Most people prefer to avoid mice, rats, and other rodents. Not Polly Morgan. She makes them into art. The British artist takes the traditional craft of taxidermy and, with the addition of Champagne glasses and miniature chandeliers, renders it chic enough for fans like Kate Moss to display in their living rooms. We talked to the artist as she got ready for her new exhibit, Exquisite Corpse, which opens today at Trinity Church on London’s Marylebone Road and will be up until October 19. To schedule an appointment to view the show, call 011-44-778-879-5435. To see more of Morgan’s work, go to www.pollymorgan.co.uk.
How is your work different from traditional taxidermy?
Traditional taxidermy tends to mimic the natural habitat of a creature, whereas mine takes it out of its usual context. I think things viewed in their natural context aren’t often “seen”—for example, when we look for something that’s right in front of our noses and can’t find it because it’s always there. We’re far more likely to notice a can of beans in the bathroom than we are in the kitchen cupboard.
Does changing the context of the artwork make it more endearing?
When I put a rat in a Champagne glass, people said it was beautiful, and it was bought by a self-confessed rat hater!
So, yes, then. But you also explore more complex ideas in your art than you’d expect from the usual fox-on-a-log scene.
Taxidermy has traditionally been all about reanimating or resurrecting a corpse. My work is often about freezing the time between death and decomposition. In that short space of time the eyes, ears, feathers, etc. all become redundant, and before they disintegrate and become part of something else entirely, they are nothing but an ornament. I find something touching about that, and by using taxidermy to preserve animals in that moment, it’s something that can be contemplated longer than usual.
How do you get the animals you use?
From friends with cats, from the side of the road—my mother lives in the country and she and her friends are always picking things up for me. Occasionally from pet shops or from people who own aviaries. The longer I’ve been doing it, the more people have come to associate me with dead animals, which means I get quite a lot of offers!
Is there a theme to Exquisite Corpse?
Life and death are about the only things I ever think about, work-wise. It’s either sex or death in art, and I’m definitely more interested in the latter where my work’s concerned. I’m so horrified by death that perhaps I’m trying to see the beauty in it.
There’s a new mag in town. Husband-and-wife team Alex Freund and Lisa Mosko (he’s a photographer, she’s a stylist and writer; they’ve contributed to publications such as Surface, The New York Times Magazine, and Tokion) have launched Gravure, a biannual journal that will spotlight fashion, art, and culture, with a corresponding Web site going online at noon today. “We’re calling it a ‘multimedia happening,’ ” said Mosko of the two-pronged launch. “We like the idea of opposite technologies. We wanted a Web aspect to the publication, but on the other hand, communication has become very throwaway, so we also wanted a nostalgic component, something more precious, with a tactile quality.” The first issue features the work of Ellen von Unwerth, Marcelo Krasilcic, designer and stylist Victoria Bartlett, and Frankie Rayder directed by Alisa Lipsitt. What it doesn’t feature is ads, and while the couple hasn’t ruled them out, they’re only going to consider ones that match Gravure‘s refined look.
You could say Dawn Mellor is “celebral”: She makes smart art that mocks our obsession with celebrities’ stupidities. Her paintings show far-fetched fantasies that put pop stars and tabloid regulars in situations that exaggerate their real-life trials and bungles—Christina Aguilera with arrows piercing her buff little bod à la Saint Sebastian, for example. The London-based 37-year-old is showing her work at Studio Voltaire, southwest London’s only artist-led gallery, through October 28. It’s better than a copy of The Sun, we promise—as were her answers to our questions.
What do you think we, as fans, want from famous people?
I think that there has developed a kind of equivalent to the class system in how we measure a celebrity’s worth. Where the divisions used to be made by fans of particular genres of music, the quality of films made, etc., now we seem to have created a group of celebrities who are despised, humiliated, and mocked.
But you don’t only paint D-through-Z-list celebrities.
Even the so-called quality products of A-list celebrities or independent film stars and musicians don’t escape the scrutiny of paparazzi photographers and tabloid journalists. It’s as though there is an attempt to destroy the celebrity’s perceived narcissistic ego and, even more sinister, to encourage self-destruction. The public’s (or a large proportion of it) desired form of entertainment has shifted somewhat from the music and films produced to the use of stars as scapegoats.
