Artist Oliver MacDonald is currently in residence at Turner Contemporary, Margate as the recipient of Shape Arts’ 2016/17 Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary (ARMB). Oliver has led informal sessions with the gallery’s regular learning groups, ran willow weaving workshops and started his work on a new piece. Shape’s Marcus Gordon caught up with him to find out more...


Marcus Gordon: We're very pleased that you are this year's ARMB recipient! What are you currently working on at Turner Contemporary, and how has this piece been shaped by the space’s seaside location?

Oliver MacDonald: I am currently working on a basketry chair in a style which has a history of being used pretty much as a deck chair on the mainland of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, where they were a common design for a beach chair - that's the link with the location. Basketry weaving also has a link with the fishing industry as well with lobster pots and crab pots.

Members of the public can explore your work in the gallery’s Clore Learning Studio - how have visitors been responding to your work?

They have been fantastic! There have been so many people that are fascinated by this ancient craft. Whilst I am working, I am also demonstrating, so I am there for myself but I am there for the public -that's a really nice relationship! I have also done some teaching to the public as well which have been incredibly successful days where everyone has left with smiles on their faces and their own basketry works.

For this residency, you will be making a return to performance art with 'Underwater Basket Weaving', which you’ll be performing to the public on 22 April in the studio [click here to read more] - tell us a bit about your inspiration behind this and what the audience can expect from the event.

My initial idea came from doing research on basketry's history and I discovered that there is an idiom - 'Underwater Basket Weaving' which stands for a University or College course that is deemed to have little or no worth. Now, I associated that with my time at art college, where a lot of people said to me "What are you going to do with that? That's a bit of a useless degree to have"; I thought there was a direct link there so that's where the title comes from and that's the inspiration for the performance. The idea for the performance developed further and it's become multi-sensory, acknowledging impairment in many forms. You'll be able to see the vessel I’ll be performing in, and what I’m doing through the porthole; you'll be able to hear the rattling of the willow inside the vessel, and - fundamentally - if you lay your hand on the vessel you’ll feel the movements and vibrations and become connected to the physicality of the making so that's the really important part of the performance. I want to offer as much as I can! I could have sat in the corner and done a demonstration but if someone were to come in with a sensory impairment then it wouldn’t be accessible to them. I don't want anyone to miss out in experiencing this performance so it's particularly devised with disability in mind.

Your work draws together the traditional craft of willow weaving through a conceptual lens. Can you tell us more about these influences?

I guess conceptual artwork is the most interesting for me. I won't complete my new work while I am here because I am remembering how hard basket weaving is, but it's a first step to a completion of a new artwork which will feature three different sized chairs and is going to relate to the Goldilocks Syndrome where something is only considered “too much” of something – too big or too small; too hard or too soft – never good enough. That's one part, but the piece does also have quite a big link to a very famous work by Joseph Kosuth called “One In Three Chairs”, where he lays down instructions for the artwork to be produced anywhere purely by placing a chair in a room, photographing the chair and mounting that on a wall next to the chair, and mounting the dictionary definition of a chair alongside the two. It’s a tautological exploration of “chairness”.

Some may view your work as drawing on occupational therapy or meditative creative practices - would you say that this is intentional?

I initially studied the history of basketry and was interested in how it was used in the first mental asylums, where it was taught to patients by the nurses as an occupation with therapy in mind, and then employed similarly later in the First World War with wounded soldiers. I learned basketry before I became disabled but now I am exploring it as a disabled man, and I believe that I am picking up some of the therapeutic benefits of the stimulation and focus of the senses - it's about co-ordination; it's about strengthening your muscles in the hands and other parts of your body as well. I feel like I am re-exploring why basketry was put in front of disabled people back in history - there is something very interesting there. 

Your residency ends on 7 May, and after that you have two exhibitions with us at Artlink Hull, as part of both the wider ARMB programme and Hull UK City of Culture 2017: the ARMB Shortlist, which is on now [click here to find out more], and then a solo show. Do you feel this helps to contextualise and strengthen your residency and what’s come out of it?

It's really nice that this isn't just a residency and that there are more opportunities ahead with Shape for me as an artist. It feels good to have something else to make my practice feel alive because of the artwork I have started and my determination to get that artwork finished. I have been affiliated with Shape Arts for a good year now, I think, and it’s great to know the new connections that I am making are going to carry on.

Thank you very much Oliver - good luck with the rest of the ARMB residency and we’re looking forward to the events that you have lined up!


Oliver MacDonald will be giving an artist talk at Turner Contemporary on 6 May. All are welcome to attend, and details can be found at www.shapearts.org.uk/Event/artist-talk-oliver-macdonald

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