It is a pity, in many ways, that the work of the artist Polly Morgan has been co-opted by Fashion People, and worse, still, that it is often mentioned in tandem with celebrity, as this kind of hype can spell death for an artist whose work could easily be too zeitgeisty, too smug about its own savoir-faire. Taxidermy, in recent years, has become a BoBo East End staple and shabby-chichi cultural gag: the first two Morgan works that I saw (a baby bird curled up in a matchbox, a squirrel in a martini glass) were cutesy-ghoulish, accessory-sized -- both trinkets for an eccentric collector -- and I admit that that I wrote her off as the latest trendy maker of gewgaws.
The error, it seems, was all my own, as Endless Plains is fascinating: a gorgeous, frightening piece of work, displayed in the dark for very good reason.
The creatures here do nothing twee, and there is no sweet Victoriana (balloons, martini glasses, mice -- the kitschy bell-jar kind of schtick). Rather, they are in varying states of Lars-Von-Trier-ian hyper-decay. There's something Cronenbergian, too, at work in the use of body-horror, the way that species are combined as parasite-and-host chimeras. A russet fox erupts with tentacles, twisting their way from the stomach cavity up and around its neck and tail: It is a science-fiction image -- the totem of an unwelcome future -- which owes a debt to the B-movie picture, the thorax-bursting Giger beast, or the wacked-out husky dog in The Thing.
The names of movies and auteurs come easily when describing Plains, perhaps because the work itself is cinematic rather than static, suggestive of organic movement – teeming, seething, creeping life – beyond its own particular poses. There is a stag whose open ribcage is swarming with tiny, inverted bats: the cavity is mirrored, I think, to create the illusion of infinite bat-ness, a rotten-looking carpeted black. This could be dismissed as maudlin show-offery, but there is something more behind it -- not grisly self-congratulation, but something approaching an aura of fear, an anxiousness about death and disease. The work was developed after a trip to the Serengeti (that "Endless Plain") which culminated in terrible sickness, and surgery in which the artist lost a part of her body to gangrene. Predator, prey and parasite are part and parcel of a cycle which culminates, always, in some kind of death -- a sacrifice may preserve the whole, or the whole, overcome, may become the host, erupting into repulsive swarm. The centrepiece of Endless Plains is the most disturbing work of all, despite its relative innocuity: piglets suckle a fallen tree, and the sap runs over their faces and trotters like so much resinous mother’s milk. The horror is quieter, slower-dawning, though soon, the realisation hits -- these are those subtle perversions of nature that signify the approaching apocalypse.
(All images: Polly Morgan; Courtesy of All Visual Arts / Photography byTessa Angus)