Alastair Mackie


Written by Izzy Elstob
17 Sunday 17th July 2011

Alastair Mackie creates spheres out of mouse skulls, panels out of wasp heads and fabric out of owl sick, refining a recent trend towards alternative taxidermy as a canvas for art. Naturally, we had to check out his current show and have a word.

Untitled (hornet panel), installation view and detail. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

Pertwee Anderson & Gold gallery opened February this year and it’s one to keep an eye on. The gallery had previously shown the work of Kate MccGwire, the artist who creates fantastical waves, curves and layers with the wonderfully ‘hobby-craft’ medium of birds’ feathers.

Alastair Mackie’s new show in this Soho-based gallery, I was there, in Arcadia, reveals Mackie to be an artist of unusually high quality.  He employs samples and specimens from the natural world and converts them into objects of intense craftsmanship and delicate - dare I say - beauty.  I’ll walk you through.

Amorphous Organic, 2009, 5000 year old bog oak, light box, glass, battery, brass, copal, resin, insects.  32 chess pieces. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

Mackie’s Metamorphoses series is made up of three display bell jars, each perched upon a plinth and within each is perched a bird preserved through taxidermy (let us not underestimate the potential of taxidermy when used intelligently just because it has had such a populist resurgence).  The trick with this work is that the bell jars’ interiors are lined with a reflective surface (a kind of Victorian glam), only allowing a block-shape encounter with the birds inside.  As the viewer you find yourself – unusually for most of us – attempting to avoid your own reflected image in order to better see the image of another, the bird.  It’s like a dance with your own reflection, constantly shifting your position, craning your neck, desperate for another partner to waltz with.  They are magnificent objects, both to look at and to think about.

Metamorphoses, 2009, glass bell jar, mirror, wooden base, 176 cm x 43 cm x 43cm. A 1930s taxidermy display bell jar has been transformed into a mirroring structure, using a traditional technique of mixing silver nitrate and copper. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

Downstairs again, Mackie uses the repetition of form to create the series Untitled (Sphere).  These are four perfect spheres within thick-set display bell jars, apparently floating upon their plinths.  I forgot to mention that these perfect spheres are meticulously composed of mouse skulls. I forgot to mention that these mouse skulls are meticulously extracted from owl vomit. What you have is a skeletal ball of precise dimensions, the layers of the ball packed with equidistantly placed skulls of increasing or diminishing size dependent on whether the convex is moving towards or away from the poles. These four works are also featured in four photographs that are displayed beside them, each subtitled with their location. These photographs ‘depict the sculptures reunited with their places of origin’: abandoned, forgotten, overgrown places. By photographing the four spheres at these locations, the original mouse skulls that couldn’t have been more discarded if they tried (think back to that owl puke) are transformed into something re-claimed, noticed and perfect.

This exhibition is the real thing.  Thoughtfully-conceived, beautifully-created and meticulously crafted, Alastair Mackie’s objects show off some of the best bits of contemporary art.  You should go. We caught up with Mackie and talked to him about who he admires, what inspires him and a thwarted career as an anthropologist.

Mimetes Anon, 2009, Bronze, 82 x 52 x 50 cm. Alastair Mackie's first public sculpture commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society for the Economist Plaza. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

Talk us through your inspiration and interests a little bit

If I hadn’t become an artist I like to think I might have been some kind of anthropologist, perhaps with a special interest in the link between “culture” and “nature”.

As an artist I’m interested in how culture shapes nature and, more importantly; how nature shapes culture. I think the relationship is especially intriguing now and I want to make works that speak of my own experience and perception of it. Inspiration can come from anything.

Shapeshifter, 2010, matchsticks 214cm x 114cm x 54cm. According to a strict pattern approximately 120,000 matchsticks have been used to create a ‘blank'. From this the piece was carved. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

Are there any historical or even contemporary artists who mean a lot to you - artistically?

I’ve always been fascinated by artifacts / art objects from history, but it’s less clear what the influence of historical art is to me. Contemporary art, on the other hand, means an awful lot and is a huge drive. If I’d become a very rich anthropologist; my other passion would have definitely been a collection. Not all contemporary work connects with me, but when it does; it can have a very strong impact. A recent example is the work of Alicja Kwade who somehow says so much, but hardly opening her mouth!

A is to B as B is to C, 2010 wasp nests 21.5cm x 29.5cm x 11cm One hundred nests have been collected, re-pulped and machine processed in to sheets of A4 paper. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus

There currently appears to be a growing resurgence of the use of the natural specimen/sample in art - can you offer any explanation or reasons for this apparent trend?

I think we’re living in an interesting time where we’re truly starting to reflect, as well as look forward. Due to pressing concerns we have become re-aware of our surroundings and what they mean to us, so I guess that the resurgence you refer to is just part of (or a response to) that trend.

Untitled (+/-), 2009, mouse skeletons, mouse fur, loom, concrete dimensions variable. Over a period of one year barn owl pellets have been collected and processed in to their raw components of mouse fur and bone. The fur has been spun in to yarn and, with the use of a loom, the yarn has been woven in to a sheet of fabric. The skeletons have been left as a heap. Courtesy All Visual Arts, photo Tessa Angus


Alastair Mackie's show, I was there, in Arcadia, is showing at Pertwee, Anderson & Gold in association with the fantastic All Visual Arts until 11 August. For more info, visit

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