A Colossal Interview
Kate MccGwire On Discerning Duality, Connecting with Nature, and Making Art in the Belly of a Dutch Barge
February 13, 2023
Inside glass vitrines redolent of cabinets of curiosities or Victorian-era natural history collections, Kate MccGwire’s “creatures” appear locked in an intense, writhing struggle. Known for sculptures and installations that incorporate thousands of bird feathers into serpentine bodies and gushing spills, the artist (previously) houses works in bespoke cases or historic buildings that induce a sense of surprise, unease, and wonder. MccGwire, who is now based in London, grew up on the Norfolk Broads, a network of waterways in the eastern lobe of England that are mostly navigable by boat, where her explorations of the region’s wetlands and wildlife provided a foundation for an artistic practice that celebrates nature’s rhythms, patterns, and dualities.
In January of 2023, Colossal contributing editor Kate Mothes spoke with MccGwire via email and discussed how the artist connects with nature on a daily basis, relies on an extensive network of people around the U.K. to send countless feathers, and embraces the tension between what we know to be real and what we imagine.
Shown above is “EVACUATE” (2010), a mixed-media installation with game feathers, 120 x 400 x 350 centimeters. Photo by Jonty Wilde. All images © Kate MccGwire, shared with permission
Kate Mothes: How did feathers emerge as a primary medium in your work?
Kate MccGwire: I regularly found moulted feathers on my daily walks with my (then) dog, Tilly. I then discovered a colony of pigeons in a warehouse on a dilapidated island on the Thames in South London, where I moored my 115-year-old Dutch barge studio, Barton B. Finding so many feathers at once prompted me to start collecting their feathers on a larger scale, fascinated by the duality of their cultural associations.
Kate Mothes: How long have you been working in the barge? Has it influenced your work in any particular way?
Kate MccGwire: I’ve been working on a barge since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2004. It’s constantly inspiring; the movement and flow of the water is always enlivening. The water is almost at eye-level when you are standing in the belly of the barge, which is initially unnerving but wonderful to see aquatic and wildlife on a level. I also swim in the river every day, come rain, shine, wind, or ice. Not only do I find this completely energizing but also creatively inspiring as I constantly have cormorants, herons, and kingfishers sharing this space with me.
Kate Mothes: How much time do you typically spend out in nature collecting the feathers? What do you look for?
Kate MccGwire: I used to spend many hours collecting feathers in the wild, but now I just pick up the odd unusual one when I’m out walking with my (current) dog Echo—owls and birds of prey, parakeets, etc. The feathers that I use in my work are sourced from all over the country through a network of pigeon racers, gamekeepers, and members of the general public. They have been a fantastic support to my work.
Choosing to collect materials that you cannot actually buy, which are essentially byproducts that would usually be discarded, is challenging and creative in its own right; the collaborative process of describing and persuading someone to have faith in my project and then be willing to give me their time or materials is integral to the process.
Kate Mothes: What is your process like for beginning a new piece? What kind of research or preparations do you do?
Kate MccGwire: I spend a long time researching, considering space, the environment, style, and the history of the building. For example, when creating “SECRETE,” a piece for St. Mary in the Castle in Hastings, a fascinating building steeped in history with a full-immersion baptismal stream running through the building, I wanted my piece to reflect these themes of redemption, belief, and the idea that water can cleanse not only the body but our mortal sins, as well as representing Christ’s death and rebirth.
Another important part of the process is creating scale drawings and sketches, maybe ten different versions, but it’s tricky to physically draw in 3D, so I find that I have to work intuitively and just carve from scratch when I’m working on the actual final form.
Kate Mothes: How would you describe the relationship between the containers or interior spaces and how they determine or respond to the sculptures or installations that go in them?
Kate MccGwire: The vitrines are my architecture. I want to make work that writhes around, trapped within this airless space. I use the language of natural history museum exhibits or taxidermy vitrines, but unlike these traditional, spacious methods of display with elements of the natural world—twigs, grass, stones, etc.—mine are trapped, almost too big for their vitrines, suffocating, writhing around in the claustrophobic environment.
I am fascinated by the notion that the work appears to be animate, almost breathing and flowing.—Kate MccGwire
The installations are made in places that pique my interest. I love working in historic buildings, working with architecture that is spectacular or overlooked or where there are peculiar elements within a space.
Kate Mothes: Are there any locations or vessels that have shaped an artwork in a way that surprised you or led in an unexpected direction?
Kate MccGwire: A waste pipe in a gallery in Belgium. A cut-off waste pipe came up along the edge of the gallery. It was weird, but the result was “SLUICE” from 2009.
Kate Mothes: Do you view your works as being “alive?”
Kate MccGwire: I am fascinated by the notion that the work appears to be animate, almost breathing and flowing. And yes, I love that children believe they are real, that sometimes they walk around installations or vitrines looking for the head of the creature.
There is something magical that happens in the viewer’s mind. They know that my work is made from discarded feathers with a substructure underneath—but often there is an obfuscation of what we know to be real and a shift that allows a sort of reverie and suspension of reality, and due to the convincing placement of the feathers over natural undulating forms, the impression that it could be real, that it could move, flow, and uncoil.
Kate Mothes: Is there a correlation or duality between birds and serpents?
Kate MccGwire: I have been greatly influenced by the iconic sculpture of “Laocoön and His Sons” from the Hellenistic Period. As the “creatures” of my works are often bound within the tight confines of glass vitrines and appear frantic and constrained, I have often been told that my works invoke a sense of pathos in the viewer and, like the sculpture of Laocoön, convey an epic notion of universal suffering.
The Pergamon Altar has also had a particular resonance for me, with its depiction of hybrid creatures that morph from man to beast (the giant, Agrios) or from bird to horse (Pegasus), contained within a composition that is believable, confusing, and momentous.
Kate Mothes: How would you describe the relationship between your work and the feminine, especially in terms of what’s described in your recently published monograph as the “feminine grotesque?”
Kate MccGwire: Dr. Catriona McAra describes how my practice channels the feminine grotesque and places a more organic emphasis on sculptural possibilities. In my mind, my works are human, visceral, and bodily, yet also animal.
I’m constantly trying to play on this fine line between the uncontrollable beast and our contained and formal selves. The muscular, epic, knot-like artworks exploit dichotomous feelings of revulsion and desire, troubling boundaries of the wild and the civilised. We recognise the creases and crevices, and they refer back to ourselves, but they are also other than human, confusing, simultaneously otherworldly, and animal.
Kate Mothes: Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?
Kate MccGwire: I am currently working on a new type of project altogether: a collection of silk and cashmere scarfs that will be launching later this year with Colab369. It’s been a truly fascinating process, and the research and preparation that went into this project have been really exciting. We are using the highest quality fabrics, exquisitely printed and finished in Italy, and I can’t wait to share the results with everyone!
Anomie published the monograph Kate MccGwire in 2021, which is available for purchase at Bookshop.org. Find more of the artist’s work on her website, and follow more updates on Instagram.