Are you suggesting that schadenfreude is more entertaining to us than the entertainment celebrities intentionally produce?
I think the situation is more complex than simple schadenfreude. Those who engage in [this culture] seem to define themselves as a group, in a quasi-religious pagan way. The celebrities’ destruction, after a series of highs and lows, seems to serve a ritualistic function, giving the public a sense of power and catharsis.
You did a fashion show with Mike Stokes—how did that come about?
I wanted an event at the opening [of my show] that would have an element of disrespect for the paintings I was installing, but would also have a relationship to notions of celebrity and glamour. Mike came up with the idea of a fashion show and I was instantly excited. If only out-of-work and frustrated fashion designers could have a collective punk DIY attitude and put on shows in unexpected environments, instead of just waiting for employment. Both Mike and I are interested in smashing boundaries between different cultural forms. There has to be a more exciting option than artists making bags and jewelry.
The Pipettes, the polka-dot clad trio from across the pond, have nothing against the Beatles. They just consider them a bit, well, obvious as a musical reference point. Instead, Gwenno, Rosay, and RiotBecki, who make up the Brighton-based hybrid of early-sixties girl band meets eighties punk by way of disco, Philly soul, and nineties dance tracks, prefer to take their cues from less obvious places. While their vibe and sound (not to mention those fabulous choreographed dance routines) could be oversimplified as new wave Supremes, a good listen to their debut album, We Are the Pipettes (Cherrytree/Interscope), available stateside on October 2, suggests that there’s more to their music than simple retro-fetishizing. They are, quite simply, lots of fun. As Rosay, who chatted to us about frocks, Abba, and avoiding inflated egos, puts it, “There was a real lack of that kind of thing in the industry.”
How did the idea for the band come about?
We were looking for a different line in pop music history that wasn’t just the Beatles, the Stones…and U2, or whatever. So we started thinking a little more naturally and differently about our musical history. It became a little bit of a research project.
What kind of bands did you guys “research”?
Well, we all kind of new about these old bands, but there were so many—like the Charades have this song, Dumb Head, and then there’s the most amazing song from the Murmaids called Popsicles and Icicles. And Abba—Abba is a massive influence.
Do you think coming from Brighton helped nurture these ideas into a full-fledged movement?
Definitely. It’s quite a hedonistic town, with a mix of people. It’s a bit tacky in a kiss-me-quick kind of way. There’s always been a strong creative tradition there that’s very open to new things, and there’s a broad range of music being made here—like British Sea Power and Restlesslist, a really good electronic instrumental band.
Your synchronized dance numbers have become quite the signature. Who choreographs them?
They’re not the most complex things in the world! It’s a joint effort, really. We’re interested in the performance element, and we really want our audience to want to dance—and you can’t expect that if you’re not dancing yourself! We were so bored of going to gigs and watching people not know what to do with themselves.
Tell me about the polka dots—are they just kitschy embellishments?
Well, the original concept of the band was that we kind of wanted to have a uniform—we were interested in the idea of branding and the polka dots seemed like a casual motif that was synonymous with us as brand: bold, brash, and fun.
How would you describe the band’s collective style?
We’re really only interested in dresses that are comfortable and make us feel confident, not necessarily sexy. We want to promote the concept that it’s not about individual egos. Wearing the same dresses on stage lets us escape any potential for that, which is really a great thing.
Sometimes, if you take on a role, it becomes reality. In the case of Brooklyn-based artists Guy Richards Smit and Rebecca Elbridge Chamberlain, playing the part of rock stars in their band Maxi Geil! & Playcolt has made them into both bona fide art stars and up-and-coming rockers who’ve opened for Scissor Sisters and Maxïmo Park. It’s a rock band with an arty twist, mind you: The husband-and-wife team write satirical operas about topics such as the self-esteem issues of insecure porn stars. At the center of the action is the stylishly sociopathic character Maxi Geil! (German slang that can be translated as “super-horny”), through whom Smit channels the gritty glamour of the overheated East Village art scene of the eighties. Combine all this with brunch and you’ve got what could be the ultimate act of ironic cool. That’s the plan for tomorrow afternoon, when Maxi Geil! & Playcolt will perform at Bloomberg Space in London. Eggs and decadence—a fine combination. Bloomberg Space, 50 Finsbury Square, London EC2, 011-44-207-330-7959.