoria Gallery & Museum, Friday May 18th, 7.00 – 8.30pm. Free, no booking required: Places will be allocated on a first-come-first- served basis.
Why taxidermy? What intrigued you about it?
I started when I was 23. I think that’s when I had my first lesson. It was just something that I loved and wanted to buy, but not to practise at that point. But as I couldn’t afford to buy it myself, and as I also wasn’t finding taxidermy on the market that had been stuffed in the way that I wanted it, it occurred to me that I had to learn it myself. A lot of the time I wanted things to look dead and Iwanted them in unusual settings.
I noticed, when I read previous interviews with you, that most of the articles use words like ‘morbid’ and ‘gruesome’ and linked both your work and taxidermy in general to a fascination with death. I am quite interested in taxidermy myself, actually, but I just never really felt that it was about death.
Yes. I think it is a quite shallow reading of it, really. It frustrates me that people always describe it in that way, because they are not looking past the fact that it is a dead animal, or that it used to be a dead animal, or that my raw material is a dead animal. One could call a charcoal drawing morbid because the charcoal is made from dead wood. Just because you are using something that used to live doesn’t mean you are addressing death or that it should have these negative connotations. For me it’s much more about life.
But then you also wanted taxidermy that didn’t focus on recreating life but that looked actually dead.
I don’t always do this. I have done more taxidermy since that hasn’t looked dead. But at the time that’s what I wanted. Taxidermy is essentially a trick. You’re kidding someone into thinking that it is a three dimensional photograph or a record of something – particularly with traditional taxidermy when they recreate the natural habitat of the animal. Taxidermy is trying to get as accurate a rendering of life as possible. If I made it look dead I was imagining I was extending that trick and elaborating it almost to the point where you would believe in it a little bit longer. If you look at a taxidermic bird that is perched on a twig it doesn’t take long to work out that it is taxidermy and that it is not really sitting there. I like the idea that if it is something that looks dead it could actually be the real thing just lying there waiting to decompose.
In one interview you said that ‘it wasn’t death that confounded me as a child, but decay’ – do you use taxidermy to counteract that decay from happening?
I think so. I think that was certainly my motivation in the beginning. Decay just frustrated me, because I wanted to hang on to these things when I was young and I couldn’t. They were being snatched away from me. With time they would start rotting and change their consistency. With taxidermy, on a purely practical level, you can make them so they don’t rot and don’t change their consistency and they can stay with you forever. That magic is, really, something that intrigued me when I first discovered it.
I also get, from reading your interviews, that that sense of magic and wonder is something you are looking for – both when creating art but also in other people’s art that you enjoy.
Yes, absolutely. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before, I suppose, or that makes me feel in a way that I haven’t felt before. It needs to have some sort of transformative power. I think of art being like alchemy. You bring inexpensive materials together and you make something priceless out of them, if it is done well. So, yes, I think you are right, that’s certainly something that I am looking for in my work. I don’t want people to just look at it and think ‘oooh, that’s nice’. I want it to have a more powerful resonance with them.
Did you get any reactions or feedback from taxidermists on your work or is that an exchange that doesn’t really happen?
Not really. It’s not something I am particularly seeking, because they have a very different motive. That whole raison-d’être to try and make a creature as lifelike as possible and to try to get an as exact representation of it as possible, right down to measuring the last half-millimetre distances between an exit point and the eyes and so on … all these things matter when you are making good taxidermy.
And I am not rubbishing them at all. I think these are very important aspects, but they are not the most important things for me. For me it’s much more to do with making a sculpture and I see myself more as an artist rather than a taxidermist. I wouldn’t really hesitate to make an artwork that didn’t involve taxidermy, but it keeps captivating me and keeps exciting me. I haven’t let it go yet and maybe I never will. At the same time I don’t have the same aims as a taxidermist, at all.
I think the only feedback I really had is from George Jamieson, the taxidermist that taught me, and he is always interested in what I am doing. I think he’s gone from feeling a bit confused by what I was doing, wondering why on earth I was doing it, to having an appreciation and an understanding that there are different interpretations of taxidermy. As for other more traditional taxidermists I have no idea, really.
I don’t suppose it’s universally popular. I think they are probably a bit more pre-occupied by price tags and any criticism levelled at me from the taxidermy community would be based on the fact that my work is more expensive than theirs. But that’s just because they misunderstand the different markets that we work in, really. And I am not trying to say that I am any better than them, at all. I think many are certainly better taxidermists than me. I am not trying to compete with them on that level.
Focusing on a different aspect – how do you conceptualise what you want to arrive at?
