Polly Morgan dissects social media through snake skins and acrylic nails
At The Bomb Factory, the British taxidermy artist is dismembering the ‘veneer’ of social media and the suffocation of lockdown in a new series of photographs and intricate snake sculptures
Polly Morgan’s affinity with taxidermy began in her 20s. She was looking to furnish her London flat and wanted it to look ‘dead rather than alive’. Unable to find what she was looking for, she took matters into her own hands, starting with a pigeon.
Since then, Morgan has developed a captivating and singular practice of skinning, stuffing, and turning conventional taxidermy on its head, drawn to its trompe l’oeil qualities over its macabre connotations.
In the early days, Morgan trawled pet shops, farms and big bird fairs to maintain her inventory, all of which had died of natural causes or experienced unpreventable deaths. Before long, she began turning art world heads with her distinctive, surrealist brand of taxidermy and has since built up a network of clients who supply a steady stream of creatures for her work. Among her most striking work is a pig carcass with mushrooms sprouting from its innards, and a brood of chicks rearing their heads from a telephone receiver.
For her latest show, ‘How to Behave at Home’ at The Bomb Factory, Morgan is looking inwards. The show’s title is taken from a chapter of the Victorian book, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Florence Hartley. ‘I began to see etiquette as being a metaphorical strait-jacket, [as much] now as then.’
Social media, the Covid-19 pandemic and our new overfamiliarity with home provide the backdrop for this series of abstract sculptures. ‘I was interested to see how people’s Instagram feeds would change, with no parties to attend or events to promote; would they let the veneer slip or turn to a new kind of boastfulness?’ she asks.
To illustrate this, Morgan turned to ‘veneers’: superior surfaces concealing something supposedly inferior. ‘This chimed with a lot of the subjects I was thinking about; specifically how we curate our online lives by careful selection or filters,’ she reflects. ‘For years I had been peeling back the skins of animals and taxidermy seemed a good metaphor for artifice vs. truth.’
The works see brutalist blocks, concrete slabs and polystyrene packaging create corset-like constructions from which highly-decorative snakes spill, contort and rupture from the cavities. ‘I use the snakes to represent excess flesh, a metaphor for untamed nature and the impossibility of absolute restraint,’ she explains.
‘I use the snakes to represent excess flesh, a metaphor for untamed nature and the impossibility of absolute restraint’
The show marks a turning point for Morgan, with sculptures of ‘real’ taxidermy hides interspersed with meticulously painted casts of snakes, and the artist hopes viewers won’t spot the difference. ‘I was locked into thinking I must use the skin and it hadn’t occurred to me that my work would be improved by painting directly onto a cast, thus creating my own veneers,’ she says. ‘This way I would no longer be limited to the skins of the actual snakes I had been donated, nor would I have to sacrifice the lustre of a fresh snake skin.’
Morgan spent the best part of a year toying with paints, varnishes and transfers and foils used in nail art. After an ‘uncharacteristic’ trip to get her nails done, she requested an iridescent finish so she could watch and learn from their techniques. For the show, she worked with a nail artist to develop trompe l’oeil marbles, woods and chip foam from gel coats. On the gallery walls are a series of large format photographs titled after Instagram filters. Here, hands with glitzy acrylic talons peel back snake skins in compositions that are enough to leave viewers in a captivated grimace.
Morgan’s show is an oblique commentary on a rapidly evolving society, where richly-lustred ‘veneers’ are stand-ins for veiled bids at digital authenticity. The austere structures that envelop them are both the ever-changing digital standards that suffocate us, and the cocoons that protect us. ‘How to Behave at Home’ is both an instruction and a question. §