Claire Morgan | Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside
31 Mar – 20 May 2012
Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside has been commissioned by Mission Gallery and is presented as Wales’ first solo exhibition from the award-winning artist Claire Morgan.
The following is an in conversation with Claire Morgan and contemporary jewellery designer Anna Lewis which took place at Mission Gallery, 31 March 2012.
Exhibition supported by:
ArtWorks: Exhibition & Logistics
Arts & Business Cymru
Claire Morgan | in conversation with Anna Lewis
March 31st 2012
AL From my own experience of exhibiting at Mission Gallery, it is a beautiful space to exhibit in. Your work has a haunting quality, a melancholic resonance, which is quite curious, or mysterious which naturally responds to a space such as Mission Gallery. What was your approach to presenting in the space?
CM I started by visiting the gallery and spending time in the space, the fact it used to be a seaman’s chapel was interesting to me. I started to explore the surrounding areas as well and went down to the coast to look at the kind of materials I could use. I was given a guided tour by gallery staff and we went for an ice-cream and it struck me that was the kind of thing the coast means to people, how it’s about leisure and how we only behave this way in certain places. I was also interested in how the location here was at the periphery of the land and the sea and how the vast infinity of the ocean is something we can’t comprehend. The fact that this is also a religious space ties with this idea of peripheries between the known and unknown.
AL You mention that as human beings we are terrified by aspects of nature that are beyond our control and yet we choose to relax by sitting at the edge of it. How do you see this in your work here in terms of our conflict with nature?
CM I find our attitude toward nature difficult; our attitude to it is cocky for want of a better word. We are living parts of something much bigger, but we tend to disregard this and I have been thinking about why we do it.
AL Would you say all of your work is driven by your observations regarding human dissociation and exploitation of nature?
CM I would like to say no and that my practice is simply about our interaction with and understanding of nature, but inevitably when I explore this idea, our relationship with it is generally quite negative and not very nice. We distract ourselves so much with things that sit outside nature in a manmade world. It’s strange how we construct such nonsense in our lives to distance ourselves from nature and try to separate ourselves more and more, but it’s futile in the end.
AL In the piece Terminal we see a moment frozen in time with a falling herring gull surrounded by a static vortex of fragments of polythene. What are your thoughts behind this work?
CM Physically I wanted it to give the impression of the bird moving at high speed or violently flying downwards to give a sense of motion and I wanted that sense of motion to be explicit in the work, but the nature of it to be less certain or predictable. In one sense it is a beautiful still thing; juvenile gulls are incredibly beautiful animals, and the other details of the materials are fascinating. In another sense it’s a dead animal and there are pieces of torn up plastic encasing it and that plastic is coming into our space as well. So there were different things that interested me, and made me want to make it to see how I felt about it when it was in place, I don’t want to say a specific thing but rather explore. To see how it looked afterwards was important in order to understand how it would work.
AL The second piece entitled, You are my sunshine is referred to as a ‘black sun’ [by Darren Ambrose in the text, A Warning from the Sun commissioned by Mission Gallery] and consists of a sphere of suspended dead flies. How do you perceive these two artworks work together?
CM It started form an original idea I wanted to be in the space which was a cube tilted with blue torn plastic with dark and light blue like a horizon and on that boundary was a gull which looked like it was floating trapped between sea and sky. It came from wanting to recreate the landscape or seascape and the sun in the sky. So therefore I wanted there to be the sun in the room as well so you could make sense of it. I decided that the piece wouldn’t work but that was where the idea came from. Also the nature of the space with its religious aspects and I guess the ground being representative of the mortal and the sky represents that which we don’t understand.
AL Was there any significance to why you chose to use the flies?
CM Because of the religious nature of the space and the sky or sun representing in a way mortality or the unknown. Flies for me are a much clearer signifier of those things, more real. I’m not really trying to illustrate a set of ideas that is why I find it hard to explain them; I like people to interpret the work themselves.
AL These pieces have been described as signalling nature in distress would you agree that they send out warnings and strive to bring us closer to aspects of the non-human or to become reacquainted in some way?
