The Royal Society of Sculptors unveils British artist Polly Morgan’s first public sculpture “OPEN! CHANNEL! FLOW!” on 27 February 2023. The sculpture has been awarded the Society’s First Plinth: Public Art Award. From 27 February to 29 April 2023, Morgan’s sculpture – her largest to date – will be on display on the Sculpture Terrace of the newly restored Dora House, before being installed in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Running concurrently is False Flags, Morgan’s joint exhibition with US artist Leena Similu. Here camouflage, mimicry and deception are the inspiration for a series of painted snakeskin-textured sculptures, photographs and ceramic sculptural works that explore the politicisation of body adornment and draw parallels between military and cultural warfare.
Fig. above: Polly Morgan, Courtesy the artist
Taking its title from the name given to any conduit with a free surface, OPEN! CHANNEL! FLOW! consists of two triangles of furrowed concrete adorned with painted, iridescent fibreglass casts of snakes that spill from the crevices and connect the two. Through the use of materials commonly used in boatbuilding and nail decoration, Morgan uses modern technology to mimic nature at its most dazzling and obfuscatory. The snakes are moulded into their concrete trenches, with their scales reflecting light as rainbows. The sculpture represents how we are all shaped and constrained by our environment: the refracted light is the energy, ebb and flow of ideas, and the serpentine forms embody all life; at points intertwining, repelling and jostling for position.
You enter the gallery and see a pile of paper on the desk ahead. Press releases, like sails to steer the good ship in a favourable direction, contain strings of recherché adjectives, unearthed to overawe the reader into quiet submission. Look in this direction, please. And if you can’t understand us, then we must be smarter than you. Their claim to elucidate is a masked attempt to dominate.
Maybe this is the only honest press release you’ll ever read. Or perhaps it’s a double bluff – hoping to sway hardened cynics and jaded gallery-goers by flattering them into a sense of collusion. Are we laughing with you, or at you?
The practice in naval warfare of raising a neutral or enemy flag to misrepresent your identity or intent is a good example of the powerplay between predator and prey, with camouflage, mimicry and subterfuge being used to misdirect the opponent.
Similarly, the flare of a cobra’s hood to reveal large eyes more akin to those of a mammal, while displaying the colourful markings common to benign snakes, are all visual tricks employed by the deadly cobra to hide its true identity. It’s the oldest form of appropriation and, if detected, would mean cancellation of the severest kind.
Polly Morgan is white, with bitten, unpainted fingernails. Is it appropriate she uses in her work the sharp painted nails more commonly associated with black culture or good grooming? Her snake-textured augmented sprues, spine-like columns on which acrylic nails are packaged before application, are like strings of bunting or serried shields, beauty both as cue and armour. Beside these, her photographs of birds’ skins on serpentine wire look remarkably like the wigs worn by showmen, judges, and chieftains.
Leena Similu makes anthropomorphic ceramics inspired by the masks of her mother’s homeland, Cameroon. Features exaggerated and expressions frozen, they sport shocks of human hair and wear earrings that resemble their younger selves had they lived.
The artists have been friends for decades and now, living in different continents, keep in touch online. Similu digs deep on Instagram, often sending Morgan videos of people who are avatar-like in their pursuit of beauty and favoured by the algorithm. Their faces, like emojis, have been distilled down to clear bright features in a coloured frame. Like Similu’s ritual masks, maybe these painted, sculpted faces will bring the wearers likes and long lives.
The story is the same as ever. Only this time, the Emperor is wearing gluteal implants, a feathered headdress and false nails. Or is he?
Polly Morgan’s work is also part of the exhibition BIG WOMEN, on view at Firstsite in Colchester from 11 February to 18 June 2023. Curated by Sarah Lucas, the exhibition features work by leading British women artists.
Exhibitions: Polly Morgan, OPEN! CHANNEL! FLOW! and
Polly Morgan & Leena Similu, False Flags
Exhibition dates: Monday 27 February – Saturday 29 April 2023
Mon – Fri 11:00 am – 5:00 p.m.
Royal Society of Sculptors
108 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3RA