March 07, 2015

By Erin Wooters Yip (UrbanDNA) for Style by Asia


Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor without comparison. Her innovative use of materials and complicated creative process, which can involve years procuring the materials for a single artwork, is refreshingly different from anything else in the vast art landscape. MccGwire has honed her immense creative talent to make hauntingly beautiful and shockingly unique works of sculpture using humanely sourced feathers and natural objects, and the art world's elite have indeed taken notice. The artist's 2004 M.A. degree show at the Royal College of Art in London sold in entirety to the Saatchi Gallery, and there have been many commissions of her work on behalf of the National Trust and Arts Council UK. Her exhibition history reads like a list of the finest arts organizations and museums in Europe; given the quality and sheer ingenuity of her work, perhaps the only surprise is she is just now making her Venice Biennale debut.

In stark contrast to joining the buzzy excitement of Art Week in Hong Kong, Kate MccGwire is instead flying to Italy this week to begin work on her first Venice Biennale exhibition installation. In collaboration with the Berengo Glass Studio, MccGwire will create a large-scale floor installation sculpture in her signature medium of feathers as part of the 56th Venice Biennale in Glasstress 2015 Gotika. Furthermore, MccGwire reveals she will be working with crow feathers, as these birds are traditionally thought to be a bad omen, reflecting the 'gothic' theme of the show.

Sybaris, Kate MccGwire, 2015. Mixed media with crow feathers and quills in antique dome. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.

The artist's work is on display for the first time in Hong Kong with Coates & Scarry at Art Central. Notably, MccGwire's previous showings in Asia include the Cheongju International Craft Biennale 2013 in South Korea, and the Shenghua Art Centre in Nanjing, China for her residency exhibition in 2006.

On bringing MccGwire to Art Central, Coates & Scarry comment: "We are thrilled to be working with Kate MccGwire to exhibit these evocative works, such as 'HASP' and 'SYBARIS' to Art Central Hong Kong. Once we found out this prestigious groundbreaking fair was happening during the biggest week for art in Asia we knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to bring something a little different to the discerning eye of the Hong Kong / Asian collectors. The Art Central Hong Kong fair is positioning itself as bringing something fresh and exciting to the art market and Kate is very much one of the most innovative artists working today. As curators and a gallery we pride ourselves on pushing boundaries and giving the artist freedom to create extraordinary, innovative work. We are thrilled to showcase Kate MccGwire this year at our booth."

Although MccGwire is a fiercely busy artist, she found time for an extensive chat with UrbanDNA before the opening of her solo show in Berlin and then jetting off to make on-site work for the Venice Biennale. In an exclusive interview for Style by Asia, she discusses this climactic point in her journey as an artist, her past residency experience in China, the distinct possibility of an upcoming gallery show in Hong Kong, and the fashion brand collaboration she has in the works. While she is mum on exactly which designer she has made plans with, there are apparently some beautiful things to come on the catwalk in Autumn/Winter 2016. Read on for the interview in its entirety below.

Find Kate MccGwire's work at Coates & Scarry's booth G2 at Art Central Hong Kong, March 14-16, 2015.


::::: INTERVIEW :::::
Kate MccGwire & UrbanDNA | March 3rd, 2015


Where are you from, and how has your background shaped your artistic practice?

KM: I am from Norfolk, which if you look at the U.K. map, it’s the bump on the right hand side of England. It’s a very rural area with quite a lot of wetlands and consequently a lot of rivers and lakes. My father built boats as his job on one of the [lakes], and so as children we spent a lot of time playing around in boats and being next to wildlife. The rivers there have no road access at all – it’s an amazing place because there’s no disruption of the wildlife. The rivers go through reed beds so you have a phenomenal amount of wildlife. My parents were constantly telling me that I was always very observant as a child, seeing lots of birds and animals that other people wouldn’t see, looking through the reeds and things. So I’ve always had an interest in animals and specifically birds. I was constantly collecting feathers as a child..

