Rarely do the idea of beauty and the image of street pigeons go hand in hand, but Kate MccGwire questions the unlikelihood of such a coupling in her art – indeed questions the very nature of beauty itself.
Working with the shed plumage of birds often nicknamed rats with wings, the British artist ensures her medium lends itself to liquid movement, and as the feathers flow so do our thoughts.
Describing the process through which her pieces develop as the “visceral interrogation of an object”, Kate MccGwire has been exploring the possibilities of pigeon feathers for a while now.
‘Retch’, created in 2007, is an installation comprising a wild torrent of feathers projecting from a sewer-like opening in the wall of St Pancras Crypt, London, where the exhibition was held.
The repulsive effect of the subterranean flood of pigeon feathers was certainly no accident – it resonated with the sewer imagery of its context – yet it’s true that the thousands of downy tufts described also have an “exquisite, painterly quality at odds with their vermin-like status”.
Adopting a policy of collection and reuse, MccGwire has had huge quantities of feathers sent to her by racing pigeon enthusiasts from all over the UK, but the brainchild was born closer to home. A large shed next to the artist’s studio is colonised with feral pigeons – such that at certain times of year moulted feathers lie on the ground – and it was only to speed up the creative process that she began to search further afield.
Initially repelled by the idea of pigeons as the vermin of the inner city air, MccGwire nevertheless “obsessively started to collect" their feathers, "playing and experimenting with ways of assembling them, with no definite idea of what was going to evolve.” What has evolved is a series of exciting works that have allowed her to push the limits of the medium.
‘Heave’, created and exhibited in 2008, is a surge of pigeon flight-feathers that gushes from a hole gouged into the wall of London’s Fieldgate Gallery. Here again MccGwire manages to throw up both beauty and disgust, the repetitive patterns of the feathers “creating patterns which pull the viewer’s gaze inwards and entice them to re-examine the preconceptions and prejudices they once held for the birds.”
‘Vex’, exhibited in London’s Shoreditch Town Hall in 2008 and at 'Tunnel 228' in 2009, uses pigeon feathers to different effect – as the scales around the twisted form of a serpent-like creature enclosed in an airless glass cabinet.
This peculiar museum object shuns the typical “taxidermist's presentation of a perfectly preserved specimen complete with beady-eyed head” in favour of an apparently headless beast, also visible in 2009’s similarly serpentine ‘Rile’.
“This feathered hybrid defies the naturalist's attempts at categorisation,” states the artist’s website of ‘Vex’; “half bird, half snake, it lies somewhere between a creature of myth, an extinct beast and a corporeal representation of the angst-ridden contortions of the human subconscious.” We're sure Freud would have been proud.
More in the vein of ‘Heave’, ‘Sluice’ is another work that delves into the complex relationship between the beautiful and the vile by means of a spreading puddle of pigeon feathers.
Utilising materials like those used in its predecessors such as felt, glue and polystyrene, the difference with 'Sluice' as an installation is its size: at 4.5 x 2.5 x 5 m it took up large parts of the spaces where it was exhibited at 'LOKAAL01' in Holland (2008) and the St Pancras Crypt, London (2009).
Born in Norwich, England, Kate MccGwire was awarded her MA in Sculpture from the Royal College of Art in 2004, and has since gone on to exhibit in numerous galleries in London, as well as New York, Berlin and China. To peck out further examples of the artist’s ourvre, visit her website.
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