Claire Morgan’s “Dead Weight” in Paris

Claire Morgan, "Show of Strength," 2023. © Claire Morgan Studio. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve.

A pale woman clutches a dead fox to her bosom, her hold on its lifeless pelt somewhere between a cuddle and a throttle. Her head is tilted down, chin to chest; the fox’s head is tipped up slightly by her hand. Titled Dead Weight (all works 2023), this sculpture by Claire Morgan is made of a jarring mix of beeswax, human hair, and taxidermied animals. It was one of two life-size works included in her latest show, I only dared to touch you once I knew that you were dead, at Galerie Karsten Greve in Cologne, Germany. While these wax sculptures provided thematic pillars, the exhibition also featured mixed-media sculptures made of animal skins or representing animal parts, as well as works on paper and large-scale drawings. It was these drawings that drove the plot, renegotiating the relationship between women and nature and firmly locating Morgan’s work within an ecofeminist discourse. The large-scale drawings especially challenge the white-centric narrative of ecocriticism.

Morgan has long incorporated taxidermy and animal imagery into her practice as a way of highlighting the detrimental impact of humans on the natural environment, but her use of the human form is strikingly new. The result is borderline horrific—and necessarily so. For instance, the fox and the woman in Dead Weight are both rendered in various states of decay, an effect furthered by the very materiality of the sculpture: beeswax can easily be marred or even melted. The animal’s jawbone protrudes through its desiccated mouth; its fur is crudely stitched together with thin, red thread down the length of its lower back. On the woman, veins appear like bruise-colored rivulets under her skin while the hair on her head is thin and stringy; each strand creates a distinct puncture wound in her scalp. The fox’s demise is already a reality while the woman’s appears inevitable, even if temporarily averted, and a vague sense of grief emanates from the sculpture. In this way, Dead Weight offers a material representation of “solastalgia,” a term coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to name the often difficult-to-express emotional and existential distress caused by environmental loss and displacement. Introduced in 2005, the word has recently become popular in the West’s social vernacular to describe a collective sense of loss—the result of unchecked human consumption of natural resources that fuels global warming and increasingly threatens natural and human-made habitats.

Claire Morgan, Dead Weight, 2023. © Claire Morgan Studio. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve.

In Dead Weight, while Morgan’s woman laments the deprivation of nature, embodied by the dead fox, a palpable tension reverberates in the figure’s tender yet uncomfortable relationship to the animal. This tension echoed throughout the show. The proximity of woman and animal lent a whimsical, fairy tale–esque quality to many of the works, most of which depict nude women in intimate poses with animals, as if there is some rarefied connection between them. But unlike a Disney story in which an innocent princess befriends a forest creature, Morgan confounds the traditional, patriarchal association of women and nature as a harmonious whole with the grisly material details of death and decay. Take, for instance, Limp, which is the title of both a drawing and a smaller fabric sculpture depicting a woman in a yogic child’s pose with a dead fox draped across her head and back. The contact of dead fur on “live” skin is a recurring motif, but neither flesh animates the other.

By dashing this fantasy of a female-nature equivalence, Morgan further implicates damaging human power structures (i.e., patriarchy) in the ecological disasters we are now grieving. The sense of eco-grief, induced by climate catastrophes, is perhaps most evident in the aptly titled The inevitable heat death of the universe, the other life-size wax sculpture in the show. Holding a garland of dead birds that stretches from one hand to the other, a similarly anemic wax figure reaches her arms out to the sides as if stretching her own wings, which, like Icarus’s, will melt as temperatures rise. A cascade of other birds, tethered by strings to the ceiling, rains down around the sculpture. The birds—crows, European jays, magpies, gannets, pheasants, feral parakeets, and others—are all local to the artist’s Newcastle area of North East England and were found dead of natural or manmade causes (as are all of Morgan’s animal subjects). Many of their bodies bear the same rough seams of red embroidery as the fox in Dead Weight, long crimson threads hanging loose beyond their feathers. Untidily sewn, these stitches call attention to the irreparable nature of the wounds they cover more than they offer a hope for healing. Red-threaded birds recur in Song and Visitors, two mobile sculptures hung elsewhere in the exhibition, providing an eerie refrain of silence where there was once birdsong.

