Kate MccGwire’s eerie bird-like forms undulate out of fireplaces and writhe under glass domes at recently opened Soho gallery Pertwee Anderson & Gold. Their sinuous forms are overlaid with painstakingly precise patterns of feathers. Some are oil slick black and blue plucked from the bodies of crows and magpies, others are common pigeon grey. These create a tessellated surface which begs to be touched, however the abstraction of each sculpture, birdlike but not bird, repels in its amputated and elongated form. Other works seem to be holes burnt through sheet metal, each receding in a delicate layer of ash. Closer inspection reveals that each layer is made of the edge of grey feathers. These are typical examples of the mechanic behind Kate’s work in which expectations of material and form are undercut to in turn wrong foot and delight.
Host (2011) Mixed media with pigeon tail feathers
What initially drew you to the forms of birds and to using feathers in your work?
I am constantly collecting stuff and began to pick up feathers while out walking. When I moved to my current studio (a Dutch barge moored on a semi-derelict island) I found there was a colony of feral pigeons occupying a huge, dilapidated shed next to my studio. The noise was phenomenal; a few hundred birds cooing in an enormous echoing chamber (I must record the sound one day). When the birds moulted I found hundreds of beautiful feathers on the ground - it was like they were giving them to me. This was at the time of the bird flu epidemic. I became interested in the dichotomy between the perfection of these feathers and their potential for disease. Farmers with flocks of captive birds weren't allowed to let their birds free-range. The agricultural authorities were stopping the transportation of live birds anywhere in the country, but nothing was stopping (or could stop) the natural bird migrations that take part throughout the year, which can take in distances of thousands of miles. To me the authorities' actions seemed futile. The feral pigeon is considered dirty, ‘a rat with wings’, whereas the dove is seen as a symbol of peace and purity. But it's the same bird; one just happens to have white feathers. (Ed - it's true! )
Hoax (2011) Crow feathers in an antique dome
Your artist statement says that your work aims to incorporate the sense of duality inherent in us all, those between reason and feeling, attraction and repulsion. Was this a concept you have always been fascinated by? Our Jekyll and Hyde selves?
I am interested in how we are drawn to things but repelled by them at the same time - the familiar, when seen out of place, that defies reason and therefore alarms us. I am slowly exploring that fine line, not wanting to disgust or shock but rather to subtly unsettle the viewer in some way. The forms are bodily, never directly so but reminiscent of a bodily crease or crevice, and directly linked with our selves but made alien by the materials I use. My ‘creatures’ never have a head, they are never resolved, are constantly tormented. For me my work is a physical manifestation of a state of mind.
Slick (2010) Magpie and Crow feathers in antique metal fire basket
Where do your feathers come from?
My feathers are sent to me by a variety of sources, and I think of them as being a by-product of an existing process, a form of recycling. The pigeons’ feathers are the most straightforward as they are captive birds and their feathers are sent to me by a network of hundreds of racing pigeon enthusiasts around the country. It has taken quite a few years to establish an on-going relationship, whereby I write to them explaining and showing them what I am planning to make. Then, when their birds moult (which they do twice a year), they send me these beautiful feathers through the post (which would otherwise be thrown away). I have kept every letter and envelope in which the feathers are sent to me, and I hope eventually to make them into an installation. The game birds are shot for sport and food, and I merely ask pheasant pluckers to collect specific feathers for me while they are plucking the birds. Crows and magpie are somewhat different. They are shot by farmers and gamekeepers as pests as they damage crops and kill fledgling birds (indeed, they're also considered to be part of the reason for song-bird decline in the UK), and their feathers are then sent to me.
Smoulder (2010) Pigeon tail feathers in antique tin trunk
Your recent show is at a new gallery in Soho, Perwee Anderson and Gold. The interior is similar to that of the house that hosted the AVA Vanitas show during Frieze week. Does Gothic and that kind of Victoriana feed into your work?
I would hope that the work transcends the environment, and I’m not sure I would describe the interiors as being Gothic. But there certainly is a connection to dilapidation that feeds into my work. Indeed, there's a precious clash that occurs when showing an intricate and exquisite piece of work in a gritty, industrial space that re-enforces its otherness and the inappropriateness of its placing. Maybe the last two venues have actually been too polite and genteel for that clash to occur.
I'd seen that you wrote a dissertation on the use of hair in contemporary art. Do feathers work in a similar way formally and symbolically?
Yes, in many ways – I am fascinated by the way that taming our hair (shaving, depilation, styling) civilizes us and distances us from our animal selves. The ancient Egyptians would shave their entire bodies to display their elevated status. There are many contradictions that intrigue me about hair. Why is hair on your head considered beautiful (your crowning glory) but when found in the plug-hole disgusting? Why is hair on a man’s chest considered macho, but when seen on his back is regarded as being a turn-off?
The design/structure of feathers hasn't changed down the centuries, and birds themselves have evolved very little. I like the fact that the bird links us with our ancient ancestors. Keratin is the key structural element of the outer layer of human skin, hair, nails and also of feathers, thereby showing that humans and birds are closely linked in their material make-up.
Ancient sculptures depict man’s fascination with the animal – hybrid creatures such as half man/birds, half man/snakes etc adorn the most grandiose buildings (for example, the Pergamon Gate during the reign of King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BC), and there are numerous depictions of winged humans across the centuries in sculptures and paintings that show our fascination with otherness. Feathers are both prehistoric and of the contemporary world, linking us, inextricably, to nature and to our former selves.
HOST, by Kate MccGwire runs at Perwee, Anderson & Gold until 24 March www.pertweeandersongold.com
BOUND by Kate MccGwire and Alice Anderson at AVA from 1 -30 April www.allvisualarts.org
See more of Kate's work at katemccgwire.com
Installation shots from Bound at AVA: