Polly Morgan – Live and Stuffing

On the eve of a new exhibition opening a discourse with Audubon, Emma Sumner recounts taxidermist Polly Morgan’s live demonstration…

In March it was announced that the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum had won Culture 24’s Connect 10 competition to have Polly Morgan give a live demonstration of her taxidermy process in their Leggate Theatre. 32 year old Morgan is much vaunted, with some citing her work as a major factor in taxidermy’s new-found popularity. Morgan has made a career of creating still lives with the animal as subject, and her work has now become highly sought after, with collectors including Charles Saatchi and Kate Moss.

The VG&M, perched at the top of Brownlow Hill is at the heart of Liverpool University’s campus, is perfect for just such a display. This 19th Century red brick building with its unmistakable clock tower was built to house the growing University, and for many years was the heart of its activities.  Now, after a major refurbishment before the European Capital of Culture in 2008, it displays the University’s various collections. The floors and walls are adorned with ornate, heavily glazed tiles that sweep you through the building and into its gallery spaces.

On the first floor art galleries, the University’s art collection is carefully curated in a set of rooms that lead off a central corridor. The curator’s personal approach and the intimate gallery spaces make you feel as though you’re slyly viewing a property you can’t afford. Many of the works on display date back to the Victorian period, a time when taxidermy was all the rage. One of the galleries is dedicated to wildlife artist John James Audubon, whose work is a prime example of the Victorian fascination with nature and our need to record it. Ascending the stairs you pass an owl skeleton perched in a case, a gentle reminder of why we’re here.

Upstairs, the Tate Hall Museum displays part of the University’s 130 year history of scientific research and teaching – a delightful hotchpotch of oddities – the collection of picked sea life sits next to an ‘internationally important’ display of false teeth. Most interesting of all is that this building is only here because of the generosity of the city’s residents, testament to the fact that this special event is only in Liverpool because of the people’s encouragement and enthusiasm.

Sitting in the Leggate Theatre, it’s hot and very stuffy. A policeman stands surveying the crowd, keeping a beady eye out, for potential animal rights protesters perhaps. In front of us is a strategically placed table with high backed chair and an open box containing the tools of Polly Morgan’s trade. Later, when she and her entourage enter the theatre, two everyday food freezer bags containing the floppy carcases of her subjects are unceremoniously plopped onto the table.

“Like a particularly macabre episode of Blue Peter, Morgan produces a starling she prepared earlier”

The event begins with an introduction from gallery director Matthew Clough, showering Morgan with praise before giving her the stage. Initially Morgan seems defensive, issuing a warning that she would not be concealing any part of her process and would make the whole experience as real as possible. Even the slide reel showing behind her of current work in progress left nothing to the imagination. She then preempts our inquisitive minds by answering five questions that, she says is always asked, most pertinent of which, where do you get you animals from. With a keener air of defensiveness, she explains that all of her animals come from networks of people such as vets and farmers, and only after natural or unpreventable deaths.

Morgan explains how she came to learn the art of taxidermy, her love of animals and desire to preserve them, which led her to take a one-day course under the tutelage of George Jamieson. Describing her practice as part butchery, part sculpture, Morgan likens her use of the materials of taxidermy to how a painter would use paint. Her practice is a shaking up of the traditions of taxidermy, mounting the animals as corpses in a visual riddle and not mimicking their natural habitat. Yet to quite relax, Morgan clarifies that she is not a fan of death, and is fully inspired by life and re-creating this within her practice, jesting that no one calls the artist who uses charcoal morbid and melancholy, when actually it’s dead wood!

Getting out her essential tools and unwrapping the starling she will work on, the audience suddenly becomes a lot stiller, almost waiting with baited breath. Finally appearing to relax, Morgan talks the audience through her technique, deadpanning “I’m excellent at carving Sunday roasts”. The theatre set-up feels like we are part of the audience in an episode of Channel 4’s live animal autopsies, especially with the event being filmed. The audience, listening intently, hear her explain that the starling has tough skin, and that people expect a lot of blood but as only the surface of the skin is ever cut, little is produced in the process. It seems odd that so many people see this process as a bit ‘gory’, when we are so used to seeing animal meat in butchers shops and supermarkets, but in this context, watching the skin be peeled away from the flesh, people are beginning to squirm.

Honing her skills over years of practice, Morgan discloses she has produced ‘lots of dodgy looking specimens’ to refine her techniques. Eventually the bird’s skin is removed from the rest of its body with only the head left to separate. If you’re a little squeamish this is the bit that might make you wince. As Morgan rehydrates the skin to tease it over the skull a long string of neck muscle clings on tightly until she is ready to separate the neck from the skull. Finally, she cuts into the skull to remove the eyeballs and brain. Picking up the limp empty flesh, she finishes picking off the last bits of fat, removing anything that could decompose.

Like a particularly macabre episode of Blue Peter, Morgan produces a starling she prepared earlier. After stripping out the bird’s flesh, she needs to make a new body, one that will preserve the bird’s shape and keep its beauty intact for a long time to come.  From packing straw and twine, she sizes up the lump of flesh in front of her and makes a new version of it. The prepared skin is full of wires, and like a puppeteer, Morgan fixes the bird’s original skin onto its new body, packing it with Hemp to create the look of the smooth sleek muscles that once would have inhabited the living creature. Blow drying follows, before finishing it off and fixing the bird to a wooden block.

Explaining that this final bending and shaping of the bird into its pose can take up to two hours, Morgan took the audience questions while continuing to work. Using dentistry tools she pads out the head with clay and inserts the eyes. One of the questions enquired to the lack of formaldehyde in the process, quite pertinent with all of the specimens in jars of the stuff across the hallway. Morgan gently explained that it’s not something used in the taxidermy of birds, apart from those with fleshy legs which need injecting to preserve.

Despite the somewhat gory process Morgan is no morbid animal puppeteer, celebrating the life that was and exploring the possibilities of how we see the animals around us. Morgan has a solo show Endless Plains  opening at All Visual Arts in London this June, which, seeing the slides of the work in progress, looks to be an intriguing must see exhibition. This fascinating event was something of a privilege; Morgan’s drive, ambition and meticulous work ethic is an inspiration to all emerging and aspirant artists. For those intrigued simply by the process, one can only speculate they left sated.

Emma Sumner

The Spectacle of The Lost previews tonight 5.30 – 7pm at the Victoria Gallery & Museum Exhibition continues until 25th August

Posted on 31/05/2012 by thedoublenegative