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Artists Cathie Pilkington and Alison Wilding on ‘The Ancestors’

Published 5 November 2019

Fiona Maddocks meets the former teacher and pupil duo about their co-curated project on their Academy forebears.

  • “Do you want the real story?” jokes Cathie Pilkington RA, when asked how the collaboration between herself and fellow sculptor, Alison Wilding RA, came about. Their installation The Ancestors, bringing together a selection of busts from the RA Collection, is currently on show in the Academy’s McAulay Gallery. It’s hard to convey the absorbing power of this assemblage of heads. Most are male: bearded, moustachioed, with mutton-chop whiskers or clean shaven, hollow-cheeked or jowly. Nearly all are facing forward. They are mounted on filing cabinets, or grey breeze blocks, or workaday chipboard, or MDF plinths, some of which are adorned in bright paint or fluorescent tape. So many lives, so many stories, known, forgotten, untold.

    In some respects, the two London-based artist-curators couldn’t be more different. While Pilkington’s work is predominantly figurative, often on a domestic theme, Wilding’s is abstract, primeval, steeped in nature. Pilkington is the more immediately conversational – in part because she was the prime mover in The Ancestors – whereas Wilding crackles with a quietly contained energy. Yet they have an ineradicable link. Wilding taught Pilkington at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1990s. Their mutual understanding, trust and affection is profound.

    “I’d been having some conversations with the Royal Academy Collections team,” Pilkington explains. “The original idea was to do something with the works of living RAs, their Diploma Works which they’d given to the Academy when they were elected. But I was really struck by this group of formal busts, all with labels round their necks with their names on, hidden away on shelves. I became fascinated by them as a group. I talked to Alison, who was immediately interested.”

    “No I wasn’t!” Wilding interjects. “I didn’t give a damn about the objects, but I thought it would be fun to work with Cathie. It’s very much her project. I’ve taken a back seat. The great thing is we’re not at all in competition.”

    “There’s no back seat,” Pilkington retorts. “It has been a brilliant collaboration from start to finish.”

    “And we’ve worked incredibly hard – unpaid – for nearly a year,” says Wilding, laughing.

    They did, however, run into practical difficulties early on. A plan to have all the heads on breeze blocks had to be rethought when they discovered the floor could not withstand the weight. Since each head had to be moved by the RA’s art handlers (cooperative though they were, they are quick to add), Pilkington and Wilding had to contain their instinct to move pieces endlessly.

    “They wanted us to say, in advance, what would go where,” Pilkington says, “which of course we couldn’t do till we saw them all together.”

    “But we never had any arguments about it,” Wilding adds.

  • They knew at once they wanted Elisabeth Frink RA’s bronze Goggle Head (1969) – actually the only piece not belonging to the RA Collection – to take centre stage. At the back Frederic, Lord Leighton (by Thomas Brock RA in 1892), handsome with a profusion of hair, dominates from on high. The death mask of John Constable RA, after 1837, is at the front. Eduardo Paolozzi RA’s Naked Head (c.1979), smooth and jagged, geometric and human, is one of Wilding’s favourites, “because it challenges the formal idea of a bust” – a sculptural form she has never been inclined to try herself.

    Nor has Pilkington, “except for one of my husband. We thought of adding him: head of Bob!” She is particularly taken with the delicate features of Ambrose McEvoy ARA, sculpted in 1916 by Francis Derwent Wood RA. “Working with wounded soldiers in the First World War, Derwent Wood was a pioneer in the field of prosthetics for facial disfigurement – which we only realised as a result of doing this project.”

    Both favour Willi Soukop RA’s Meditation (c.1969), a woman’s head, simple and tender, in terracotta. Few of the busts represent, and even fewer are by, women. They have included as many as they can. Is the show really about the history of male dominance, to quote the press information? Neither Wilding or Pilkington appear remotely hectoring: if they have a message, they say, it’s self-explanatory. “We haven’t set out to be polemical. It’s just there. We’re not sending up or undermining these works, or the artists,” says Wilding.

    “Absolutely not,” Pilkington agrees. “All the issues arise from the objects. It’s about interaction, narrative, archive, chronology – and none of these things. We’ve embraced all the collisions in a heterogeneous jumble, a kind of cultural fly-tipping! We’ve built the installation very tightly and carefully, though. And we’re seeing things that have probably never been on show before.”

    “Some are better than others,” Wilding adds. “And of course we’ve got a naughty corner…”

    They look at each other knowingly and leave it, tantalisingly, at that.

  • Fiona Maddocks writes for the Observer. Her latest book is Music for Life (Faber).

    The Ancestors is on display in the McAulay Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts until 19 January 2020.

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