An Interview with Kate Scardifield
By Alex Cohen
Kate Scardifield lives in Sydney, Australia and works in a variety of media. For her current exhibition "Ley Lines" at the St Andrews Museum she interacts with the museum's collection to reveal and explore under-researched areas of Scottish social and cultural history.
The exhibition runs from 2nd December, 10:30 am - 3 March 2018, 4:00 pm
at the St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park , Doubledykes Road, St Andrews
This text has been edited and transcribed from a longer recorded interview.
Hi Kate! To get us started, I was wondering what your background in art was? Where did you go to art school?
So I've been making art for about ten years. I did an undergraduate in fine arts, and majored in textiles. This was in Sydney, at what is now called the University of New South Wales Art and Design. I had a couple of years out of study after that setting up a studio and making work. I was quite involved in a number of artist-run spaces in Sydney, including one called Alaska Projects which I'm still involved with. That really gave me my footing in terms of learning how to go about making and exhibiting. I was making my own work while also helping to coordinate and facilitate other exhibitions. Sydney has a really great artist-run community. I'm still involved with a number of them, and I don't necessarily know if I would have gone on to be an artist without that framework.
So with that background in both exhibiting your own work and that of others, were you quite involved in the display of this show?
Yes, we worked with an architectural and design firm based in Edinburgh, GRAS, who worked on the design component of the show. They designed all of the fixtures, and I worked with them in collaboration and consultation to make sure it would suit the work. A big reason for that is because the show is touring, and it's changing slightly with each iteration, so we wanted to create something that is quite adaptable and modular that could inhabit those spaces in different ways. My practice is also pretty diverse, across video and textile et cetera, so it needed to be flexible. It was about bringing those elements together to show how I responded to the museum collection material that I worked with across different mediums and materials. The show was curated by Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan from Panel in Glasgow.
How has that process been with the St Andrews Museum?
Each has its own challenges, but this is a really beautiful space with great natural light. It's always nice to bring the outside inside, and I think the textile works in particular spoke to that. They have that flag and banner reference which meant that I was really keen to keep the windows open. I'm pretty flexible with my work – I never really make anything that's static or that requires a specific mode of display, I'm pretty open to different ways of showing my work.
I think that is what's also great about keeping the windows open. So much of the show seems to be about what is specific to this place, and being able to bring that into the show with a view of the town helps send that message. How does this show fit into your overall practice? Have you worked with museum collections before?
I have done for the last few years. This is probably the most extensive project I've been able to do, but I did my PhD at Sydney University and was looking at cultures of dissection in contemporary art practice, so I spent a lot of time researching anatomical museums, so that was sort of my grounding in working with collection material. I've since worked with the National Art School's archives in Sydney and the collection material at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
There have been some really interesting connections between the collections in Sydney and the collections here by way of Scottish colonisers that came to Australia. One of those was Thomas Brisbane, who was from Largs in Ayrshire and was the governor of New South Wales. One of the big reasons he came to Australia was to set up the country's first observatory in Paramatta (near Sydney), which was the exact same blueprint of his observatory in Largs.
That's a really interesting exchange, how does that play into the exhibition?
The textile works in the exhibition – all the colours in the fabrics have been taken from native Australian plant material sourced from that site.
And you said that you were out there foraging yourself for the plants used in dying the fabric?
I was! An artist and friend of mine did a few site visits and material collecting. A lot of it came from eucalyptus and acacia, just using the leaves and bark. None of it was cut, it was all leaf-litter that we were able to collect. Eucalyptus are extraordinary plants – when you steep the leaves and bark, you get amazing colours you might not expect. I think that work is also about acknowledging deep histories embedded in a place, before periods of colonisation. That's something that I wanted to speak to; Australia has an 80,000 year history, not just a 200 year history of British colonisation. That was something I wanted to bring into dialogue with some of the collection material, because quite often I think that when you think about museums, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. You're seeing such a small selection of material and quite often it's the stuff that speaks to grand historical narratives. I was looking for objects of untold histories or stories, more intimate narratives that objects entail and start to embody over time.
So you are taking that pre-modern history element and applying it to these textiles that take the form of trade union or guild banners?
Yes, a lot of the research and work with collections involved trade union banners or guild banners – St Andrews Museum has a beautiful 'Free Gardeners' flag – and I was quite interested in the way that textile objects are used in protest and in pageantry, to signify groups of people and communities. They're very much activated material. It was about taking elements of that and thinking about it in the making process of Soft Chorus. The red tabs are a nod to ideas around conservation and repair. When thinking about collection material we create a kind of precious cocoon around it, we want to protect it and archive it so it exists ad infinitum, but I think there's something to be said for the inherent vice of objects – the idea that something naturally breaks down over time due to to its material element.
I think it's always really interesting when an artist approaches a museum collection. This project is obviously very different, but it reminds me of works like Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum.
That's such an incredible project, and an example of why I think it's so important to allow artists to continue engaging with historical material and collection material, because these shouldn't be thought of as static entities, they are in a constant state of fluidity. When you start to allow artists access to collections, you begin to see opportunities to reimagine the past, to dissect and dismantle those grand historical narratives.
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