Claire Morgan, The inevitable heat death of the universe, 2023. © Claire Morgan Studio. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve.

It is Morgan’s drawings, however, that fully explore the symbolism of subjugation (of both animal and woman), crucially deepening the nuances of the ecofeminist critique teased out in the sculptures. At the core of the exhibition was a 32-page book with concertina binding, hand-drawn, colored, and written by the artist. There’s no distinct narrative spelled out on its pages, more just atmospheric, stream-of-consciousness phrases that only half explain the images of a woman and a fox that dance across the paper. These sketches inform the six large-scale pastel and charcoal drawings on stained birch board that were displayed throughout the galleries, which again feature nude women with fox pelts in various odd, intimate, and inconvenient poses. The chiaroscuro in these works is arresting, and Morgan uses the intense shadows to create viscerally haunting secondary images in which the bodies of woman and fox merge.

In Show of Strength, the woman stands with the fox in an almost identical pose to that rendered in Dead Weight. But in this drawing, the tenderness of the related sculpture is absent. The fox’s head lolls backward, exposing its full, toothy maw; the woman’s chin is raised, and she gazes confrontationally at the viewer. At her pelvis, her hand grasps the base of the fox’s tail—not as if she were supporting the animal’s weight like in the sculpture, but as if she’s wielding the tail as a weapon. In the fused woman-fox shadow behind her, it looks as if she’s holding a very large dick. The same woman crouches over the fox’s body that’s laid unceremoniously on the ground in A Loosening. She seemingly lets go of the fox’s tail at the very moment captured in the drawing; it drifts downward, midway between her fingers and the floor. Behind her, a dark silhouette is shitting. In Projector, the woman appears again, bent over with her back to the viewer and the fox balancing on her head, its tail flopping forward. The shadow behind them reveals a woman puking, her fingers hovering near her mouth.

Claire Morgan, A Loosening, 2023. © Claire Morgan Studio. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve.

Throughout these drawings, the woman’s position in relation to the fox moves from a state of dominance and control to acceptance and release. The woman’s forcible manipulation of the fox in Show of Strength is mirrored in the phallocentric silhouette behind her. As she releases her control of the fox in A Loosening, she defecates, which could be a not-so-subtle metaphor for the bullshit trappings of the patriarchy. But as her relationship to the fox becomes less rigidly defined, as its skin sits absurdly on her head, she purges any sense of hierarchy between human and animal. She is now the one on all fours on the floor. It’s through this renegotiation of the woman’s relationship to nature that Morgan positions herself in relation to ecofeminist discourse, which has too often centered white women while tying the subjugation of women to the hierarchical and male-dominated oppression of nature under capitalism.

But even more crucial is the woman’s gradual move away from the role of “subject” in Morgan’s drawings, especially since Morgan’s works depict white women. This small compositional shift mirrors the need to decenter whiteness in the fight for environmental justice. The effects of climate change have been proven to disproportionately affect women, but so, too, do they amplify existing disparities between white people and people of color, as well as citizens of affluent countries and populations of the Global South. It’s worth noting here that the word solastalgia has gained popular awareness more than a decade after its inception only because more wealthy, white people have begun to notice the effects of climate change despite being the main beneficiaries of generations of resource exploitation. As the white female figure in Morgan’s drawings shifts her relationship to the fox/nature to one that is less hierarchical, so, too, does she minimize her subjecthood by turning her back to the viewer. This doesn’t formally erase her from the scene but rather deprioritizes her role within it.

Nevertheless, there is still no happy ending to be had in these works. Though the woman-fox relationship has changed, as has the woman-viewer relationship, the fox is not reanimated, nor is the woman any less vulnerable. Life is not restored; safety is not a given. Like the red-stitches of the birds that hang still and silent, there is no adequate repair for the harm that has been done to our habitat. The question that lingers when looking at Morgan’s works is: how can we grieve individually for the scale of what’s already been lost, knowing that we have been complicit in that destruction?

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