Kate MacDowell uses her painstaking porcelain pieces to explore the fraught and increasingly catastrophic relationship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. We asked her about dead animals, baroque aesthetics, and bugs crawling on people's faces.
Tell us about your first piece in your porcelain series.
The first porcelain piece I made that relates thematically to my current work is Crave. It expresses the longing for union with nature by comparing it to other cravings, such as hunger or the desire to be touched. The plants blossoming out of the arm are associated with food cravings--like the cacao and strawberry plant and vanilla orchid, and with aphrodisiac properties.
You have several pieces which reference Bernini's sculpture of Daphne and Apollo. Do you think a baroque aesthetic or sensibility is especially well-suited to expressing environmental concerns?
I actually only consciously reference it in one piece, Daphne, although other baroque sculptures and Renaissance paintings influence other pieces. The physicality, passionate emotion, and grand tragedy of baroque sculpture struck me as a fitting vehicle to explore more contemporary disasters and feelings of loss. I love that it both references history and the past, while trying to capture dynamic movement and dramatic emotion frozen in time.
How does working with porcelain affect the concepts behind your work?
I first started using porcelain because of its translucent qualities. When lit from within I could evoke the effect of an ultrasound or x-ray used to look within a body and instead use it to look inside a soul. I could also reference both classical and baroque marble sculpture, and more contemporary tomb sculpture, and draw the viewer's eye to the form rather the surface colors of the piece. A pure white piece also speaks to me of ghosts or negative space - it suggests something missing from the world.
One of your favourite themes involves human anatomy in animal bodies – what do these pieces signify? Are these bodies dead, or just exposed?
They are dead, and in the process of decay are revealing their inner structures. Often they are species that are endangered in part because of human activity (such as habitat destruction and poisoning). I’m fascinated by the “weak links”, the smallest bellwethers of environmental damage: the frogs, insects, small birds and field mice that are often the first to succumb to environmental stresses. Although not as showy as the polar bear or tiger, nevertheless these easily overlooked and undervalued tiny disasters, extinctions, and deaths nibble away at our own secure future by foreshadowing future impacts on human health and welfare. They also raise larger moral and theological questions. How significant is the fall of a sparrow? I use a human skeleton or human limbs to show that our own fate as animals also reliant upon our environment is closely intertwined with these creatures, and that in losing a part of the natural world, we are losing a part of our own identity as well.
You also have several pieces where bugs crawl on human organs and faces. What are the bugs doing there?
It varies; on my piece Buzz they are flies and represent the information overload we are bombarded with in the post-post-modern world, often leading to a form of paralysis. On other pieces, the insects are often bees, which I like to explore because of colony collapse disorder and their importance as pollinators. In general though, I like pointing out the 'discomfort' of our attempt at union with nature, and insects crawling on a face or tongue sometimes give viewers a visceral sense experience of this kind of discomfort.
Your work engages heavily with mythology, from Persephone to the Green Man. What myths or stories inspire you the most at the moment?
Usually I start with reading about specific environmental case studies or issues, and that will sometimes trigger a connection to mythic or cultural references which I think about while working on a piece (and sometimes hint at in the title). In my eyes the most successful pieces are open to myriad interpretations and multiple narratives, and the mythic interpretations that viewers bring to a piece that I hadn’t thought of or intended fascinate me. For example I’m currently working on a sculpture of a juvenile alligator with women’s breasts. (Ed - A bit like in Codex Seraphinianus?
) It’s spurred by estrogen mimic pollutants causing hormonal changes in American alligators, but as I work on it I end up reading about Egyptian crocodile gods, Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not's Alligator man, etc. Animals have so many metaphorical, symbolic and cultural connotations, and my intention or original inspiration isn’t really much more than a starting point for the process. The piece takes on its own life as it gets built.