I first heard about Kate MacDowell’s wonderful sculptures from writer Maria Dahvana Headley while attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. MacDowell’s delicate, grotesque creations invert the strange hierarchy we place upon nature, with humankind at the top and the rest of the environment and animal kingdom, well, far below. You might experience a moment of shock, perhaps even of disgust in seeing the embryo alongside three baby chicks in a nest. If you’ve watched enough nature shows, you anticipate a certain amount of bad things that could happen to the baby birds, but MacDowell’s sculpture creates that topsy-turvy movement of the carnivalesque–the world turned inside out. The image is both adorable and horrifying, for the power relationship between humanity and the natural world is momentarily equalized; our fate is bound up in theirs.
But often we forget this tenacious, vulnerable connection with the environment. When viewing Canary, I immediately recall every bad cold where it hurt to breath because my lungs were so full of nasty goop. It is only the moment after that one might remember the practice of sending the canary into the coal mines, to see if there were any dangerous gasses that would kill the workers. So often, it seems, we offer up nature as both sacrifice and test case in order to avoid death. The grotesqueness of Macdowell’s Canary does not condemn that rather troubling relationship so much as plays on its boundaries, inverting that which we wish to remain not only outside, but indeed, very far away. The lungs morph into a fantastical tree, for certainly birds cannot live inside a human, but the shapes are so ambiguous that it rides the line of real and unreal. They can appear as merely diseased lungs if glanced at–and here the indictment becomes a bit more biting. Is our culture the toxic element, the diseased body that others need to be warned about?
Of course, death and decay do not always have to be feared, and many artists and writers who delve into the macabre try to reframe our positioning concerning such matters. Despite the proliferation of zombie lore in our art, literature, film, and pop culture, I would still argue that we hide those who are deemed mad and half dead. Just visit the nursing homes and prisons–you’ll see plenty of examples there. The carnivalesque deals with death a little differently, for the body in Bakhtin’s worlds is one that is “always becoming.” It is never in a static direction of heading towards life or death, but in a great cycle of sacred decay. A work such as Sparrow grounds the metaphor in the real, for certainly many of us have witnessed the death of a bird, its leg contracted in pain. But the human skeleton shows how nature’s mortality is woven into our own. The image also brings to mind Matthew 10:29-31, which describes how God is with any sparrow that falls to the ground, but then the second verse states why we shouldn’t worry, since we are worth more than any bird. Rather than concentrate on the fact that the divine is present with all creatures, people have used such verses to justify the ideology that we are more important; that nature is expendable. Macdowell’s sculptures don’t invoke any of the transgressive laughter that is normally associated with the carnivalesque, but her work does trump the troubling hierarchies we have created regarding the environment.
What I like most about these sculptures is their ability to pull at my deepest sympthathies while still jarring my sense of what I “know” to be true about the world around me. Her piece Pinkies reminds of me Patricia Piccinini’s work, which always tugs at my heartstrings even as I recoil a bit. For certainly, I do not like getting near rats, even if they are babies. But these little ones, attached to monitors and tubes like any preemie in the ICU, destabilize my label of “rodent” or “pest.” Are they kept in the incubators to survive and become pets, or is this one long experiment where they need to get strong to encounter future pain? These unanswered questions prolong the ambiguity I sense when viewing these works even as I am caught up in a sense of wonder. That is, of course, the power of carnival and the grotesque–to keep us in the in-between long enough to warrant paradigm shifts and strange revolutions.
To view more of Kate’s work, please visit her website. All photos used with permission from the artist.