As you enter All Visual Arts to see Polly Morgan | Endless Plains you come from the bright summery street outside to a vast black interior. The only light source is the spots above the four installations and the series of drawings on the back wall. AVA is like a tardis, the large space adapts itself beautifully to what is on show. From the maze-like, almost claustrophobic feel at the recent Charles Matton exhibition to the very opposite with the current show. The mood is stark and serious.

Polly Morgan, who is renowned for her taxidermy, was inspired by a recent visit to the Serengeti. This exhibition is a vibrant parable that confronts the viewer with the uncompromising cycle of life; a cycle of the prey and the predator eventually being preyed upon by the parasite.

Endless Plains interprets this vast expanse of land, at once barren and teeming with life, in perverted and unusual ways. The result is a reminder of the savagery of nature, where the sacrifice of one life for dozens more is a vital and constant exchange. Shortly after this journey, the artist had an encounter with her own mortality, developing life-threatening peritonitis and gangrene, where part of her own body died and went under the scalpel. This experience is evident in much of her new work, where bodies are rent wide, their cavities seething with life, such as the magnificent stag, now hollowed out and filled with resting bats. The juxtaposition of darkness and direct light really plays with your senses, it truly felt as if the stag was still breathing. Elsewhere a fallen tree, once proud and strong, is now hollow and rotten. Little piglets are gorging themselves from its ‘teats’ like parasites. Sap runs, like milk, down their chins as they suck the life out of it. These piglets are a central image in Morgan’s new work, another piglet is seen lying prone, mushrooms growing out of its belly while a bird is poised as if to eat them.

The most curious of all is a young fox entwined with an octopus, the tentacles holding it in a deadly squeeze and also working their way through the ears and eye socket. Tiny birds are holding on to the legs of the octopus (are they helping or trying to prevent its progress?). Harbour (2012) was inspired by her own recent burst appendix.

Apparently Morgan wants to avoid anthropomorphosis and instead is meditating on the significance of the departure of life in her work. Endless Plains is her largest installation to date and a meditation on death as process – both hierarchy and commodity, as parasites become hosts, maintaining balance through bloodshed. It is thought provoking to see these emblems of strength – the stag, the tree – brought to their knees but also giving nourishment to the next cycle. It’s about parasites getting plump as they live off the dead. Who has the last laugh…

Morgan’s early work manipulated scale and context to expose a latent romance and narrative in the corpse. By appropriating the Victorian art of taxidermy, she updates the traditional notion memento mori to interrogate themes including the cultural mythology around death, birth and the afterlife. The sculptures tap into the uncanny; the fine line between animate and inanimate capturing the imagination of both audiences and critics.

The series of drawings also exhibited are a welcome relief, surprisingly tender and poetic, with their respective former inhabitants lounging in careless, almost abandoned poses on top of the frame.

Polly Morgan | Endless Plains
Till 31st July
Tuesday – Saturday 10 – 6 pm
All Visual Art
2 Omega Place
London N1 9DR

Words by Anna Bang


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