Molly Morphew's art explores tenderness over distance in lead-up to Barbican showcase

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Molly Morphew's art explores tenderness over distance in lead-up to Barbican showcase
Flower Project, 2020. Image filmed by Molly Morphew.

by Fiona Glen

LONDON.- Canary Wharf is London’s most coldly capitalist patch. Home to barely anyone, the banking quarter is desolate from Saturday to Sunday. But on such a barren Saturday in late February, small heaps of soil appeared across the paving stones of these empty streets. The bare hands that lifted earth onto the pavement placed flowers on each: violet campanulas, golden billy buttons, orange carthumas. The scattering of memorial-like mounds sat slight and fairy-tale-like among the towering buildings.

Flower Project (2020), a guerrilla-style live performance by artist Molly Morphew and her collaborator Francis Moore, lasted eighteen minutes – the time it took for Canary Wharf’s security team to ask the performers to leave the privately-owned estate, sweeping soil and plant matter back into their bags. Throughout the semi-improvised piece, Morphew recorded each action that the pair negotiated; their continuous conversation is filled with the uncertainty over when Flower Project would abruptly end. This precarity amplifies the visual fragility of the work: the crumbling soil strangely exposed in this superficially lifeless urban context.

Such gestures towards dreaming, hope and connection – especially in the face of oppressive environments or social dynamics – are typical of Morphew’s work, which traverses sculpture, performance, moving image, and poetry. Now, as the emerging artist prepares for her Barbican Centre showcase as part of the current Young Artists cohort, she is developing a multidimensional work that combines diverse elements of her practice in ambitious new ways.

Drawing on experience as a floristry assistant in the UK and Australia, Morphew regularly integrates waste from London’s flower markets into her live performances. Flowers have been a medium of exchange for centuries: a semi-living language, heady with associations of romance, femininity, and sexuality. Morphew’s flowers could be understood as a downtrodden vernacular, or the subconscious mutterings that have slipped out of coded botanical traffic over dining tables and doorsteps.

In her Flower Flower (2019) at SPACE, Hackney, Morphew reassembled this ‘waste’ into a form of poetry: scores of bouquets were bound with discarded packaging from the streets. This two-hour performance centred around healing – a core theme of the Sydney-born artist’s work – integrating by a live poem exploring growth from pain. Interestingly, Morphew sees poetry as a form of sculpture; her approach to language and to material are entangled. As Morphew carefully bound an immense heap of devalued materials into delicate objects, their vibrancy became visible. A piece which channelled Morphew’s personal experiences of recovery from sexual trauma into an open and accessible encounter, Flower Flower was palpably connective, with several audience members drawn to speak to the artist after the event.

While her heavy focus on broken flowers in recent performances risks becoming an overly familiar symbol of femininity and intimacy, Morphew has engaged with touch and the abject in nuanced and visceral ways for years. For another art book fair at Sydney’s ArtSpace, she painted human hair and honey, a naturally healing fluid, onto the bare backs of male performers for Naked Mail (2017). Her recent multimedia paintings and sculptures are woven through with her own hair, blood, and tears. Sewing without a thimble, binding thorned flowers without gloves, Morphew allows emotions to surface overflow into her creations. As she rips, smears and stitches detritus into assemblages characterised by raw forms and fresh colour palettes, her body is always present. This consistent engagement with excess, corporeality, and environmental imprint indicates her relationship with an international lineage of feminist artists – from Mona Hatoum to Ana Mendieta – who have explored identity and place through emotion.

Since relocating her studio to London in 2018, Morphew’s visual work has increasingly integrated ‘trash’ and found material. Ring-pulls, matches, burst balloons, and filter paper surface through works such as Hot Mess (2020) and Birds with and without love (2018), both of which explore distance from loved ones, and her experience of London as a simultaneously abrasive and self-actualising place.

Now, as part of her contribution to the upcoming Barbican showcase, It All Comes Down, she is developing a wearable artwork that integrates everyday waste – from bottlecaps to trampled cardboard – with escapist drawings of birds that recall Camille Henrot’s naïve ink drawings. The artist plans to integrate this piece into a performance that activates her primary showcase piece: several large-scale sculptures of bird-headed people constructed from objects dumped on the city streets, which she is continuing to gather on her daily walk during London’s coronavirus shutdown. Throughout the showcase, she will activate the space with movement and spoken word, inviting the audience to engage with their deep-seated dreams and identifications – represented for Morphew by birds.

By elevating the ordinary, rehabilitating the rejected, and unleashing the subconscious, Morphew’s art offers a compassionate message that is not prescriptive, but instead encourages individual interpretations towards a self-made freedom. Her recent performance of Flower Project with Moore was transgressive precisely for its unpredictable nature as an act of symbolic kindness. The performers effectively trespassed on streets that appeared public, even as they offered wonder to the unforgiving setting. Morphew described the work as ‘planting’ in the concrete jungle: cultivating and nurturing flowers which acted as ‘microphones’, allowing humans to speak through nature in a largely unloved place. Her generous approach to live art in particular does not depend on contact and reciprocity, but the possibility of ongoing: of an audience moving forward, changed.

Today, Canary Wharf is not alone. Far more of London’s streets are quiet: the semi-silenced city is among the thousands touched by a virus that is proving our permeability to one another. In a time where we must learn how to show care across vast space and to express love for our community without touch, Morphew’s work explores open-ended gestures of tenderness that resonate across distance.

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