I know snakes are a big part of Polly Morgan’s art, but I still have a double attitude when her partner, fellow artist Mat Collishaw, opens the door to the high ceilings a converted pub in south London where they live and work and I am greeted by a rather large python on watch.
“I can handle dead snakes,” says Morgan, who came out of her studio looking a bit like Gillian Anderson in paint-splattered pale blue jumpsuit, a black vest that made her look cool, and her blonde hair tied back in two braids. “If they were alive it would be a different story.” Banksy called Morgan “Britain’s Hottest Bird Puppet” when she first appeared on the art scene in the early 2000s – Kate Moss and Courtney Love both bought her work. But she hasn’t stuffed birds in a long time; she was busy with snakes. In her new exhibition How to Behave at Home, which opens today in The Bomb Factory in north London, she experiments with their shape and shapes both animal specimens and snake sculptures so that they fit into cramped concrete and styrofoam structures.
She had the idea long before Covid Hit – the title comes from a Victorian etiquette book – but it got a more timely response when we were all confined to our home. “I was interested in the idea of how we try to curb our basic instincts and behave in such a way that we may not behave naturally so that we can move on to society,” she says as we sit down at the thin dining table for a long time made of dark wood, with loose Earl Gray tea in branded cups with pictures of their snake sculptures on them.
There’s a lot to see: two Damien Hirst medicine cabinet sculptures line a wall – “He’s an old friend of Mats from college and he gave them to him” – and above the TV a tiny Sarah Lucas sculpture of a penis made from a soda can and cigarettes. Morgan misses the “diversity of people, the breadth of characters and perspectives” that shaped the era of the Young British Artists. Collishaw was part of this scene, albeit less noticeably than Hirst, Lucas, and Emin (who he went out with).
Daniel Hambury / Stella Pictures Ltd
“There was an innocence that seems to be lost. It is a completely unknowable world to those I have entered. I lack the sense of humor. The art world and culture in general have become extremely homogeneous. It comes back to the idea of trying to adapt. ”While she is happy that people are more socially conscious,“ when it comes to a point where all the artists are and all are beating the same drum and saying the same thing, it is not so Interesting”. She adds, “The representation is much better, there are more women and more people of color, but when everyone tends to think alike and all of them say the same thing, many other people can feel quite alienated. Diversity of opinion is one thing we have to work harder on. “
She talks thoughtfully about exploring this idea of adjustment in How to Behave at Home and only pausing to let in her dogs – a Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Trotsky and a Terrier Cross named Tony, both of whom fell asleep while we chat. “I planned the show, then Covid made almost everything irrelevant overnight,” she says. “I felt a bit depressed. Partly because I had my two sons at home all the time and couldn’t work all the time. I was trying to find a way and I thought my title would be perfect in some ways because we were all locked in and thinking about how to behave at home and trying to reconfigure. “
She was fascinated by “how celebrities stumbled at the beginning of the pandemic”: “They couldn’t post their usual pictures of themselves nicely dressed and couldn’t boast.” Another inspiration came from the “random architecture” of the styrofoam packaging in who got their art supplies: “They reminded me of how we looked out our windows to clap for the NHS and then went home and how we are all very overprotected these days” and in the early stages of the Blocking we gladly followed the instructions, hashtag stay at home and then hashtag march. “
Unite in a Common Goal, 2020, polyurethane, nail transfer, paint, varnish, 25 x 18 x 5.5 cm
When the lockdown emerged, “and we were all stuck on the radio,” Morgan stored snakes and went to a breeder in Hertfordshire. Everything she uses died naturally. “Years ago I was verbally abused and threatened for using animals,” she says. It has calmed down, but her assistant recently posted a cute baby deer on Instagram, followed by a picture of a pickled deer in a jar, and there was a backlash where animal rights activists “concluded he killed the deer would have. They tried to find his mother and drive her out of her job. “
This leads Morgan to talk more about how we are overprotected. “People can’t handle your disagreement – you see it online all the time, people get rushed because they happen to have an opinion that doesn’t agree with yours. You can threaten someone to agree or apologize publicly, but is that progress by intimidating someone into your point of view? You see people on the internet saying one thing and then being forced to come back to it hours later. It’s not about truth, it’s about power. “
Performing a show in a pandemic is “a process of readjustment”. Due to the rule of six there will be no vernissage and visitors must book a slot. “I get a fraction of the audience, but there’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, it’s so much worse for so many people.” The show will also be available online, in a 360 degree experience that will make you feel like you are walking around. “It will last and I would never have done that if it hadn’t been for Covid and it means people who normally wouldn’t make it into the gallery can see it.”
