words Lee Taylor
‘I need urine, fresh urine, I need all the urine in the world!’
The Discovery of Nuns’ Urine – El Morgan (2022)
As humans we learn to try and do everything we can to elevate ourselves from our animal state. So when we’re forced to confront it it can lead us down merry paths to an alien world often clouded by taboo. The stories we create for ourselves around our natural bodily functions can be even more surreal than the forbidden reality.
‘Tale of the Frozen Bits’ is an exhibition by El Morgan as she explores the strange and magical world of fertility and the potions and fables we have concocted over time to explain and enable human reproduction.
Gallons of nun’s urine, multiplying hamster cells, horse glands and millions of frogs appear in a playful narrative that opens up our relationship with the bodies of women and the often ethically controversial branch of medicine.
It takes its inspiration from her own experiences, having recently received a bill of £350 from a fertility clinic to continue to store some of her embryos, Morgan attempts to explore her frozen bits in their suspended state, to begin to unpick the medical and social structures that have enabled their pausing. Against a backdrop of domesticity Morgan replicates, experiments and questions the materials and systems she unearths – from recording the sound of her own urine to conversations with researchers on the sex lives of frogs and discussions with embryologists working in Greater Manchester (home of the first ever IVF baby).
How did you first come up with the concept for this show?
“I started IVF in 2018 and as a way to deal with the physical and emotional stress of the process I decided to turn it into an art project – to get curious about the drugs I was injecting into my stomach each night. I discovered this amazing history of fertility drugs made from Italian nuns’ urine and all these animals – hamsters, horses, toads and frogs. A proper witches’ brew.”
How did you develop the concept?
“The idea centred around the strangeness of these frozen embryos stored in a nameless brick building off the junction of the M1 (near the big Ikea). I am financially and legally responsible for them and I wanted to broaden this to include the multiple beings and species involved in creating them and sustaining them – from the nuns to the person who keeps the freezers on. I wanted to make the invisible visible.”
Your own embryos are stored at a fertility clinic who recently charged you £350 for that service. Why did you decide to have your embryos stored in this way and does it feel to have your embryos stored in this way?
“The embryos were frozen after a round of IVF – they are the ones that were not implanted. After a few years you have to decide what to do with them – store them, destroy them, or donate them to scientific research or to another person. I couldn’t decide what to do, so I stored them for another year (I’d just been awarded a DCYP). You can actually store them for 55 years now, although I expect I will be dead by then. How does it feel? It feels like having bits of myself scattered around the place – you know, a bit like having a studio that you don’t go to, but you just store your old art in. But there’s an emotional tie there. They’re not alive, and they’re not dead. They’re suspended. More like Schrodinger’s Cat. The exhibition is about trying to make stories around this, to make sense of something that is like a science fiction, a sense of being haunted (one of the videos in the exhibition is called ‘Ghosting’, in which I phone the clinic to ask how the frozen embryos are doing).”
The main medium you have chosen is film. Why did you decide that film was the best way to convey your ideas?
“It is the way I tell and edit stories, so I can combine the story of my dad making me piss into a co-op bag in the back seat of a moving car, with the visuals of dancing rat-tailed maggots and instructions on how to insert a catheter. The dream-like aspect of film seems suited to the inappropriate associations we make when we’re trying to make sense of something we don’t understand. I have no idea how IVF actually works, I can’t do it in the studio, but I can tell you about the ways I make sense of it with what I have in me and around me.”
Is the film a collaboration or have you taken on all aspects yourself?
You seem fascinated by the relationship between humans and animals? Why is this so important to you?
“My work usually begins by looking closely at small creatures, often invertebrates, and then filming them as they go about their business. I like their strangeness to me, their different ways of moving through the world. But I’m also aware I’m probably bothering them (or they are entirely obvious of me), and I try and include this sense of intrusion in the works I make – my desperate attempt to find connection and failing to do so.”
What is the most unusual way you’ve come across for an animal to give birth?
“The Surinam toad gives birth through its back. The froglets burst through the female’s skin. It’s quite difficult to look at – there’s a photo of one in the exhibition. Another contender is the hyena who gives birth through her clitoris. Appalling.”
What does the way we treat women and childbirth tell us about ourselves?
“The show isn’t about childbirth – it doesn’t mention mothering, parenting or children. It is about women and the relationship between my body and the multiple creatures who became part of me – even if just for a moment.”
What do you hope people will get from the show?
“Physically, I hope people buy a sweatshirt! I’m selling ‘Sisters of Piss’ sweatshirts in the gallery and online, 100% profits to Women’s Aid, in celebration of the nameless nuns. I hope the exhibition shifts the discussion around IVF and embryos to take into account the many associations and connections that it involves. In the spirit of many bodies and species, I’m trying to make the show as welcoming as possible – there will be sofas and blankets (Manchester can be cold) to watch the film, transcripts available, a reading area with books that I find inspiring and plenty of amazing events, including a frog and toad day.”
Tale of the Frozen Bits – A solo exhibition of new work by El Morgan is showing until 12 March 2023 at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.