Kate MccGwire, Secrete, 2014. Mixed media with magpie feathers. Photo credit Alexander Brattell. Image courtesy of the artist.


Oh? So feathers have always been this constant source of fascination for you?

KM: There was a painting that I made when I was 13 of a peacock feather. So yes, it is an ongoing thing. But I think natural objects and any sort of natural material is of interest. When you look at the water when it’s changing levels, you get different currents in the water that I’m always fascinated by. So they’ve always been in the back of my mind.

I moved to my studio in 2005… [which is] on a boat on the Thames. So again, we get this sort of lying alongside nature all the time. At the moment the river is running quite fast here in the winter, so you get some very beautiful but treacherous patterns in the water, as the currents could take you underneath if you fell in, but actually on the surface they look very beautiful. So I think of my work as being sort of beauty and treachery at the same time.

Kate MccGwire, Plight, 2014. Mixed media with rooster feathers. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


Can you describe your creative training? Have you always been drawn to sculpture, or dabbled in other areas of the visual arts?

KM: I’ve done two degrees. My first degree was in interior design when I was 18. I did it because my parents were worried about me going to do an arts degree and what was the job at the end of it. They wanted me to do an arts course that had a vocational element to it. So I worked as an interior designer for quite a few years but always wanted to do fine art.

I decided when I was 32 to go back to college. I had young children at the time and my son was 6 weeks old, my second child, and I went back and did a part-time degree. So that was 2 days a week for 5 years. In fact, I took 6 years to do it, but it was meant to be a 5-year course – which I absolutely loved. I went there thinking I was going to be a painter… But actually when we did the three-dimensional part of the course, that was really where I realized that my forte was making and assembling things. It was during that degree course that I found that I wanted to do sculpture.

I then had a year teaching and I applied for the Royal College of Art for an M.A. and I got in. There’s only 15 people a year in sculpture in the Royal College and they had over 800 applicants so I was very lucky to get in – especially because I was a part-time student. I think I was the only one that they’d had in about 10 years that had studied part-time. So that was very exciting, and very different, and very intense for the 2 years during that course. That was full-time. And then when I graduated I moved to the studio. My work, my complete degree show, very luckily sold to the Saatchi Gallery and within weeks of the course ending at the RCA I had been commissioned to put up a piece at the County Hall of the Saatchi Gallery, which was on display for 6 months in the Galleon and Other Stories exhibition. So it was incredibly lucky.

Kate MccGwire, Brood, 2004. Photo credit Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kate MccGwire, Brood, 2004. Sculpture detail. Photo credit Jonty Wilde. Image courtesy of Kate MccGwire.


Regarding the materials you used in your MA degree show, how did you manage to source the 20,000 chicken wishbones used in the piece ‘Brood’? And what was the symbolism of these bones?

KM: Well in the UK the symbolism is – I don’t know what it means in China or if it means anything at all – but that particular bone is a bone you pull on a Sunday with your family when you’ve had your family roast, and the person who gets the largest part can make a wish. There’s only one of those bones on each chicken, and when I realized I was going to make a piece of work I’d been collecting them for awhile just from family and friends and had a few hundred, but then realized I wanted to do something on a much larger scale. So, I contacted catering and meat suppliers and talked to them about what I wanted to do and they kindly cut the wishbones off for me when they were boning the meat for restaurants. And so I was collecting about 7,000 bones a week which then had to be boiled up and washed and cleaned and dried. I’ve got a pretty amazing photograph of the 20,000 wishbones drying on my kitchen table.

A lot of the materials I use you cannot buy. It is a process of negotiation and coercing of people that have the things that I want, but they would normally throw away... For example, for the pigeon feathers, I send envelopes to pigeon racing people. I send them drawings and letters telling what I’m doing and thanking them for the letters they’ve sent me before. There will be a stamped addressed envelope so all they have to do is put the feathers they would normally throw away in the envelope and send it back to me in the post. But otherwise these things would just get thrown away, so I like the fact that it’s a recycling. Sometimes it alarms people, they think I’ve been going around killing thousands of birds to make the work, but it’s very important to me that every bird that I use is a form of recycling. They are birds that are disregarded.

