The anthropologist Mary Douglas felt dirt was little more than matter out of place. Hair on our heads is beautiful, the very same hair sneaking into our food revolts. Curiously, feathers often provoke a similar contradictory response. While beauty is unquestionably present, it is a type of beauty that can unsettle and even disgust. The work of English artist Kate MccGwire courts these contradictions and, as she explains, “probes the beauty inherent in duality, exploring the play of opposites— at an aesthetic, intellectual and visceral level—that characterizes the way we conceive the world.”
MccGwire grew up on the Norfolk Broads, a landscape of rivers and wetlands on the east coast of England. She refers to nature’s “beauty and brutality”, explaining that an early inspiration for the twisting shapes found in her current work came from her childhood memories “watching the eel catcher with his purpose made fork which didn’t puncture the eels but would wind themselves around it convulsing energetically, glistening, rubbery and muscular.”
A similar tension is apparent in the double meanings often found in her work’s titles. For instance Cleave (2012), an anthropomorphic form made of dove feathers that folds intimately inward, can be understood as splitting apart, but also means to remain faithful. Similarly, the crow feathers of Gag (2009) twist around like a Mobius strip. The name can mean a game (in this case, finding the beginning and end to an unending knot), but also the unpleasant action of choking.
While the initial visual impact alludes to the exotic, the feathers MccGwire uses are locally sourced from common birds that are often overlooked: Magpies, disliked for the destruction they wreak on other birds’ nests; crows cast in sinister leading roles, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds; pigeons considered a bane of the urban landscape and famously referred to as “rats with wings” by the film director Woody Allen.
Feathers have not always been MccGwire’s material of choice. Initially, she worked with wishbones using no less than 23,000 to create the final work for her student exhibition at the Royal College of Art. The work, Brood (2004), was snapped up by the influential British art collector Charles Saatchi. To collect the wishbones, MccGwire cooked discarded chicken carcasses from local butchers, harvesting the bones after boiling the meat. The feathers she now works with are somewhat easier to gather, but the double entendre of the title (the verb brood means to ruminate, while the noun means offspring) and painstaking collection and assembly of materials remain constant aspects of her production.
MccGwire is reluctant to divulge exacting details about the construction of her sculptures, but she explains that each underlying form is covered in felt and “feathered” in a painstaking process that leaves the entire surface covered, handily concealing the joins of each shaped base. Studio assistants help with the enormous task of trimming and sorting feathers that fill boxes full of discrete variations in color and size. Since 2007, she has worked with over seventy racing pigeon enthusiasts who collect their birds’ feathers when they naturally molt twice yearly and send them to the artist. The feathers have the benefit of being light and easy to mail in an envelope; perhaps more importantly they bring the work in contact with communities that may not otherwise engage with contemporary art. Relationships with the racing pigeon owners are now so established that, upon retirement, the birds are often rehomed and the responsibility of collecting feathers continues with the new owner.
The accumulation of materials plays a central role in determining the scale of each piece. MccGwire’s sculptures tend to be large—very large considering what is involved to gather her materials—and size is determined by the amount of feathers available to her at a given time. The feathers for Evacuate (2010) are a mix of Mallard duck, goose, peacock, pheasant, teal, woodcock, woodpigeon, quail, grouse, French partridge, turkey and chicken. Here, the selected feathers twist in and out of the kitchen stove at the Neo-classical Mansion of the National Trust property Tatton Park in Cheshire, England. All the feathers, collected by the property’s gamekeeper, come from species of birds that would once have been prepared for food.
Other unusual settings have also been tackled. Sluice (2009) was installed in the underground Crypt of St Pancras Church in London. The pigeon feathers used in the work are hardly remarkable when thought of alone but, when set against the distressed tile wall and a disused pipe, the feathers reveal an unexpected beauty. MccGwire describes the installation “spewing” as if “forced by some kind of subterranean pressure, from a hole in the floor, to create a swirling vortex of effluence, at once exquisite and disturbing.” Slick (2010) similarly suggests a viscous substance, spilling magpie and crow feathers from a Victorian fireplace. The setting here is far more glamorous, but the work’s title and oily color of the feathers allude to something sinister spilling into the comfort and security of the traditional interior.
Alongside installations, MccGwire also creates work, such as the Stigma series (2012), that adheres to the display conventions of a square or rectangle hung on the gallery wall approximately at the viewer’s eye level. Although the format differs, in every other respect the monochrome series continues her exploration of material and thematic contrasts. The series pairs two extreme material opposites, lead and feathers, which share the same mottled grey color. Heavy and light, soft and hard, become integrated in a single surface. From certain perspectives, the lead looks like it has been shot. It bends slightly upward around the edges of each wound to create a subtle lip; underneath, pigeon feathers cluster together. From another perspective, this sense of violence disappears and the inset feathers could instead be read as nests unexpectedly tucked beneath the lead surface.
Other works reside in antique cabinets and refer back to the Victorian interest in naming and cataloging our natural world. Unusually, MccGwire explains that she creates sculptures that are “made to suit the cabinet” rather than the other way around. The result is a sense that the dimensions of each cabinet create the confined form of each sculptures. Narcis (2012), made of Mallard feathers with two bulbous ends, hangs from a scientific clamp like a captured specimen under a glass dome. To acquire the clamp, MccGwire agreed a deal with a local school, purchasing new replacement clamps for the science lab and liberating the antiquated versions for her own artistic use. Close inspection reveals a ring of felt padding protecting the neck of the delicate specimen held in the clasp.
Optical games also appear in work such as Cleave (think of the Rubin Vase double image of a centered white vase or two black faces in profile looking towards each other). The arching necks of swans appear, or the upper thighs of legs with bent knees that culminate in a vortex of spiny quill tips. In fact, the opportunity to move around each sculpture is crucial to experiencing the visual contrasts found in each work. Unfortunately, what cannot be captured by even the most accurate photography is the sense of shifting colors created by the changing play of light across the surfaces of the feathers. Each sculpture may be static, but their seductive surfaces are not.
While assembling the work is unquestionably painstaking, the finished objects are more robust than first glance would suggest. The surfaces emulate the overlapping pattern of feathers naturally occurring on a bird, making the sculptures relatively resilient. This resilience is unexpected considering the delicacy of a feather. But MccGwire is not working with a single feather. Instead it feels as though she is building an otherworldly laboratory of new forms. In many cases, the movement of her creations feels restricted: they are caught under glass or seem to be moving along new viscous pathways. But it also feels important that there is nothing fraught about MccGwire’s encased sculptures, no sense of struggle or violence in her capture and display of these otherworldly specimens.
Where does all of this lead MccGwire? After a busy 2013 with numerous exhibitions in Britain, as well as Korea, France, and Germany, 2014 will occur on the move. Her studio in England is a Dutch Barge and the plan is “to take the studio with her” as she and her husband travel the waterways of Europe.
Surface Design Journal spring 2014, pp. 6-11.