Kate McMillan interview with Susie Pentelow of Traction Magazine
17 April 2016

Kate McMillan’s current solo exhibition uses film, photography and sculpture to explore the relationship between landscape, body and memory. She talks to Susie Pentelow about ‘Stones for Dancing, Stones for Dying’ at Castor Projects, London.

Traction Magazine - Tell me about the show.

Kate McMillan - It’s been good for me, because I moved back to the UK three and a half years ago. I was born here but moved to Australia when I was eight, so now I have to re-establish myself here, having been reasonably well known in Australia. It has actually been quite nice – no one knows me here so I can be a bit more experimental and play around with ideas. I think it’s actually been good for my practice, but of course that’s meant now I’m back showing in more project spaces, which has actually been fun, but a strange thing, too.

TM - Can you talk me through the work?

KM - The title of the work comes from the film ‘Figures in a Landscape’ narrated by a poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis. He used this quite poetic phrase, about ‘stones for dancing, stones for dying’. I’m using these stone-like forms in my work that are really an unconscious form. I noticed it in my practice about five years ago - people thought perhaps they were heads, but after making shapes like this for a while, I think what they actually are is the shape of my abdomen, like a place or a feeling in my stomach, a physical location where I carry things. So I started thinking about the digestive system and the idea that we absorb knowledge, experience and memory through our bodies and that they kind of leave a residue there. I was thinking about that and the relationship with stones, thinking about the British landscape and that weirdness of reconnecting back to a place that feels familiar. I lived in Hampshire when I was a little girl, so I have memories of this very English landscape, but they are also really unfamiliar too, because when I think back to those early memories it’s almost like remembering a dream that I had a while ago.

I was also thinking about how you walk through the landscape and you pick rocks up and you keep them and you hold them close to you and they might be the reminders of gestures of the landscape that you’ve been in. I guess that has a double meaning in terms of the digestive system, like a blockage or a gallstone or a heaviness that sits in the bottom of your stomach. So all the little stones in the show that were cast from bronze have this weight to them. It was this thing of collapsing the landscape and my internal landscape together into one psychological plane. In that sense it’s also about mapping my journey back into this culture, after being away for thirty years.

In Australia, I was still interested in the idea of the residue of things and forgotten histories and their residue in the landscapes, but because I was more a part of the culture there, I was able to comment on it, so I was also looking at colonial history and what that meant more broadly. In this sense, this new work is really coming back to a biographical place, rather than social commentary, which is a shift in my work as well. It’s very much about me trying to understand my place here and how I feel about being here and how I reconcile what it means just to be working here as an artist.

The upturned landscape in the photograph is in an area that I grew up in as a kid in Hampshire, which I went back to. I had this memory of this place. There was a naturally occurring clay field and a pottery next door and the potters used to get all their clay from the landscape and make pots. The pottery was in fact still there, but when I went back to find this location it was waterlogged, so this is what you see now in the film – the landscape as it is now. This whole landscape has shifted and changed, and it’s really different. Around that I found a little hut near this bit of bogged out area. Someone was obviously living there - it was abandoned at the time but it had been well used, it was really well set up. I guess that’s me mapping going back to the places I can recall and trying to map them out and work out what they are. And in fact, probably over the last fifteen years, every sort of six months, twelve months, there’s an image of some sort of abandoned or ruined house. If you look back over my practice over the past two decades, you can see it keeps cropping up. It wasn’t something that I had realised I’d been doing until recently. There’s something about home and this feeling of fragility and I think that’s something I want to take hold of and push a bit further, particularly in relation to thinking about refugees.

But for this show, I was interested in negotiating the anxiety and tension in me, and how that can be mapped out. A lot of the works are maps of the digestive system, but also – particularly in the white clay pieces – there’s something bodily or bone-like. The glass sheets function as filters, so when you look through them things change, which functions like memory or something.

The other things is that in previous works I’ve often worked with an editor, but I actually learnt to edit for this film, because it enabled me to be a little more playful with the ways things came together. One of the things I’ve been trying to do as well is to incorporate the sculptures into the film, along with photographs and still images. You’ll notice bits of this work – like the clay pieces - in the footage, with my hands. I’ve also retrieved footage from previous projects. There’s footage in there from the Isle of Wight, which is where my grandmother used to live - I used to holiday down there as a child - and there’s footage from Pontikonisi in Greece which is the island that Arnold Böcklin’s painted his Isle of the Dead paintings from. I’ve been referencing the Isle of the Dead for a long time and the idea of the island as a metaphor in my work. The text is from my poetry. I probably write four poems a year. Sometimes, when I’ve got ideas in my head and I can’t work out how they come together, I can write a poem and it can solidify and pull things together in a way that helps me to focus in on the ideas and their connectedness.  

TM - So the poetry is like an editing process for you?

KM - Yes, it is. I’ve just written a poem for a project that I’m working on for next year, and one of the lines in my poem is ‘the past is singing in my teeth’. The actual project is called ‘The Ghosts of Material Things’, so I’ve been making something about teeth and their relationship to the body. It also enables me to bounce ideas off as well. It’s a funny thing… it’s becoming increasingly important in my process.

TM - The text for this show references ‘Magpie for Anxious Objects’, a story written by Daniel C. Blight. How does that come in?

