Polly Morgan, artist, on a piece of polystyrene packaging.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
PM I think I’ve often found things beautiful that other people haven’t. I’ve often had debates with people over something that I like. Here’s a silly example. When I started doing taxidermy, the first thing that I really wanted to do was a pigeon. I remember whenever I mentioned that to people, they’d almost always say, why would you do a pigeon? Why would you not want to do a parrot or something beautiful? But I’ve always thought pigeons were beautiful and I’ve found it a bit distressing the way everyone in London seems to hate them.
I grew up in the country, and I was surrounded by animals, not just because I lived in the country, but my dad worked with animals. So, we used to have hundreds of goats and then we had llamas at some point, and ostriches. We had quite a strange, chaotic, home life because my dad was a sort of DIY vet. He used to just bring the animals home and try to fix them himself.
I used to play with the polystyrene ends growing up if we had anything delivered like a new washing machine or something we always used to keep, and one day my dad found an injured pigeon in the garden. It had a broken leg, and he made a little splint for its leg and wrapped it up and the pigeon lived in a piece of polystyrene washing machine packaging in my room for about a month. I’ve got this vivid memory of this square funnily-shaped polystyrene block, with a big scoop out of it, with this pigeon living inside with a little nest we made him – and it would always be covered in poo. There’s kind of a nice link between the start of my work – using pigeons – and the work I make now – with these polystyrene ends.
In my work I sort of cannibalise my own studio, in that I often use bits and pieces that are lying around like offcuts of wood or bits of polystyrene, that maybe something came packed in. I will mould and then cast them and they become parts of the sculpture. And I see that as almost a form of taxidermy. It’s like an object taxidermy. Because the thing about taxidermy is you are taking something from the natural world and removing most of it and then making it look like that thing again, when it’s actually mostly made up of wire and wood and clay and whatever you put inside it. And it’s a sort of visual trick, like a kind of 3D trompe l’oeil, where you think you’re looking at something that’s not really there. I think that’s what I do with objects. I was quite compelled by polystyrene. But I think in hindsight, it’s because particularly the moulded pieces are all unique. They have this sort of accidental architecture to them, which is almost like a fossil of the object that was inside. And I find it interesting to think that maybe one day people will find these bits of polystyrene in landfill and try and work out what was inside them by the negative space.
GB Most people are so squeamish about the dead animals, but you handle them like they’re a piece of clay, almost as though the dead animal is no more sentimental to you than the piece of polystyrene.
PM Luckily, when they come to me, the animals are already dead, so I don’t have to contemplate the life or death they led. Mostly they’re wild animals and I know they’ve had pretty decent lives. If I had witnessed them at the point of death, it would be a completely different story. I don’t think I would be able to handle them like that at all. But yes, I do see them as raw material to sculpt, like I am handling clay. I’m looking at it purely from a visual sculptural sense; like how what can I move this? Or what can I do with this part? Or can I chop this bit off? At that point it ceases to be an animal for me. It’s just organic matter.
I feel the same about my own body, by the way. I mean, people sometimes say, well, how would you feel if someone skinned you? And honestly, I have absolutely no ego post death, I don’t even think about my legacy. I don’t care about my work or anything, or whether people write about me talk about me again. When I’m dead. I’ve left the party. That’s it.
GB Your dead snakes look so plump and luscious.
PM The snake works actually succeed best when I don’t use the skins at all. Sometimes I do use the skin on top of a cast and other times I paint directly onto the cast because if you paint onto the cast, and you do away with the skin altogether, you get a much more convincing finish. Because skin when it’s not covered in hair or feathers, when it dries, it just loses all its moisture. It looks dried up and horrible.
GB Does the polystyrene remind you of how we’re now having to live with all this human detritus, cluttering up our planet.
PM I’m aware of it but I’m not really making a commentary on that. I find architecture and design quite interesting because I think a lot of the time the motivation is about trying to hide, and trying to contain and trying to sort of eliminate nature. We’re paving on top of it, but then you always get bits of grass coming up between the paving. I see the snakes in the polystyrene more like that. It’s the idea of containment, the way that I put the snakes in them, and they mould to the shape of the polystyrene themselves. So, we’re moulding and constricting the natural world but there’s always some sort of spillage. Often with those things I have one side where you can see it packed in and then on the other side, it’s almost spilling out.
I made this work during lockdown. And I was thinking about the spaces we inhabit, and how they are entirely shaping this experience for us. The spectrum of heaven to hell, you know, some people were saying, this is wonderful, I’m spending all this time with my children. Others were probably on the brink of going insane. The polystyrene in the sculptures is built to protect your item. Or are we being protected from it? Would we be safer inside or outside? Your experience of being in lockdown informs how you read it, which is either a very claustrophobic-looking snake that’s contained and needs to get out or some people would look at it and think it looks so snug and cosy.
GB A lot of people tend to think that the natural world is more beautiful than anything manmade, but you use acrylic nails in this work and as a whole it does form something beautiful.
PM I’ve grown to really love acrylic nails. I don’t wear them myself, but I really appreciate them. It all came about really because I was spending more time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram during lockdown. I always find it fascinating how people present themselves. I found myself liking some people on Instagram more than I like them in real life. And vice versa. You see couples posting loved-up pictures and #blessed and all that. But you know they hate each other. They’re getting divorced now but were piling it on during lockdown. I see that as a veneer. It’s a social veneer. It’s a way of controlling and resurfacing something unpleasant with something more pleasant. And that’s what acrylic nails are. That also echoes what I do with my with snakes because snake skins are the most incredible veneer and they are designed so the iridescence reflects in certain ways to throw off predators. A lot of non-venomous snakes have markings on them that are the same as venomous breeds, because they’re trying to throw off predators, so there’s a form of kind of camouflage and subterfuge going on with their skins. That made me feel so much more sympathetic to our own physical veneers like nails and our more metaphorical veneers like social media, because, trying to allow a particular perception of yourself to prevail like this by editing your pictures or whatever, it’s the most natural thing in the world. I think it’s a completely natural thing to do, to have your hair done or to put a filter on your face on social media. You’re just behaving like an animal, basically. That’s how we’re primed to behave. An awful lot of beauty has been developed, I think to throw people off the scent. Now I’m doing a lot of painting on casts and it’s only because of snakes that I’ve learned loads of different painting techniques. I use three or four different types of paints and transfers sometimes on one cast to get the finish of a snake because there’s so much depth to the skins. People think they’re looking at a dead creature in this work without having any idea of the amount of work that goes into making it look like a living thing.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PM I think just to exist. Anything can be beautiful to anyone. Your project proves that it’s really often not about the what the thing looks like. It’s about what it represents to someone. I think something can be worthy of the definition just by existing.
The final work, using a polyurethane cast of the polystyrene: Unite in a Common Goal.