Pictured: Bitten Off Too Much Apple by Lius Sanchez
Giant, overbearing animals, children with hairy faces, sculptures made from the feathers of Britain’s most hated birds: a ground-breaking new exhibition which examines the concept of ‘natural’ opens at Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy this month (13 July).
Unnatural – Natural History is an artistic exploration of an alternative world where the dominant species are not human and natural objects are metamorphosed into unexpected and unnatural forms. This is a world where genetic mutations and environmental pressures have altered the course of natural evolution.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Coates & Scarry, famed for their cutting-edge exhibitions and for bringing together some of the most influential artists working today.
Chippy Coates said: “We asked artists from around the world to explore the theme of “unnatural natural history” and the results are diverse and alluring. It’s a blend of innovative art, creative ideas and lateral thinking.”
Erik Sandberg is sure to provoke controversy with his portrayal of children with hairy faces while the Belgian artist ROA will show his infamous giant greyscale animals.
One of the stars of the show is Kate MccGwire, whose beautiful but sinister feather sculptures have won the support of Damian Hirst.
Below Kate MccGwire talks to Country Calling about her work and the upcoming exhibition
The RWA’s upcoming exhibition Unnatural – Natural History seems to encapsulate the theme of your own work which reveals the complexity of beauty. Can you tell us a bit about what inspires you?
I am endlessly inspired by the natural world around me, a fascination that started as a child growing up on the Norfolk Broads. Having been immersed in wildlife from an early age, my understanding and appreciation developed as I grew older, and I began to focus on nature’s darker idiosyncrasies. This in turn inspired my interest in the uncanny, the idea of the familiar made strange, which is a recurring theme in my work. I find the transient, miraculous qualities of natural materials compliment the deviant, roosted forms I create.
You grew up on a boatyard and now live on the river – is water important to your work?
Working by the water enables me to experience wildlife on many different levels, while the surface may seem calm and beautiful there is a seething undercurrent which greatly influences the temper of my work. My studio is on a Dutch barge on the Thames and its surroundings are of endless inspiration to me, and the nearby warehouse colonised by feral pigeons was the catalyst to my exploration into feathers as a medium.
You often use the feathers of crows, magpies and pigeons – traditionally unpopular birds – to create beautiful sculptures and turn our perceptions on their heads. The mythology of feathers seems to fascinate you?
Every bird I use is a common British bird; they are all overlooked, even considered vermin by some, yet they are all beautiful: ingrained in our consciousness, instilled with cultural symbolism. A single feather can be laden with layers of meaning; a dove feather will carry very different connotations than that of a pigeon, yet they are the same species, a feather on the ground will be treated differently from one worn in someone’s hair, yet the objects are the same. This dichotomy can also be applied to a feathered sculpture; we consider it differently in a new context, it is at once natural and manufactured, beautiful yet repulsive, a contrast which is amplified by the cultural associations of the material itself. This is why I find the existing mythology of feathers so enthralling; they are at once prehistoric and contemporary, beautiful and yet unnerving.
Your titles ‘Gag’ ‘Vex’ are harsh and immediate. What do you want to convey?
I try to choose titles which are bodily, that have some sort of visceral, immediate feeling about them. A reference again to the notion of the uncanny, both relating to the organic body and yet alien and strange. The pieces in the cabinets for instance are trapped, they have no head to them, they are uncomfortable and beautiful at the same time, we recognise creases and crevices and they refer back to ourselves but they are otherworldly. I’m constantly trying to construct this fine line between attractive and vaguely disquieting. The name of the piece is part of this physicality.
Which other artists in the RWA exhibition do you feel the strongest connection with?
I am particularly drawn towards the work of Susie MacMurray, whom I have exhibited with previously. However I also saw a connection with the work of Troy Abbott and Patrick Haines who I will be fortunate enough to cross paths with as a result of the show in Bristol.
Pictured: URGE by Kate MccGwire