Kate MccGwire, Brawl, 2014. Mixed media with pheasant feathers in antique dome. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


Kate MccGwire, Covert, 2014. Mixed media with white dove/pigeon and swan feathers. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


It is very labor intensive to establish these relationships to acquire your materials, so is the process itself of acquiring your materials an important aspect of your overall art?

KM: Yes, I would think so. I think it gives me time to think about what I want to make, so that ongoing collecting is a meditative thing in a way, with the storing and the sorting and categorization of the feathers as we put them into boxes. I have some assistants that will help me with that. It gives me a chance to look at them very closely and think about how I want to use them. So yes, it’s all part of the process… Really the collecting process is quite a major part for me but you don’t really realize that when you see the work. I never really know how to talk about it so that it doesn’t overpower the work but informs the process.


You’ve been working with feathers for many years now – does the medium of feathers have any particular constraints or limitations that have complicated your work?

KM: The biggest piece that I’ve made so far, which is a crow installation called Gyre, I probably collected feathers for that for 4 years, and it was only once I had enough feathers that I could embark upon that piece. Actually, the piece that I’m making for the Venice Biennale is made with crow feathers as well, and so we’re having a sorting session this week trying to get everything in the right wardrobe trimmed and ready to go because I’m going to Venice next week to make the piece in Venice.

Kate MccGwire, Gyre, 2012. Mixed media with crow feathers. 415D x 770W x 275H cm. Photo credit Tessa Angus. Image courtesy of the artist.


Can you talk more about your upcoming plans for the Venice Biennale?

KM: I’m doing a collaboration with the Berengo Glass Studio, and they do an exhibition each Biennale which is Glasstress, they have major artists from all over the world in it. I was very flattered to be asked to be part of it as well. I’ve been over there twice with the glass maestro, the specialists, and we’ve been working to make shapes which are organic forms that are curved, tubular, and bulbous. They are made in black glass and the surface is going to be etched and then sanded, and that produces a beautiful silk-like surface which looks remarkably like skin. So suddenly this shiny thing that’s very iridescent in a way is transformed into something that looks more human and skin-like. And these forms will be the starting point for me making a feather section for them, so it will be like an oil slick or a flood emanating from these tubular shapes… I’m not entirely sure what the size will be but I’m thinking 3.5 meters long and maybe a meter and a half wide. So it will be a floor-based piece.


Why did you choose crow for the Venice Biennale?

KM: Well, the theme of the exhibition is gothic and crows can be regarded as a bearer of bad omen.


What does the Venice Biennale represent to you going forward?

KM: Well I think it’s an amazing opportunity. Most of the work I’ve done thus far is in Europe – I’ve exhibited a lot in the U.K., and quite a bit now in France, Germany, and Holland. This is a fantastic opportunity to get my work to a wider audience than that, different curators. It’s a real leap in the dark, you just don’t know what’s going to happen, but something will happen. So it’s very exciting from that point of view.

Kate MccGwire, Sneer, 2014. Mixed media with pigeon feathers in antique cabinet. Commissioned by the National Trust and Arts Council UK. Photo credit Galerie Michael Haas. Image courtesy of the artist.


Can you tell us about your residency experience at the Shenghua Art Centre in Nanjing, China? What initially drew you to Asia?

KM: I was asked if I’d like to apply for this residency and in the end I applied with a tutor of mine… Although she was a tutor of mine we were around the same age and got on very well. We both applied for this residency and went out there together, and it’s a vast space. It’s a very wide-open space and I hadn’t really understood that it was going to be quite so cold. So it was quite difficult to work in the space, but there were some smaller studios as well, and we had the chance of making anything we wanted for an exhibition at the end. I think I was there for about 7 weeks in total so it wasn’t terribly long. But I really enjoyed walking around and just getting a sense of how people lived and the essence of it.