Morgan has “some sympathy with the government” trying to save the economy and wasn’t upset that Rishi Sunak was retraining people in the arts. “There is no money tree. Artists have problems, but every artist will have experienced financial hardship – I think the impact is not quite as instantaneous for artists, it is more of a gradual decline. I get frustrated when people criticize the government for putting the economy above life because the economy is life. You cannot quantify the loss of life that will result from these economic disasters. They will have an impact for years and definitely take a huge toll on mental health and human life. I just really hope we don’t go into a second lockdown because it’s already devastating. I went into town the other day, which I almost never do, and was shocked how different it was. “She hasn’t read suggestions that the Royal Academy might have to sell a Michelangelo to save jobs, but says:” Better to have a leaner collection and keep going than disappearing altogether, but you’d think so. ” [selling the Michelangelo] would be the last resort. “
Understand your audience, 2020, Jesmonite, sand, MDF, resin, nail transfer, paint, top coat, structural steel, polyurethane, holographic powder, 82 x 82 x 18 cm
One silver lining in the pandemic is that Collishaw is doing more childcare. “It was great for me,” says Morgan with a laugh. “He was out and about a lot before and I did most of the children’s things. Now there is no excuse. “
It was Collishaw who gave her the idea to use nail rod powder to paint the snakes’ skin on this show. She started working with snakes after three years of “artist’s block, working but not believing in what I was doing and never finished”. “I immediately got more attention than I expected and didn’t go to art school, so I didn’t have this process of breakdown that would have felt miserable, but I saw the point in it so I had to do it myself, myself about art raising. It was good for me, but for a while I didn’t feel like what I was doing was good enough.
“Then one day I was standing in front of my freezer and pulling out some snakes that I had forgotten were there. They had this beautiful shape like a modernist sculpture and it occurred to me that I wanted to do more abstract work. “
For a long time she “fixed” herself on how to recreate the shimmering snake skin. “Mat suggested that I ask nail salons how to make nails shimmer because he overheard some girls talking about their nails on the bus. So that’s what I did – I went to have my nails done and asked a lot of questions about what they use. They weren’t interested when I said I was an artist and that’s why I wanted to know. ”Her sons“ think it’s normal to have a freezer full of snakes in the basement ”. Her youngest has just turned two – Morgan rented a bouncy castle for his birthday because “right now all he wants to do is throw himself from a great height, so I thought, ‘Great, I’ll just do this for him ‘“- and her oldest is six. “I wonder what people at school think of him, they have to think he’s telling great stories because he casually mentions mom’s snakes. He brought me a shiny paper from school and said solemnly it was for my snakes. “The kids say Morgan doesn’t go out much, even though she had a big 40th birthday party in January with lots of dancing.
“When we can go out again, I wonder if I will actually do it. Ten years ago, however, I would have felt the compulsion not to be able to go out much. My boyfriend came to my party from LA – I hope we don’t tell our kids someday that people used to fly around the world like it was the craziest thing. ”We both pause, overwhelmed by the thought. Morgan finishes her tea and leads me out as she walks past huge, glowing snakes, all of which are distorted and trying to fit into a shape.
How to Behave at Home runs at The Bomb Factory through November 2nd. bombfactory.org.uk