Well, it can be very difficult. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I have ideas while I am making other work. I’ll be in the middle of one project and it’ll lead me on to ideas that I want to include in my next project. Quite often that doesn’t happen. I often am totally stumped and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. I have to actually try to stop myself from working, if anything, because I am a bit of a workaholic, I think. I just try to keep busy all the time, but I don’t really get ideas when I am keeping busy. My brain relaxes when I am busy in a, sort of, funny way because I am so a slave to myself and all the jobs that need doing. As soon as I switch that off and go on long walks, go away on a holiday for a few days, or just try to see people and get out, have conversations and drag myself away from work a bit, or see exhibitions or read books, watch films, anything like that, then ideas start to come to me. It is normally only then that they do come to me.
You’ve also often stressed that you don’t really think that one should look to other art, mainly, for inspiration, but instead look at other media and other sources.
I think it’s strange that you would only look – I mean, of course you can look at art for inspiration, but you can also look at anything for inspiration. I don’t think that it should be as strict a view as that. But I do find, when talking to interns and younger people that I’ve met and who’ve been through art college, that that seemed very much what they are encouraged to do all the time. And I do think it is important in some respects that you’re putting yourself in this timeline, I suppose. You’re part of a history of art once you start making art and you should respect what’s gone before. But at the same time I don’t think you should always reference what’s gone before.
Some art can be very self-referential and I find that a bit tedious.
My background is in writing. I’ve just finished a MA in Writing, and the focus there is very much on other authors and books – which helps if you want to learn a craft, but not necessarily if you are looking for ideas and inspiration.
No. Sometimes I find it quite limiting, because it thwarts my thought process, really, because I start to feel everything has already been done and there’s no real point – or I think someone has done it much better. I sometimes think you can have a bit too much learning and it can turn you into something like a rabbit in the headlights and not make any move at all. I think a bit of naivety and innocence can be quite helpful in the beginning.
Which is, again, connected with looking at art – not necessarily childlike – but from that sense of wonder?
Well, from an uneducated perspective, I suppose, because I didn’t go to art college and I haven’t spent years studying and writing about it. And it’s not like I’m really proud of that or that I think it is an especially great thing. It’s just the way it was and how it worked out for me. But I also think that if I had gone to art college, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. I do feel like I absolutely want to fill in the gaps and make myself more educated where art is concerned, but neither do I want to become obsessed with that and worry too much about it. I feel like I can pick things up as I go along. I am lucky enough to have lots of friends who are artists and who work in the art world. I am learning all the time.
Do you think that what is called art and what is not is too limiting? When you started out you felt unsure about calling yourself an artist and you’ve mentioned that that label was something you hesitated using, initially. Do you think that that is something that needs to be challenged a lot more?
What is to be considered art and what isn’t?
I think it has been challenged an awful lot, really. I feel that in the last 30 years the idea of what art is has changed enormously. I don’t know – I don’t think I am the best person to ask, because my work is not overly conceptually challenging in that respect. I think people actually find it quite easy to look at my work as art, because they see the craft that’s gone into it. And a lot of time the issue those who aren’t involved in the art world have – the laymen, I guess – is that they look at it and they think ‘I could have done that’ or that their kids could have done it. They can’t see any training or skill in it and that frustrates them. I don’t necessarily sympathise with that point of view, because you can be a really good artist and not be a technically skilled painter. I don’t really buy that notion that you have to be able to paint lifelike before you are an artist. At the same time I understand that feeling that they want to see the artist’s hand in it and that hard work’s gone into it. With my work they actually can see that more readily and that maybe helped me a bit in the beginning.
I am also quite interested in your relationship with animals – there was that article on inspiration, where you mentioned that your dogs are quite important for you and for your work process. But it is also quite clear that you have that strong ethical stance on where you get your animals from, including that you don’t pay more than what an animal would have been sold for where it still alive.
That really occurred to me when I offered someone some money. I just said I’ll give you a fiver if your aviary birds die and you want to pass them on to me. Just for their trouble, because I thought that’d cover the inconvenience of having to pack them up and post them to me. They said ‘oh, I can get you as many as you like for that price because they only cost half that price alive’ and I realised I’d made a big mistake. After that I thought I had to be more careful.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a strong ethical stance. I certainly have used things that have been killed, but they haven’t been killed for me and that’s the main thing. They’ve been killed by gamekeepers, perhaps, and they were going to be killed, anyway. I just think it’d be very lazy for me to try to and get a load of things executed for me. It also wouldn’t sit very easy with me. I do love animals and I don’t like to kill something for what is, ultimately, often commercial gain. And I think that eating meat is one thing; I think that’s a very natural thing for us to do, to eat meat, even if I am not particularly happy with a lot of the farming practices we have. But I think it would be completely perverse to kill something and then try to make it look alive again in your own crappy way. It’s just laziness, pure laziness, and there’s no need for it at all. So yes, I try to make sure I only do use animals that have died naturally or due to an unpreventable death, a car accident, things like that.