I did lots of different types of work. One of them was a video piece which I’ve never really shown. It was sitting underneath a bridge on the Yangtze River in a park which was where the old men went with their nightingales in baskets. You would hear the beautiful song of these birds and then suddenly that would be overwhelmed with the train noise from the bridge above. And then the noise of the train would disappear, and you’d get the noise of the ships going along on the Yangtze River and honking their horns and things. So it was this multilayered sound experience, which I thought was rather beautiful really. I love the idea of these men spending their days listening to their birds singing. And I liked the way the elderly Chinese were treated with great respect, it all seemed to be a rather beautiful…

The language barrier is actually quite interesting with China, and I still have my notebook from then. The technician of the Shenghua Art Centre didn’t speak any English at all, and of course I didn’t speak any Mandarin. He and I communicated entirely through drawing. So, I’d have my little notebook and say, what I need today is an angle grinder, or … He’d see me trying to make something and scuffle away and the next day he’d have made the tool that I absolutely needed. So our bond was an absolutely incredible bond, but through no language at all apart from drawing. So I really cherish that experience… He was so intuitively connected with what I did… When we said goodbye we didn’t quite cry, but we felt so close to each other and knew we couldn’t communicate over a distance because we had no shared language. He was so incredibly helpful and in tune with what I did. So I would love to have another technician like that!

Kate MccGwire, Field, 2006. Installation at the Shenghua Art Centre in Nanjing, China, made entirely of particularly long noodles. Image courtesy of the artist.


Kate MccGwire, 'Consume', 2006. Red plastic shopping bags knitted into a Chinese flag, symbolic of the consumerism powering the country's growth. The piece was made during the artist's residency in Nanjing but censored by the Chinese authorities, banned from the exhibition. Image courtesy of the artist.


How did the experience affect your work? How did your work evolve during your residency in China?

KM: I couldn't rely on any of the things I had worked with previously, because I wasn’t allowed to bring any bird element into the country. So, I couldn’t bring any wishbones with me to work with those, because they had the bird flu epidemic at the time. So that was quite a good thing actually, I had to make work in quite a different way. So initially I was walking around and looking at things that don’t exist in the UK, or do exist but in a different way. So I noticed there was a lot of red string all about, and when you talk about ‘red tape’ in the UK, it means that it’s a process that blocks things. For instance, legal processes – if you say something is tied up in red tape, it’s not possible for it to move forward. Which I thought was quite an interesting thing. There was lots of red tape tying up fishes in the market and red tape tying people’s bikes together – everything seemed to be tied up. So I made a big installation with the red string. And actually, part of the process of that was that the gallery was so, so very cold and making this enormous piece where I had to walk up and down the gallery and thread this string for it to be turned into rope kept me warm during the time I was in the gallery.

I was very fascinated by the fact that some things in China are considered lucky. Long noodles were something used in Nanjing for celebration and good luck. Through a translator I managed to talk to the local noodle maker and he made me these particularly long noodles that I could make an installation out of. So everyday he would make a specific quantity for me and I would go pick it up on a motorbike. Then I would lay these noodles out over large bamboo poles and during the day the noodles would dry and retain the form of this undulating under and over the bamboo poles. The next day I would remove the bamboo poles and then make another section. The length of this piece specifically related to how long I’d been at the residency, and it finished the day that I ended the residency and the exhibition was on. So I was looking at things that were considered auspicious or lucky or had specific meanings within Chinese life.

… It was a bit of culture shock as Nanjing is not terribly sophisticated, so it felt like I was experiencing a very authentic Chinese experience. I was in awe of the recycling processes and how everything is used and how wasteful we are in the UK. That’s what really struck me when I got back, that we’re incredibly wasteful. I liked the ingenuity of the Chinese in the way they recycled everything.

Kate MccGwire, Red Tape, 2006. Installation at the Shenghua Art Centre in Nanjing. Image courtesy of the artist.


