Swan Fake

Quell, 2011 – Kate MccGwire

Photograph: Tessa Angus, Image courtesy of All Visual Arts

I discovered Kate MccGwire’s sculptures at the Maison Rouge as part of a group exhibition – Memoirs du Futur, which focuses on the art collection of Thomas Olbricht (on until the 15th hurry!).  Although an amazing show, it was a little gloomy and macabre so MccGwire’s sculptures were a breath of fresh air in comparison. Yet, I guess it depends how you look at them, from one perspective they are beautiful and dream-like, another they are disturbing and nightmarish.

To start with the beauty; as soon as saw ‘Quell’ I thought of swans gliding down the Norfolk Broads, close to where I grew up and where my family now lives. Bizarrely, when I read the label for the artwork I noticed that the artist is from the same area, further research found that her father was a boat builder and she was brought up on the river.

Other images that came to mind were the swans on the Serpentine in London which prompted fond memories of Sunday walks around Hyde park. Then, I remembered the bizarre Dutch swans of Amsterdam. In the middle of the night I watched around thirty of them parading and stretching out their plumage bathed in reflections of neon lighting. It was as if they’d learnt their moves from watching the nearby windows or they had inhaled the fumes of the neighbouring coffee shops (I myself had done neither I promise!)

So how about the disturbing qualities of the sculptures? Firstly, swans themselves. Although graceful, beautiful and mysterious birds you would never try and pet a swan. It could be an urban myth, but they are said to be able to break your arm, failing that I’m sure they’d try and peck you to death. Attempt to defend yourself and you’ll be in trouble with the Queen of England as apparently they are all her property (perhaps another urban myth).

However, you then realise that the creepiest thing about these sculptures is that they aren’t swans. These bodies don’t have heads; they are always stuck somewhere or tucked away. Why should there be a head anyway? Perhaps because our brain tells us from experience that it should be a swan? Maybe the bends and wriggles belong more to a serpent than a bird? This made me think of the worm scene in BeetleJuice, which isn’t difficult because as a teenager I watched this film about 100 times.

The biggest surprise about these works though is that the ‘swans’ are actually made of pigeons’ feathers. Although that doesn’t bother me, there are some who despise pigeons. People in the countryside shoot them and I’ve seen city-dwellers kick them mumbling ‘rats with wings’ under their breath. Pigeons are swans’ ugly, poor cousins. In London it used to be an attraction in Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons and let them walk all over you as seen in this film (skip to 3min47) but now that they live on our discarded McDonald and kebab leftovers they are seen as dirty pests.

In an interview MccGwire once said how she is interested by the shift in perception that people experience when they find out that the feathers are from pigeons. Often they feel squeamish, despite the knowledge that the feathers are sanitized before use.

MccGwire first came up with idea of using feathers as an art material when she moved her studio to a river barge to get closer the nature she was studying. Next-door is a disused boatshed that pigeons had made a home. She started collecting their molted feathers, which was considered dangerous at the time because bird flu had just broken out. To supply her need for huge quantities of feathers she now works with a network of over 200 pigeon-racers and fanciers who send her feathers in molting season.

The move to feathers has been a turning point in her career as it has attracted the attention of global art collectors such as Charles Saatchi and her cabinet pieces and on-site installations have been exhibited all around the world.

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