Especially because animals just do die. I have a friend over in Sweden, she does a bit of amateur taxidermy, and with her, I think, it’s just an extension of using found objects for her art. As she is living in Sweden and not far from nature it’s easy to find animals that have died.
It can be pretty difficult. I’ve really struggled over the years to get hold of various things that I wanted and sometimes I haven’t ever got hold of what I wanted. There’s heaps of work I’d have liked to make that I can’t because I just can’t find the animals. That’s actually quite a large part of the work, finding the right thing. It takes an awful lot of time. I mean, for a start, it’s completely illegal, even if I wanted to, to go around people’s gardens. I’d get arrested for it, just like everyone else would, and quite rightly so.
I also have a feeling that that is something that influenced how your work developed. When I read early interviews you seemed to highlight that you work with whatever you had whereas now you focus more on concepts and ideas that you specifically source animals for.
Yes, that’s definitely the case, because in the beginning it just took me such a long time to get anything. It was hard to get any dead animals at the start. It would have seemed an impossibility if I’d suddenly thought ‘ooh, I want five vultures’. I didn’t think that was something that was ever going to happen and I just slowly, incrementally, became more ambitious in the work that I was making. It was through my attempts to find things that I realized that everything is possible if you try hard enough. I didn’t want to be defeated by the first hurdle, by what I could or couldn’t get. But it can be very frustrating. I often, really, really wanted various things and I just can’t get them. It’s surprising the amount of times I can and I do manage to, actually.
What also changed is that you started out working on your own, but you now have a team of people that you work with – how do you divide the work that you do between them?
I wouldn’t say a team. I’ve got one assistant and she does taxidermy four days a week with me. Other than that I’ve someone that comes in three days a week who helps me with admin, just doing e-mails, packing and shipping, that kind of stuff. In a run-up to a show I do get interns in: At the moment I’ve got a show coming up and I’ve got a couple of interns in for two or three days a week. So, it’s not that difficult at the moment to sort all that out, because there’s still a relatively small amount of people.
Generally Kim, my assistant, works on a lot of my editions. I do small sculpture editions and what happens is that I will make the first couple – like the prototype – and work out exactly how I want them to look, how I put everything together, all the sizes and dimensions. I speak to fabricators, if I’ve got someone making other parts of the work for me, you know, the domes or whatever else I work out. Then I will teach Kim how to make it and how exactly I want them to look. She then creates them in the studio. She does that pretty much full time. Or, for instance, when I had this coffin with these chicks bursting out of it – with hundreds of chicks – I again started off on my own and once I figured out exactly how to do it and what the best way was Kim would help me and we’d do them together. So she often does that kind of quite straightforward work. I mean she’s very good now. I’ve taught her a couple years ago and she’s a really, really creative taxidermist and I completely trust her, but she wants to make sure she’s doing it right. And it’s not that she can’t do it, she could always do it on her own, but she wouldn’t necessarily put things in exactly the right position that I want them to be in. So it’s important that it happens in the studio with me there, really, because I like to make sure that everything is coming out as I want it to.
I am normally working on my next installation or next big exhibition, which will be totally new work that I really have to think about. I also travel around talking to, I don’t know, carpenters or … I’ve been working with a casting studio, casting piglets and learning how to use silicon, so I’ve been going up there quite regularly. So everything that’s new I am involved in purely on my own, and all that’s repeated or commissioned work Kim generally takes care of.
With the event coming up in Liverpool there was an online poll organised by Culture 24 that asked people where you should go. How did you get involved with that?
That was through a company called Love Art . They are involved in Museums at Night and they had a meeting with me and asked if I’d wanted to be involved, which I did.
They then came back with a short list of about six or eight different places and asked me to narrow them down to three. When I had narrowed them down to my top three it went to a vote and Liverpool won me. Which was great actually – I wanted to come to Liverpool so I was pleased.
What exactly will you do during that evening – or is that a surprise?
I am going to do a demonstration. I’ll demonstrate how to taxidermy a starling. And while I am doing that I am also going to talk about my work, what I am currently working on, and the process and all the rest of it.