CM I would like them to, Darren who wrote the essay text for the show feels very strongly that they do. What he writes is very flattering and I would like them to have that impact on somebody. We don’t live in a perfect environment where I can make political points like that without undermining them. Some of the materials I use are not very environmentally friendly things and I’m using dead animals as well so some people may think it’s a strange thing to do if I were to comment on that aspect. I would like them to do those things but the balance that you find is that one persons response may be very different to another.
AL It is interesting to note your dislike of dead-things and yet you choose to work with taxidermy in your sculpture. The use of animals naturally speaks of death or the significance of mortality or the passing of time. I am particularly interested what drew you to taxidermy? Is it key to your making process? By freezing time are you perhaps trying to bring them to life?
CM I have always used organic materials, and using animals as part of that seemed like an obvious thing to do; they are an organic material as well. When I started out I was exploring the idea of change and the passing of time but I was using it quite literally or clumsily. I used materials that were changing there and then like ice and fruit. I do still use them but now the work is more static and it’s become more about change rather than just illustrating it. Its really easy to illustrate change when its right there in front of you but its more challenging to convey movement by almost doing the opposite of that; it doesn’t necessarily mean it is more successful but I like a challenge.
AL It’s really interesting that you do your own taxidermy, is that something you learnt? I know this is incorporated into your drawings also?
CM It’s important to me that I do the process of taxidermy myself, it is as important as the final pieces and I would never hand over that process to somebody else at this point in time as it’s about learning about the materials that I am using. I’m learning about the animals and form a connection with them, albeit a weird connection but understanding their physicality and therefore understanding your connection with the thing; removing the skin of the animal and literally getting their blood on your hands during the work makes you look at it in a totally different way. If you handed it to someone very experienced in taxidermy they may produce a very perfect specimen far better that what I could do but its not really the same thing and the drawing is part of that as well. My drawings have the residue of the animal on the paper and the measurements of their body and then I create the illustration on top, I guess it’s like a document of the animal rather that a document of the sculpture they end up being part of. It’s about the things I have explored.
AL You have an incredible understanding of material, space and skill in making (which you have described as mathematical). Could you tell us a little bit about your installation process and the challenges it presents you?
CM I enjoy the challenge of making things. I spend quite a lot of time not actually making art but doing the groundwork to enable me to create things: to make the hanging and packing system better so I can make them transportable, to more and more precision in the way they’re assembled. I would never use computers to design work; I like to see what my brain is capable of making. I prefer pencil and paper because, although a computer would allow you to make anything, each time I make something I learn things, which enables me to do something a little bit more complicated the next time. I don’t necessarily want to make things more complicated as sometimes simplicity is nicer but it’s good to have a complete understanding of the structure, like here in the vortex, [Terminal] I have not done that before. My work takes a long time to create, but it depends, sometimes it can be a couple of days and sometimes months. Generally I have a few things going on at once and I do little pieces of each. I sometimes need the animal to be ready so I can include it in the threads which means I have to complete the drawing as well so its hard to figure out how long it takes me.
AL Are you drawn to people’s reactions when viewing your work? I am thinking in particular of works like, You are my sunshine where, from a distance people may be struck by the undeniable beauty of the tiny suspended fragments yet they realise that this beauty is in fact something quite abject, and that it is in reality, hundreds of dead blue bottles. Do you deliberately try to destabilize their initial perceptions? Or perhaps cause a tension between beauty and the abject?
CM Yes! I am using beauty as a way of manipulating things and our relationship with that and what we perceive it to be. I am interested in the way changing the context in which you view something, or placing an object or material along side something which is more or less safe or clean, facilitates something repulsive or worthless or small being regarded as something significant and therefore in a way something beautiful. It is important to me that they are not just pretty things to look at but at the same time I don’t want to make things that are sensational. I think if you make something sensational that shocks people their immediate reaction is to become defensive and closed. If you make something that engages people and if it has evidence of beauty or evidence of labour in the thing then you can get their attention. Then when the darker less palatable side of it is revealed, rather than thinking why have you just done that to me? They start to think why have you made it this way? How have you done that? Why is it interesting? They become more intrigued than offended.
A Warning from the Sun by Darren Ambrose (Senior Lecturer in Art Theory at Canterbury Christ Church University) available from Mission Gallery