Curator's Choice: Julie Brown, of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, talks about Rest a Little on the Lap of Life by Polly Morgan, part of Contemporary Eye: Crossovers, a 2010 exhibition featuring works of contemporary artists exploring traditional craft techniques...
“Over recent years there has been a craft resurgence, which probably started when Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize for his contemporary ceramics in 2003. Before then craft was perhaps not seen as ‘high art’, but now lots of contemporary artists are using a traditional craft focus in their work.
Polly Morgan’s Rest a Little on the Lap of Life is a contemporary craft work which offers a new interpretation of what you might expect to find in an 18th century Queen Anne townhouse like this.
Pallant House is a collection of collections; from the original personal collection bequeathed by Walter Hussey in 1977 to those we have inherited and the temporary works we have on loan from private collectors. Polly’s taxidermy is from a private collector and it helps to transform Pallant House into a cabinet of curiosities.
I have a particular interest in contemporary art by female artists. I find Polly Morgan interesting because she prompts a re-evaluation of taxidermy – she is the same age as me and is a fully-qualified taxidermist and member of the Guild of Taxidermists. I don’t think taxidermy is a profession you would normally associate with a young woman.
Polly is quite trendy – her work is collected by people like Kate Moss and she is very modern and ‘now’, so it’s even stranger to associate her with taxidermy. She didn’t really train as an artist, I think she worked as a bar manager in London and only began working as an artist in 2005.
It was her passion for animals and wanting to preserve and honour them that led her to study taxidermy. It is perhaps a little controversial now to have stuffed animals within a gallery space and it can be the source of upset for some people, but Polly only uses animals which have been ‘ethically sourced’; perhaps road casualties or donations from vets and pet owners after natural or unpreventable death. I imagine the rat in her work was a pet – it doesn’t look like a wild rat.
I remember as a child visiting traditional natural history museums. I was absolutely terrified of the dark rooms with scary, creepy, large animals recreated as they were supposed to be in their fake natural setting.
I always found it quite wrong and a bit strange because they were trying to make it seem like they were alive. I was terrified and hated it.
But now, in the context of Pallant House, what I formerly found creepy has become beautiful. Polly Morgan isn’t using taxidermy in the same traditional way. She tries to show the creature’s natural beauty but doesn’t attempt to recreate the way they were.
She says her animals are caught in between half life and death. She is fascinated by death and mortality and she celebrates the deceased rat as a beautiful aesthetic object; a work of art to be seen in a new light.
It’s fitting to have taxidermy in a West Sussex setting where hunting would have been very much part of the culture. It is befitting of the house but in a contemporary way. She isn’t mimicking the rat’s natural setting – instead, she puts it within an unexpected and imaginative setting, challenging you to see things differently.
We are used to seeing taxidermy specimens in glass cases but the delicate glass dome, together with the chandelier and champagne glass, is altogether more warm and intimate.
This particular piece works really well being situated in the bedroom of the grand domestic house. It is as if the rat lives here and there is something oddly comforting about the way it rests, hugging itself inside its little champagne glass, under its own chandelier.
Polly has given the rat a domestic space of its own within the larger domestic space of Pallant House, making the rat look very small and vulnerable.
I think the rat is supposed to look asleep – having a rest in this decadent house. Obviously the rat is something you think of as vermin, but she succeeds in making it look beautiful.
If you just hear about the piece you would certainly be dubious. You really need to see it."
Contemporary Eye: Crossovers at Pallant House Gallery ran until March 6 2011.