Is Art Central in Hong Kong your first experience showing in Asia, aside from the Shenghua Art Centre in Nanjing?

KM: Well, I showed in South Korea. I had a solo show there the year before last as part of the South Korean craft and art biennale. That was an amazing experience. It was in an old tobacco factory, so absolutely vast, vast rooms. Each artist had a solo exhibition within these vast spaces. I made a big installation there and had about 20 pieces within the show. So that was an incredible experience. Quite difficult in a way because of the language barrier. I wasn’t really sure heading out there that everything was going to be organized properly or anything, so I was a bit worried. But actually, we were made to feel incredibly welcome and the show was organized particularly well. It was a very good experience.

… I’m really sad not to be coming out to Hong Kong, as I’ve never been!

Kate MccGwire's solo exhibition at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale, 2013, in South Korea. Image courtesy of the artist.


So your works are shown throughout Europe and now works are being taken physically to Hong Kong, have you ever encountered any technical difficulties in transporting your works? Are they fragile or particularly heavy?

KM: They’re not very heavy but they are fragile. I have had a problem when I took something to the States that a sniffer dog was allowed to have a go at one of my sculptures. So it got spoilt – it was able to be mended but it did get spoilt. They are fragile. The thing with feathers, they can be stroked and preened back into place on the whole unless they’ve been really badly damaged. But yes, it is a slight concern.


Were there any physical limitations that determined which works were brought to Art Central? How were the works shown in Hong Kong chosen?

KM: I made 3 new pieces for Art Central and to a certain extent size was an issue. So they are smaller pieces of work generally. Obviously I make absolutely enormous pieces as well, so it was impossible to bring something on that sort of scale. I think it’s an adventure for Coates and Scarry to see what will happen in this new art fair. I just wish I was coming out to see it and to get an idea of the scale of it. I have no idea, really.

Kate MccGwire, Swell, 2014. Mallard speculum feathers on archival board. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


Can you describe your studio setup? You mention you have assistants – how many assistants do you have and how involved are they in the production of your sculptures?

KM: It depends. I have two assistants who help me on a regular basis and they tend to be in Monday and Tuesday. They generally trim and sort and categorize the feathers and prepare them for use so that when I’m ready to make a piece, I have everything there on hand, in the right boxes. Otherwise you’d pick up something and it would be the wrong shape and you’d have to find something else, and it would make the whole process a lot slower. So generally, yes, I make all the work, I just get assistants for preparing for the work to be made.


How close is your studio to the city?

KM: It takes me about 40 minutes to get to the city from where I am, so I’m in a very beautiful and quiet and remote space, but it’s not so far from the city.

Kate MccGwire, process sketch for 'Cleave' sculpture. Image courtesy of the artist.


Kate MccGwire, Cleave, 2012. Mixed media with dove feathers in antique cabinet. Photo credit Tessa Angus. Image courtesy of the artist.


Can you describe your creative process?

KM: I do a lot of drawings. It’s difficult to draw in three dimensions so I can draw visuals of what I think a piece will look like from one side, or maybe two sides. However to make drawings that actually connect and are three dimensional is quite difficult and I don’t do that on the computer – I find it much slower on the computer. Each piece is individual so it would be a waste of time I think to try to do it on the computer. So I do lots of drawings before I make a piece and then I normally find an antique cabinet or dome, and then I make work that will fit that space, and make the work look like it’s been trapped. So there’s very little space between the dome and the glass sides and the piece itself. So it looks like it’s squirming around within that space. I never make a piece of work and then try and find the dome, because it would be impossible to find one that absolutely fits the shape that I’ve made… I want the shape of the enclosure to really impact the shape of the piece.

Kate MccGwire, Sybaris. Mixed media with crow feathers and quills in antique dome. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


What meaning does this cramped enclosure carry for you? As you have called it in the past, why do you want this feeling of ‘suffocation’?

