By far the most clicked on, most shared post I have ever written was the very first post I wrote on Kate MccGwire. And it's no wonder, her feather sculptures are otherwordly not to mention incredibly fierce in their sheer volume and demand attention. Kate and I have been in touch over email since last year. She is always gracious, kind and a delight to deal with. I am really excited to share this Q&A we did recently - we chat about feathers, pigeons and the power of words. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
There are so many reasons. I think one of the most important is their sense of otherness. When you find one on the ground they always look so utterly separate from the bird they've been discarded by. It's difficult to imagine when you look at a quill that this flesh-less stem was once attached to a bird. It's part of the mechanism that helps it fly and keeps it warm but seen in splendid isolation a feather becomes detached from these physiological concerns and becomes something 'alien', an object, and a carrier for meaning in its own right.
One of the reasons I got turned on to feathers in the first place is that when I moved to my current studio, a Dutch barge on The Thames, I found I was moored next to a dilapidated old shed that had been colonised by pigeons. It was impossible to ignore them, as the sound of the birds' cooing was totally deafening. Whenever they moulted I'd find hundreds of feathers on the ground. I'm always collecting stuff so it was inevitable that these materials would make their way into my work. It was also around the time of the bird flu epidemic. I found myself intrigued by the dichotomy between the physical perfection of these feathers and their potential for disease, by the way we brand birds with particular qualities, according to their cultural associations. Thus we think of the pigeon as dirty, as ‘a rat with wings’, whereas we see the dove as a symbol of peace and purity. But it's the same bird; one just happens to have white feathers.
I also like the fact that biologically feathers link us with our selves, since they share one of the key structural components of human skin, hair and nails - keratin. They also tap into a historic fascination with the human potential for 'otherness'; witness the numerous depictions of winged human and hybrid creatures in sculpture and painting down the centuries
A vast amount of my time is spent sourcing feathers, from all sorts of different places, so I suppose I am the predator when it comes to sourcing – a bit like a magpie. I have to be pretty inventive when it comes to procuring enough for a large-scale piece of work. No one source can give me what I need so it’s a question of having quite a few contacts and continually building on them.
Your sculptures are epically intense and brooding, the feathers take on a whole new look and life once pieced together in your work. What do you think it is about feathers together that create such an intensity?
I think it is un-nerving to see an object that resembles ‘the thing’ that we know (the bird, in the sense that the feathers are layered like a bird's feathers would be) but the scale is abnormal - an object seen out of place can sometimes be really uncomfortable.
Heave, Retch, Fume/Seethe, Brood, Gag...many of your pieces have such physically negative names, yet the pieces themselves are breathtaking. Can you tell us a little bit about how these names come to you?
For me it is important that the naming can have a dual / multiple meaning. Often bodily/ visceral/ violent using words that can have multiple meanings open up the possible interpretation of the work:
Gag – to choke or to retch – restrain speech – put something over somebody’s mouth – comic words or actions.
Fume – to smoke / burn – acrid small – fit of anger.
In your earlier work wishbones were a predominant medium and now in your newer work you have begun to explore feathers. Was this a natural progression for you?
Very much so, I have been an avid collector of ‘stuff’ for many years and am fascinated by the natural world. I’m drawn towards a natural object that has a strong cultural/ historical identity and utilize that story to enrich the reading of the work. There was quite a period of time in between working with bones and then moving into feathers where I was working with completely man made materials.
Talk to me about pigeons, a lot of your work focuses on the fact that pigeons have been given the name "rats with wings". Was it your intention to start with pigeons when you first embarked on working with feathers?
Pigeon feathers were my raw material , I found them lying on the floor next to my studio and in the park whilst walking my dog. Having found about 200 feathers myself I realized that I wanted to make work with them but I would need thousands and there was no way I would find them on my own. So I began to contact pigeon fanciers and racing pigeon enthusiasts to ask them if they would send me their birds moulted feathers.
Did you have any idea how gorgeous pigeon feathers could be once placed within a pattern?
I had no real notion of what may happen when I started to collect them and I only really established a patterning when I had in excess of 200 pigeon feathers to play with.
Do you contact certain bird racers/breeders with specific bird feathers in mind?
Not really but I would love some more white pigeon feathers.
For instance do you set out with an idea for a sculpture in mind and then contact your 'suppliers'?
Each feather requires a different sourcing solution. Corvid (my new piece) is made of crows' feathers and so the work's very existence relies on the fact that these birds are shot for being pests, for damaging crops and killing off fledgling birds. (Some experts think they're also responsible for the decline of song birds in the UK.) But I'm not picking over road-kills, nor are they're being shot to order! It's because the birds have a reputation for being scavengers, and are being culled, that I'm ensured a constant supply from gamekeepers and farmers. So I'd say my personal relationship with the materials is more symbiotic than predatorial. It's the same with the pigeon feathers I collect. I've got a whole network of pigeon-racing enthusiasts out there who are primed to send me envelopes of feathers during the moulting season. Again, it's not an exploitative relationship; it's developed into something quite mutually rewarding. I keep them up to date with what I'm making and they've become a vital part (in every sense) of the process.
Discharge. Image Jeffrey Bussman.
How many feathers on average are in a piece?
I have no idea – I would think it's thousands – ‘DISCHARGE’, shown in MAD in New York had 10,000 pigeon feathers used in making it.
A few of your sculptures have been site specific installations. It kills me to think that something that is so beautiful and clearly took a lot of work to create is only temporary. Is that in essence part of the pieces?
It's really important to me the work is seen as a temporary installation - something that is only in existence for the period of the exhibition. It’s a sort of a performance piece, I suppose.
A lot of your work deals with death; whether it's 23,000 wishbones circling a wall (Brood), or 'marching' towards their old home (Home from Home I) or 62 pockmarked gunshots on paper (Waste). Has this been a conscious undertaking?
I am not morbid but death is never very far from us. My studio is on the river Thames – everyday I am very aware of the elements and the wildlife around me. It’s a constant battle. A swan laid its eggs right next to the barge. When they started hatching, crows surrounded the nest and stole away the cygnets to eat. Crows also fly low over rabbit burrows, as soon as a young rabbit (Leveret) pokes its head out of the burrow crows come down and swipe them, fly them up high into the sky and drop them to kill them prior to eating. It’s a brutal world.
What else is coming up for you for 2011
I am really excited about [my current] joint exhibition, BOUND with an amazing artist Alice Anderson from the 31 of March to 28 April. It’s going to be a busy year. [Recently], solo show of an installation and various smaller pieces in Soho, London [ended]. I have various commissions coming up and will also be making an installation piece for Attingham Park another historic National Trust building.