Psychopomps: From Death to the Afterlife

Posted by Sharon Deans on January 20, 2011 in Blog tagged with ,

Psychopomps is an ancient Greek word that refers to the conductors or guides who lead souls from death to the afterlife.  In mythology they include Charon, who guards the gates of the Underworld, Hermes, the wing-footed messenger God, the Anubis of Egypt, and Apollo.  In a recent exhibition of the same name by taxidermist and sculptor Polly Morgan they are represented by a variety of pigeons, crows, canaries and cardinals, themselves already dead, but suspended as if mid-flight.  This work marks a departure for Morgan away from the glass-domed Victoriana for which she is famous.

I have long been fascinated with the dark and exquisite art work of Polly Morgan, in particular the pieces that embody, if you’ll pardon the pun, the Victorian aesthetic of ornamentation, whilst at the same time subverting the conventions of taxidermy – the glass domes, the life-like poses. She has made robins, kingfishers and finches draped across prayer books under tiny chandeliers:

Vestige 2009

To Every Seed His Own Body 2006

Flights of Fancy 2009

As well as larger pieces such as:

Still Life After Death (Fox) 2006

Still Life After Death (Rabbit) 2006

Morgan prefers to call herself a sculptor rather than a taxidermist, as conventional taxidermy mimics the natural habitat of the chosen animal, and her work doesn’t try to do that. Her more recent work has seen her moving away from the Victorian aesthetic in an attempt to modernise it with more contemporary elements, for example her balloon and chick series, where she juxtaposes the textures, shapes and colours of the chicks with the balloon. For Morgan both are tactile and uncanny: the balloon will never deflate as it is cast in resin, and the chick will never decompose.

Still Birth 2010

The chick represents the Victorian aesthetic, and the balloon a more modern, Pop aesthetic. She states that the title ‘Still Birth’ is not designed to shock, but that it seemed apt considering that the work is a still life with a dead chick, and it is attached by a cord to a womb-like red balloon. Don’t think I could live with this one somehow…

Her recent works have also been more ambitious and greater in scale:

Departures 2009

‘Departures’ – a flying machine – is a cage held aloft by a flock of birds that includes three vultures. Morgan says that she wanted her work to become ‘less ornamental and more monumental’. The idea for ‘Departures’ came from a Victorian etching of a proposed flying machine to be powered by birds, and Morgan likes the idea that we don’t know whether it is the passenger or the birds who are free. The passenger has the ability to travel, but he is caged; the birds are tethered, yet they can fly. This highlights the dichotomy between human and animal: we harness them, yet they are the ones with the power.

Another monumental piece, ‘Carrion Call’ (a particular favourite of mine), depicts chicks emerging from a full size coffin:

Carrion Call 2009

‘Carrion Call’ was inspired by a photograph Morgan took of a rotten blackbird riddled with maggots, a repellent image (which I will spare you here) that she found, on consideration, actually life-affirming and strangely beautiful. Morgan saw the corpse becoming a nest for new life. She describes a coffin as ‘loosely egg-shaped’ and wanted it to look like it was cracking open with new life: an overwhelming number of chicks all clamouring to emerge. Interestingly, Morgan also describes the chicks, when viewed from a distance, as looking like a ‘growth, moss, or barnacles’: yet another sign of life springing from dereliction.

Last year Morgan created another flying machine for her ‘Psychopomps’ exhibition, a word so deliciously ridiculous I was convinced she had made it up and found myself checking the OED to verify it (with apologies to the classicists out there!). This flying machine is made to look like it is ascending from the flames of hell (the birds are dyed a flame red) and is entitled ‘Systemic Inflammation’.

L to R: Blue Fever, Systemic Inflammation and Black Fever. From the Psychopomps exhibition 2010

In addition to their role as psychopomps, the pieces in the exhibition are linked by their titles. Each references and puns on diseases common to humans and birds: ‘Atrial Flutter’, ‘Systemic Inflammation’, Blue Fever’ and ‘Black Fever’.

Atrial Flutter and detail

‘Atrial Flutter’ introduces a human body part (albeit cast and not real) for the first time. A small red cardinal sits inside a human ribcage, affecting to be a beating heart.

Black Fever 2010

The two abstract, winged works in the exhibition, ‘Blue Fever’ and ‘Black Fever’, are, according to Morgan, an amalgamation of the balloons and birds in flight that she has adopted in previous work. Her intention here was to create an ‘organic whole’ which looks ‘uncannily real’. The different strata of the wings in the sculpture are intended to mimic movement so that the sculptures appear to have a pulse.

This idea of movement and activity in the Psychopomps sculptures is another departure from Morgan’s previous work, where the animals are shown to be at peace. Another example of this is ‘Morning’, a piece from 2007, which depicts a robin smashing through glass:

Morning 2007

Morgan says that with ‘Morning’ she saw the glass as representing the end of life and the start of death, and how many of us have thought the same thing when a garden bird has come crashing against our panes? However, I find it interesting that Morgan chose this sculpture to be featured on a limited edition of Christmas cards (packs of five or ten). Not exactly a cheery message for the time of year, and perhaps there would have been more commercial success if she had sold them singly. I only know of one person amongst my acquaintance who would appreciate a Christmas card like this (and she is probably reading this).

As I write this I am aware that although I greatly admire and am fascinated with her work, I am viewing it at a remove – I have never seen any of Morgan’s work ‘in the flesh’ (if you will forgive another pun) – and I don’t know how I would react if I did, although I would relish the opportunity (I am still smarting from the fact that my family forbade me from going to see Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds exhibition in New York). I suspect I would still find Morgan’s work beautiful and/or fascinating. If I could afford it would I have one though? I suspect not. I prefer the animals in my house to be of the living kind, and I feed the birds religiously in the winter. I wouldn’t mind a limited edition print though!

So, whether Morgan’s work has made you go ‘Aaaah’:

Why do we Wake 2006

Or made you go ‘Eeeeuuuuuw’:

Dead Heads 2009

I hope you will agree that it is fascinating stuff. There is, of course, an inherent paradox in taxidermy, which Morgan’s work exemplifies: it forces a confrontation with death, but also makes us feel that death can be defeated.

If you want to know more about Polly Morgan, you can visit her website at, and there is also an interesting monograph,’ Polly Morgan: Psychopomps’, (which I am lucky enough to own) about her past and present work available from  Be warned though, her website is not for the squeamish, and nor is the monograph, so for those of you with a sensitive disposition I would recommend, instead, a search round Google images.

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