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Amorphous Organic, 2008, Alastair Mackie

Alastair Mackie / Age Of the Marvellous

In the first of our previews of the forthcoming group exhibition at All Visual Arts we talk to participating artist Alastair Mackie about the aesthetics of decay

This month, All Visual Arts present Age Of The Marvellous, an exhibition inspired by the 'collections of curiosities' ubiquitous in the era of The Renaissance. Featuring 60 works by an exciting cabal of contemporary artists it promises to provide some fascinatingly skewed investigations into the zeitgeist. In the first of our previews, we talk to participating artist Alastair Mackie whose sculptural works play with our perceptions of familiar objects – hand-grenades are infused with a strange beauty, doll's houses are made out of pulped wasp nests and insects preserved in amber become chess pieces. We took some time out with the man who famously changed the face of the Economist Plaza with Mimetes Anon (a sculptural piece that presented unsuspecting members of the public with their primal ancestry) to talk subversion, primal art and the extreme violence of single cell organisms...

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us about the pieces you are exhibiting in The Age of The Marvellous –– what is the significance of using wasp and hornet's nests to create a dolls house, for example?
Alastair Mackie:
I'm going to show five or six pieces that explore the connection between material, process and form. In a broad sense the work touches on ideas to do with the relationship between man and nature, and the boundaries that separate the two. In "House" the co-ordinates of a wooden dolls house kit have been copied, and the structure replicated from sheets made of approximately 300 pulped paper wasp and hornet nests. The idea was to reverse this particular construction process used in nature and then take it forward again in a way that relates to how we do the same.

DD: I love the way you often use regurgitated materials, such as the barn owl pellets in a previous work, what attracts you to the materials you employ?
I'm interested in systems – a complex whole formed from related parts. I remove materials from these systems and process them in a way that results in something relevant to the original system. The owl pellets are a material that I became aware of living in the countryside as a child. I was interested in what these little packages represented in terms of much bigger things – life, death, regeneration and so on.

DD: I recently read a book by Schopenhauer in which he postulated that, as we are destined to decay until death, we should regard ourselves as “brothers in misery'”. What is your take on the human lot?
That's a big question and perhaps has something to do with why I make art. I remember having the realisation that it was possibly okay for me to not completely understand what it was I was doing (in general), and that perhaps it might take the rest of my life to find any kind of answer; and also that there was a good chance there are no answers. In a way, the production of art is like a journey, influenced by how I perceive myself and the world around me. I'm not sure what my take on the human lot is can you ask me in 20 years time?!

DD: Francis Bacon once said that violence was was apparent everywhere in nature; that in the undergrowth the insects were all killing each other. I was wondering what your view of the violence in the natural world was?
 I was recently watching Herzog's film Encounters At The End Of The World in which a marine biologist studying a species of bacteria describes the miniaturized world of single-cell creatures as one of extreme violence and murder. Does this have something to say about why we continue to act in certain ways today? Is it still a case of survival of the fittest? I use animals like mice in my work because I found a way of extracting them from nature without having to do the dirty work myself. They come into the world, live, and die in the same way everything else does and I play with the fact that due to their small size much of the awfulness infused in their violent demise is somehow lessened, making the artwork instantly more accessible.

DD: Can you talk us through the inspiration for Mimetes Anon and what it represents. How does it feel as an artist to engage with the public in such a direct way?
 When I was commissioned to come up with a piece for the Economist Plaza I knew I wanted to do something site-specific and interactive. I was interested in using the traditional materials associated with public art, such as bronze, and I wanted the piece to fit within the fabric of the space. The idea was that the viewer would have to stand within that space in order to view the piece – a kind of role reversal. In an ideal world I would have had an actual fully grown male chimpanzee sit there for two months; an awkward, unexpected, and potentially dangerous standoff with our animal past, but that could have been problematic!

DD: Which literary works would you say have shaped you the most and why?
Two books that inspired me when I was starting to make art were The Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Both dealt with ideas to do with the primal and ideological and helped me to understand where some of my own interests were coming from.

DD: What do you enjoy most about skewing people's perceptions of familiar objects?
I'm interested in how our awareness of things changes. What guides us to assume a position on something and what instigates a change in that stance. I hope my work can have this kind of influence.

DD: The Age Of The Marvellous is almost framed as a 'collection of curiousities' as opposed to a straight exhibition. How do you think this affects the viewer's reading of the art?
'Collections of Curiosities' became popular because of their ability to draw parallels to seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge such as science and art. I like to show my work alongside artists who I think are dealing with similar subjects, but perhaps approaching them from a very different angle. I'm normally a ‘less is more’ kind of artist, so I think it will be very interesting for me to see the work in the context of nearly 60 other art works, and to see how the language between the various pieces works.

DD: Why do you work chiefly in sculpture?
I've been an object maker since I can remember. I'm interested in the way sculpture physically embodies its themes and fuses space with the viewer. That said; I haven't written off using other mediums and would very much like to try film in the future.

Age Of The Marvellous October 14 – 22, One Marylebone, London NW1 4GD
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