Rachel Boyd interviews up and coming Scottish talent Niall MacDonald who is currently enjoying a solo exhibition called Elvis Nipple Plinth at Glasgow's Kendall Koppe Gallery.
Elvis Nipple Plinth, your current exhibition at Kendall Koppe, deals with a variety of plaster casts; paired together on five individual plinths. Inversely,these objects are uniformly exhibited in a pristine white; showcasing the raw colouring of the plaster, and the understated nature of your work. Do you consider these pieces to be of a minimalist nature? Or - as Frieze Magazine once suggested - broadly political, with reference to ‘the developed world’s appetite for objects’?
The show invites viewers into a space that at first appears very stark and minimal. There are five slender white plinths arranged very formally, classically, according to the geometry of the gallery. As you approach the work however, the details of each sculpture unfold, and you get a sense of the precision involved in the production process. At that point, I think the work becomes maximal.
As for whether - in relation to our rampant capitalist society - the pieces are political, I prefer to take the long view. It seems that throughout history people have been obsessed with objects. The archaeological record is rammed full of things that humans have made and preserved one way or another. The BBC’s ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’ was interesting as it included contemporary objects such as wind up radios and credit cards. Going further, what I find curious is that every object we hold has the potential to become a future fossil and indicate something about our attitudes and ideas, our society and psychology. If my work makes use of brand lust and various company logos that have been elevated to near magical status, then that’s because that is what I see around me. Many of the pieces play with those ideas, but I don’t set out to attack consumer culture. The Momento Mori was intended as a moral threat of damnation, and as I have no desire to preach to the people to come to see my work I prefer to consider the more sci-fi concept of all things as futuristic artefacts.
The piece MONKEY-NUT AUDI PLINTH might appear as the most cutting in terms of any explicit reference to consumer culture. It collages the elegant Audi logo with a very ordinary looking peanut. This combination might make a mockery of the high value of the brand, but in fact also offers a compliment to the technological design that makes up the Audi identity. The shell is a piece of perfect natural engineering, a reinforced mesh that grows and protects the nut. When you look closely it’s a really ergonomically satisfying shape. I prefer my work to function like a conversation that’s open to such quirky inversions of meaning, rather than a diatribe, which is the given form of most things Political.
Much of your work involves plaster casting, as it does assemblage and collage of juxtaposing objects; whilst the subjects vary, the colour scheme and general aesthetics of your projects rarely change. Is there reason behind why you continue to work upon a theme?
I first moved to Glasgow to train as a sound engineer. The college was next door to the Glasgow School of Art, which is how I discovered the art scene in the city. On the few occasions that I actually attended, I learned how to sample sound and digitally sequence music. We would take snippets from existing tracks or record sounds from the city, all of which would be digitized and manipulated in different ways. I see casting as a similar process. It’s a technology that I use to sample the world around me. When they’re transformed into a unifying material, I’m able to piece them together into new sequences.
Casting the objects makes them available to me, and the whiteness - or blackness if I’m using rubber - is part of that process. The unified colour and material levels the objects, makes them equal to each other in the overall composition. If I were to use ‘found objects’ in the standard Duchampian fashion, then the e-book, for example, would remain an e-book. I don’t think it’d be possible to bring it together with a tiny skull and link them poetically as complex structures that contain information, stories, jokes, knowledge…
You’re from the Outer Hebrides; home to some to the most rural communities in Scotland. Do you believe that the isolated nature of your upbringing has contributed to the sharp, observational qualities of your body of work?
Growing up in the Hebrides meant spending a lot of time outside, mostly by the sea. I spent as much time as possible there, swimming, surfing, driving motorbikes and camping out at beach parties. All of those great teenage experiences happened by the sea, and beach combing was a normal part of that. There is a missile testing base set up across the islands – it was once run by the MOD but now by a private company – so we’d find sections of rockets, test planes and other military components alongside the usual things you’d expect to come across, bones, drift wood and tangles of rope. I remember finding the partial skeleton of a whale wrapped around the monitor of some 1980’s military computer system. The cord of the monitor was still attached and looked like it was plugged into the remains of the animal.
In terms of my work now, I like to think of the way that I source materials as an expanded form of beach-combing, one that includes internet markets and found objects from on the streets or my flat, or where ever I am in the world. I found a fantastic dried sea-horse in Hong-Kong, where they’re used in traditional Chinese medicine, and managed to stash one back to Scotland where it became part of a sculpture called SEA-HORSE ECSTASY SWITCH.
On a more personal note, what brought you to settle in Glasgow after completing your MFA at GSA? How does the creative scene here differ from your native soil?
Glasgow has remained a great place to make artwork. There are plenty of studios and you can get access to different workshops all over the city. You have the Glasgow Sculpture Studios – where I’m based - the print studios, GMAC for film and video, and a host of smaller workshops like the amazing Fireworks ceramics studio. It’s a city for people who like to make things.
After I graduated from my undergraduate I moved straight into a shared studio in the building where The Modern Institute were first based. It was called Paradise Studios. It was fantastic in that it was cheap and I liked the people, but it was far from paradise. The space was unheated and damp under the leaky roof of the near derelict building. At the time, I thought it was perfect. Now, after years of gentrification, I think it’s pretty difficult to get access to those kinds of spaces especially in the city centre - dirty cheap, no questions asked - but on the plus side I have a studio with double glazing and temperature control.
I travel back to the Hebrides several times a year and make the trip tax deductible by always filling the car with bones, rocks and other objects for future sculptures. Almost all of the more ‘natural’ components I use come from the Hebrides. There is one basalt outcrop along a particularly extreme stretch of coastline that I always go to for fragments of rock. The stone breaks into sharp, geometric forms that look like fractal versions of the huge boulders and cliff faces.
This summer will be interesting as I’ll be working up there with Atlas Arts as part of the Year of Archaeology. The plan is to team up with an archaeologist and use an ancient site as a starting point for a body of new sculptures. My site, called Udal, is a settlement of Neolithic round houses, similar to Skara Brae but on a smaller, more exposed scale. It’s nestled away along a long thin spit of machair land on the north coast of the island. To get there you need to drive out over a bay at low tide. When I first tried this several years ago, I completely lost track of time and on the return trip ended up stranding my sister’s car on a sand dune. The rising tide was faster than her Renault Clio. This was before people carried mobile phones and I was miles away from where I was staying, so had to go in to the nearest house to use the telephone. Nobody was home, but the doors were of course open. People are very relaxed up there.