Claire Morgan undertook a two-month residency at Persistence Works studios during 2006. This text was commissioned by Yorkshire ArtSpace Society as part of the residency programme. The essay explores Claire’s work to date within the context of ‘Art in the Public Realm’, with a particular focus on the installation she created for the public art space at Persistence Works.
Perch (Crowdpleaser) and Warning are two large-scale sculptural works created by Claire Morgan for the public art space at Persistence Works, Sheffield in reaction to its unique architectural qualities.
The works represent the fulfilment of a residency programme at the works, where Morgan was asked to respond to the notion of ‘Art and the Public Realm’. The setting represents somewhat of a departure for Morgan, much of whose previous work has drawn upon more traditionally ‘atmospheric’ environments; church interiors, woodland canopies or river basins, for example. The public art space at Persistence Works is not a generic white space, but neither does it disclose any obvious historical or emotional value; Morgan’s success therefore lies in the fact that she has taken the challenges of this gallery space and turned them on their head. The result being that the space has become the ideal setting for her curious proposition.
Two self-contained works occupy the space. Crowdpleaser is text made from the disposable – torn polythene, nylon thread and, at its centre, a dead crow. But it is text on a grand scale, stretching almost the whole length of the room. Accompanying Crowdpleaser is Warning, an exclamation mark formed from blades of grass, the contents of a vacuum cleaner, Cellotape and nylon thread. This is a much smaller, almost ephemeral work, but it works with Crowdpleaser to create an inclusive installation, Warning supporting, affirming even, the idea of its larger neighbour. Equally, both provide a strong visual unity through their structural qualities that allow for continual (all be it subtle) change and movement.
Interested in using everyday materials and lowly repeated gestures, Morgan has, to date, created an extraordinarily rich body of work using the simplest of means. Indicative of all her work is the desire to explore the physical qualities of an object and testing its composite nature within the environment in which it will be placed. The individual elements of these composite works often appear fragile – strawberries, cherries, seeds, paper, leaves, insects for example. But upon inclusion in a greater structure, they proved density, strength and mass through repetition. And this repetition acts almost to recontextualise the individual objects. Morgan gathers her material from the real world – leaves from the woodland floor, fruit from the market, dead insects from the ‘Insectocutors’ in local butchers, and transfers them into an alternate environment; not so much an inviting of nature indoors, as a mass transplantation. Recently however, Morgan has also begun to work with man-made materials; such as the polythene and nylon of Crowdpleaser; she continues though to employ them in a manner which is both spare and sumptuous, starting with the individual properties of her chosen materials and building up layers of understanding, emotional response and sensation.
Just as the materials, given body by repetition, are integral to Morgan’s work; so too the production brings its own level of detail, with the whole a combination of multiple and repeated actions – of folding, threading, tearing and scattering. This complicated and labour-intensive process, undertaken by hand, ultimately results in the suspension of the individual elements; it is a rigorous process that suggests legitimacy to the work, implying an element of craft to the process.
The final structure is also an embodiment of tenacity, a desire that the impossible should exist, and with it comes wonderment, fascination and beauty at the creation of substance from frailty, executed with an apparently easy lightness of touch. But appearances are deceptive – it takes invention, innovation and sheer bloody determination to collect 2500 dead flies and thread them individually onto nylon.
The artist uses her work to demonstrate her obsession with the role of nature, its place in the world and the context within which it is viewed. And she attempts to visualise this by conjoining elements of both craft and science, both of which strive to transform through process and experimentation. Her early practice often appeared almost as rigorously pared down experiments, posing simple and unqualified questions. Equally there is a preoccupation with the nature of change through the passage of time, as the balance of life is preserved by growth and decay.
In Emotional Response, 2004, an eight metre tall cylinder of nylon threads was stretched from ceiling to floor, and from each thread was suspended a tulip bulb. Over the two week duration of the show, the bulbs sprang into life, growing to the verge of flowering. Regeneration occurred where decay and fading might have been expected, proof, if you like of life’s ability to persist in the most adverse of environments. The cylinder embodied the fundamental proposition of the vanities of still life and provided the opportunity to witness the regeneration of beauty within the formality of an exhibition setting.
All of the works subvert their inhabited space – attempting to destabilize the visitors’ perceptions. Much of the work is an embodiment of disturbance and tension, often due to the sheer temporal unpredictability of the materials employed. The viewer is presented with both structure and components, one of which claims the title of art, the other being more fluid, everyday, sensual and transient. This is perhaps why Morgan encourages her viewer to negotiate with her work, as in Things that Fall, 2005, a site-specific installation of thousands of pine cones, scattered and hung within a barn, which visitors had to find their own path through, discovering (or avoiding) several decomposing carcasses of crows.
Although the notion of time has been central to much of Morgan’s work, it is less important in Crowdpleaser. Here change does not appear to occur, whether through disintegration, decomposition or growth. The chance to experience the effects of changes in sunlight, gusts of wind or the scent of ripening fruit is absent. What you do get however is a sense of contrast between the uncompromising surfaces of the gallery space, and the continual subtle movements of the component parts. The movements are powered by the gentlest of air currents, and as such are fugitive and insubstantial – almost ghostly. It may well be constructed from a mass of disconnected forms, but the whole has a uniform coherency that is able to bring alive the austerity of the space. This in itself is a shift from Morgan’s previous work, where the individual elements almost outshone the whole; rather here the mass of objects is wholly connected – they can only be read as a whole, individually they have no meaning, and it is the viewer that provides that meaning by the action of simply reading the word, Crowdpleaser.
But what about the crow? This dead animal is an alien in the manufactured space. It is also a recurring emblem in Morgan’s work. This is not one of Van Gogh’s free-flying, rural birds, but a purposefully positioned watcher, keeping an eye on the visitor. And this is as it should be, if this is ‘Art in the Public Realm’ then what public art is complete without its resident birds? Maybe the crow then provides us with an allusion to the monumental, Nelson with his pigeons, but done with a soft humour. Although public art may be often be intended as a gesture of civic goodwill, ultimately the birds will want to reinterpret it as a roosting spot.
And if this is art in the public realm, then is it able to live up to its claims? Is it a crowdpleaser! Ultimately the work is positioned within an artistic context and in this instance lies in wait for a public to venture forth. The statement dominates the gallery and dares to challenge the notion that there is an expectation that public art should be populist and have mass appeal. Perhaps the best way to approach the installation is to consider the manner of its creation, assembled from multiple units to create a whole. So too is the crowd constructed of repeated human units, and the reaction of the individual forms part of the total response. The complexity, the strange beauty and the sheer bravura of the installation are undeniable, but as individual participants in the process we may never know how much the crowd was pleased – only the ever watchful crow could tell us that.