KM - I met Daniel when I was teaching at Coventry University, and we shared our train trips to Coventry together. In a way his story approach is a little bit like my poems – it doesn’t directly talk about the work, but it talks about the feelings of the work and maybe some of the memories. It’s fictitious, but loosely based on something not completely disparate to my childhood experiences of being a kid in England. It could almost be something that I had written about. I often commission a writer to write something about what I’m doing, because I find that the studio is quite isolated, and having a writer to talk through the ideas is really useful. Then you get this lovely piece of writing at the end, which also helps to stimulate ideas, so it becomes this little string that attaches things together. He wrote ‘Magpie for Anxious Objects’ for a show that I had in Australia last year, but I didn’t have enough money to commission another piece of work for this show, so I re-used it. I read it and I thought, “This is completely relevant to this work too, actually”.  

TM - I was really struck by the line, “It was anxious because it didn’t belong in that place”, about a displaced object.  

KM - The thing about art is the power comes from being in a position where you can get out of society and embody this idea of the outsider. I think that’s why art can be powerful and be a meaningful mirror to society. I like not being completely British, because I feel even more so like I’m getting outside culture. Looking back on Australian culture I can see it more clearly now that I’m not in it. I think on your own, you become really aware of your stance and where you’re situated and how you perform socially and there’s an awareness of how your body feels.

I don’t know whether you noticed in the film but there’s footage of me with my clenched hands. When I was filming down on the Isle of Wight I had a cameraperson doing all the filming whilst I was doing the art direction and she took footage of me clenching my hands like that while we were standing on the beach. When I looked back at the footage I thought “Oh my god, my mother’s hands!” and when I told my partner, he said, “you do that all the time – whenever you’re worried about something or you’re thinking hard or you’re anxious you do that”. I used to watch her body and if she was doing that with her hands I knew she was really angry and to stay away from her. So I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of years, the idea of inherited body memory and hands. You inherit things for different reasons – I don’t necessarily do it when I’m angry but I obviously do it when I’m anxious so there’s something that connects her anger and my anxiety and it comes out in how I use my body. In the form of the clenched hands and the form of the stone in the stomach and the shape of the abdomen, there’s all this mirroring that happens in the body.

I didn’t use that footage at the time but I’ve used it since and in fact it started me working with these forms. In my previous show from last year there were these almost poo-like shapes and it’s actually a map of my clenched fist. These sorts of shapes are picked up again with this white sculpture, and are really like a mapping of the tension in my hands.

Then there’s footage in the film of the colonoscopy (I tried to get footage from my own colonoscopy but Lewisham hospital have lost it!) and again it’s this idea of the things that get mapped out in your body – the things that pass through your body.

There’s probably a lot going on here and I recognize that it’s all quite difficult for people to locate without speaking to me about these things. It’s something that I’ve always thought about, a dilemma within my practice, and I guess how I reconcile it is that you can feel the ideas when looking at my work. There’s often a connection between something that feels uneasy but is also beautiful at the same time. There’s also the use of the sound. It’s by the sound artist Cat Hope, who I’ve worked with on a number of occasions, and we do this thing where we match her sort of slightly disconcerting music with my film. Hopefully that leads in to the rest of the work.

TM - The other thing I wanted to ask goes back to your show ‘Anxious Objects’ last year. The exhibition text raises the idea of ‘creating something in the moment it begins to disappear’. I wondered if you could talk a bit more about that? 

KM - I suppose one of the things that I’m doing when I’m making work like this is I’m trying to map the things that are almost invisible or hard to grasp. With the project I showed in 2014, ‘The Moment of Disappearance’, I’m really interested in this idea of what happens to knowledge and feelings and experience when they’re not mapped. So in a way my work is trying to make solid the things that are normally forgotten. The heaviness in the stomach is really just a feeling, and making an object from it is sort of like revealing its presence or pleading its case, in a way. So it’s in that space between forgetting and remembering and in the fragility of that relationship - I try to create work that is all quite fragile. 

I like the idea of the maquette, so the idea that you are using something that would historically be seen as a sketch or an approximation of something bigger and more substantial but it’s not that, it is the work: the maquette is the thing. It’s somehow trying to remedy or reflect that feeling of fragility.

I feel anxious when my work’s finished, so I jumped up and started working the day after the show opened. The work I’m doing at the moment in the studio is again with maquettes, trying to map tension through movement. I think it’s really just about how you create something that’s barely there, that’s fragile, that’s got that tension, which is a material concern as much as a conceptual one.

TM - Do you have anything else coming up? 

KM - Yes, I’m about to head off in a couple of months to do a residency in St. Petersburg. I’m based in the town of Kronstadt, which is on an island, and I’m hoping to pick up on some of the long-term things in my work about islands. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but some new work.

I’m also working on a really big project for Berlin next year called 'The Ghosts of Material Things’. I’m looking at Marcel Proust as the foundation of the research into that work, thinking about the way that objects function as memory triggers. It’s going to be a film work shot across four collections in Europe, some here at the Gordon Pathology Museum at King’s College where I teach and then three museums in Europe. Basically this fictional family comes back from the past to retrace objects from their lives and their bodies that are stored in these museums. It’s a surrealist story about them journeying. It’s also about this idea of the displacement of objects and thinking about the universal trauma of people being displaced. So hopefully it’s journeying beyond this biographical experience of place and home to think about what’s happening around the world. It’s taken me a little while to find what the work is maybe standing for in terms of social commentary, but I think that’s the thing that’s probably connecting it all – this idea of displacement.