Physically performing every step of the creative process is important to Belfast-born Claire Morgan, whose first solo exhibition in the United States, “Stop Me Feeling,” is on view at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville through May 7. Morgan’s hands-on approach sounds simple enough since many artists touch every aspect of their artworks, from canvas preparation to gallery installation. Relatively few, though, use dead animals in their work, and fewer still perform taxidermy themselves.
Morgan is internationally recognized for her hanging installations, such as If you go down to the woods today (2014), which is in the Frist exhibition. But her work also encompasses two-dimensional blueprints, so to speak, of her methodology, which are visually impactful in their own right through their macabre depictions of nature. “Stop Me Feeling” presents a small yet thorough sampling of Morgan’s work—one installation, two cabinet sculptures, two works on paper, and a painting—responding to the natural experience of death with the same numbness we assume in viewing the unnatural consequence of taxidermy.
Morgan uses plant-based materials in her work—dandelion, wildflower, and sunflower seeds and thistles. Delving further into humanity’s inability to accept mortality and the artificial environments we fabricate in order to cope, she began adding insects and small taxidermic animals as centerpieces of her compositions. Morgan specifically chooses animals we see as disposable or pesky—foxes, squirrels, rabbits, and birds—who live in close proximity to us in our artificial environments and suffer in various ways as a result, from loss of habitat to poisoning. Through her lifelike restoration of the animals’ appearance and the enchanting, geometric habitats in which she positions them, Morgan elevates the creatures’ significance, which serves as a two-fold metaphor for humanity’s conflicted relationship with nature. For all its aesthetic allure, Morgan’s work also conveys darkness and discomfort in the material representation of death—the corpse of an animal.
If you go down to the woods today is a dense and vaguely cube-shaped grid of thousands of pieces of orange plastic bags suspended from the ceiling on nylon threads. The artist’s manual tearing of the bags gives the polythene fragments a leafy, organic appearance. While beautiful, the resulting life-sized “landscape” threatens to suffocate the curious muntjac deer and the three butterflies in its midst. In the United Kingdom, muntjacs are known as invasive species, escaping from the care of private estates and meandering to more urban areas. Comparable to the deer we fear hitting with our cars on country backroads, the muntjac represents an annoyance that is now seen as delicate and innocent and a casualty of selfish human enterprise.
Appropriately, Frist visitors have to walk through the exhibition “Secrets of Buddhist Art: Tibet, Japan, and Korea” to get to “Stop Me Feeling.” Buddhism is known for its reverence of animals and its philosophy that animals are sentient creatures capable of expressing humanlike qualities, even becoming humans in rebirth. Morgan, who sees all living beings as connected parts of a whole, complements this ideology through the forced reincarnation of the animal through taxidermy. The animals she uses, like all her materials, are found objects. They’ve often been hit by cars or have succumbed to natural causes. Morgan had a penchant for math and science in grade school, and finds it important to perform the taxidermy herself. The gruesome and heartbreaking process requires rigorous measurement and note-taking to achieve anatomical accuracy
Morgan’s drawings often document the physical process of taxidermy and preparatory drafts for sculptures. The air that we breathe (2014), for example, incorporates the taxidermy residue—preservative substances and bodily fluids—of the sparrow depicted in the drawing and used in a cabinet sculpture of the same title. According to the artist, the repetitive arcs of the bird’s flight path represent the lack of separation between us and the bird because we cyclically share the same air. Clusterfuck (2015) is a cabinet sculpture using a taxidermic bird. A miniature hanging installation, the work features a vitrine-encased carrion crow suspended inside a cube shape of suspended flies, seeds, leaves, pieces of cellophane, and cigarette butts—all objects that float in the air naturally and collect in the street as insignificant details of life.
Morgan considers her installations as controlled and having pinnacled, and she only recently began painting as a way to branch out. Rarely before has she set her own color palette; it is normally dictated by natural elements. In the exhibition guide, Frist curator Trinita Kennedy poetically describes the triptych Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds (2016) as evocative of “a great explosion … [pointing] to our willingness to push Earth itself to the brink” of destruction. Morgan enriches the earthy hues of taxidermy residue with paint, graphite, and other mixed mediums on canvas.
The consistently death-filled content of Morgan’s work doesn’t indicate a sad artist, but rather an artist dealing with a healthy fear of death just like the rest of us. The blunt-force trauma of seeing death personified in so commonplace a context as art functions to actually stop our feeling, as the exhibition title insinuates, so that we are desensitized to our own death. We see this same sentiment play out in real time for the artist through the gross act of taxidermy. Morgan immortalizes and transforms roadkill into wondrous characters in glorious scenarios so that the idea of death becomes more bearable.
“Claire Morgan: Stop Me Feeling” is on view at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville through May 7.
Elaine Slayton Akin is an arts writer and nonprofit professional in Nashville by way of Little Rock. She is a member of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville. Her writing has been featured in Nashville Arts, Arkansas Life,Number, and At Home in Arkansas magazines.