KM: Entrapment. I want the piece to look like it’s writhing, that it’s tormented within a smaller space, that it’s alive and it wants to get out. I think of these pieces as being a three dimensional manifestation of a state of mind, so constantly, slightly in turmoil, but beautiful, but anguished at the same time. There’s this constant sort of aesthetic and discomfort at the fact they look alike but they’re trapped.


When I look at your work, it feels very textural, beautiful, haunting, and also luxurious. It has inspired fashion designers before, notably Helmut Lang in 2013. Who are your favorite fashion designers, and would you ever consider a crossover brand collaboration?

KM: Well, funny enough I am in the process of organizing that at the moment with a designer that I absolutely love. But I can’t tell you who it is until it’s all announced. It’s a secret right now… it will be part of the clothing but it will also be part of their catwalk launch for Autumn/Winter 2016. It’s very exciting but it hasn’t all been signed and sealed yet so I better not! The exciting thing for me is that it’s a beautiful make of very, very subtle clothing and beautiful fabrics and all the things that I try to achieve with my work – it encapsulates it in clothing, so that’s terribly exciting.

Kate MccGwire, Hasp, 2015. Mixed media with pheasant feathers. Photo courtesy of JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


How does your latest work represent something new and exciting for you?

KM: The work is always developing. I’m using more pheasant feathers at the moment and enjoying the brilliance of those colors. It’s amazing to me, the pheasants are shot for sport and for food and the amount of meat you get off one bird is tiny. Yet, all these beautiful feathers are just discarded. So I’m getting my feathers for this from gamekeepers who would be throwing them away. And they’re absolutely stunning, so to make something permanent with these absolutely stunningly beautiful feathers that would just be chucked away... It seems completely the right thing to do, and I’m reveling in the color. One of the pieces that I’m showing with Coates and Scarry in Hong Kong is made from pheasant feathers and it’s called Hasp. There will be 9 pieces in total at Art Central, three of them are new and the rest I’ve done over a period of time. Hasp and Sybaris are absolutely recently finished so I’m very excited to be showing such new work there.


Besides pheasants and crows, are there any other birds that are catching your interest lately?

KM: We have a particular economy here in the UK of green ring-necked parakeets. They’re not indigenous to our country but the story goes they were used in a film at Shepperton Studios and they escaped, and there’s now a massive colony here of these birds, and they molt quite a lot. So I find feathers but not a reliable enough source yet to make something. They are – I don’t know what color you’d call them, a sort of lime green and the tails a bluey-green. They would be quite exotic to do something with but obviously only if I can get enough.

Kate MccGwire, Perihelion, 2014. Mixed media with pheasant feathers in antique dome Commissioned by the National Trust and Arts Council UK. Photo credit JP Bland. Image courtesy of the artist.


Kate MccGwire, FINE (Fucked-Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional), 2012. Mixed media with crow feathers in antique cabinet. Photo credit Eduardo Leal. Image courtesy of the artist.


You seem to love birds so much, do you keep birds yourself?

KM: No, we've got enough birds on the river here. With just the drop of a crumb into the water, suddenly I’m surrounded by geese and ducks and seagulls, coots, grues. There’s a phenomenal amount of birds around here. We even have a kingfisher that comes by, which is quite rare in this area.


What’s next for you, and what can we look forward to regarding your showings in Asia?

KM: Weirdly yesterday I was asked to do something in Japan and I might be doing a solo show in Hong Kong next year, but I don’t know the details enough to be able to talk openly about that yet. I’m going to come to Hong Kong I think in April and have a look at the space. So there’s things in the pipeline.

I’ve got so many things on at the moment. This Friday, March 6th, I open my solo show in Berlin, and there are 30 pieces in that show. I’ve then got the Venice Biennale, and then I have a 2-person show organized in Bristol in June with a fantastic artist called Peter Randall-Page, who I’ve admired my entire life. So that’s a great delight to be showing with him. I’ve got shows in London during Frieze, so it’s all ‘go’. So, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s going to happen next!

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