Alastair Mackie’s sculptural practice is one of contrasts. It is as labour-intensive as it is formally effortless, as grounded in ideas of nature as it is in the intrinsically human struggle to define a role within the environment; it is as intellectually ambitious as it is aesthetically understated. Mackie grew up in an agricultural community, where he resettled more recently, and that landscape of his childhood has played a key role in shaping his vocabulary. Organic elements (trees, mud, wasp nests, sea shells) are meticulously rearranged and transformed in a knowingly quixotic attempt to order life’s primordial chaos.
Each work is something of an enigma, enriched by the loaded associations of its material and the story behind its making. For The Elimination of Non-priorities (2017), Mackie spent eight hours a day for seven days picking up cowries on a Cornish beach. Labour is here performatively presented in archetype: a task repeated again and again over a given period of time. The reward is a bag of cowries, historically the most common form of shell money. Mackie then placed each day’s harvest in the regularly carved cavities of a limestone slab. Together, the resulting seven tablets are redolent of an ancestral counting device – although how it might actually function remains elusive. The alluringly abstract piece prices up a human cost. Nothing is said of the absurdist task it required: there’s no trace of the substantial effort put into sorting seashells from pebbles, nose in the sand, for a fifty six hours. And yet knowing some of this deliberately procedural process gives the piece a palpable depth. The art object escapes the finished product to encompass the cycle that led to its creation.
Mackie operates by reduction; materials are pared down to their core. In his work, process dictates form, no matter how poetic or Romantic the piece’s origin. Mackie’s Smoking Mirror project (work in progress) involves collecting a naturally occurring volcanic glass, obsidian, from the edges of a crater, and melting it in an industrial furnace to produce a sheet of architectural glass. Obsidian has been used by various civilizations, including the Aztecs, who believed it gave access to the underworld. Mackie’s material undergoes a complex transformation process but emerges as itself: from glass to glass.
Likewise, Epitaph (2014)sees a sandstone boulder from the quarry of Hardwick Hall carved into an exact copy of itself, only two millimeters smaller. The raw model and its human-engineered copy are almost identical but for the machined tool-path scaring the latter’s surface. In both cases, what’s in play isn’t the representation of a subject-material, but a “re-presentation” of sources, whether familiar or distant – a call for reassessment.
For Mud Form (2014) Mackie meticulously washed a Richard Long “mud drawing” off the wall of a museum, and compressed it into a cylinder using a custom-made water-filtration device. The sculpture has the disarming simplicity of an archaic artefact. It defies interpretation. Somewhere in the compacted mud, there’s an echo of the celebrated land artist’s River Avon but buried even deeper are traces of the longing to connect to one’s patch of earth, and of the hubris of believing that it can be fashioned to fit our needs.
As often in Mackie’s sculpture, the starkness of the form grants the object a timelessness that almost obfuscates its absolute contemporaneity. Yet this body of work talks of the here and now. With quiet strength, it reaffirms that, millennia after our arrival, the question of humanity’s place on the planet has lost nothing of its urgency.

Born in 1977, Mackie has shown extensively in the UK and internationally, including exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery – London, the Venice Biennale and the Reykjavik Art Museum. He has worked on a number of public commissions and his work is held in collections including The Olbricht Collection – Berlin, the Salsali Private Museum – Dubai, and the Wellcome Collection – London. Alastair lives and works in Cornwall.

Solo Exhibitions
2015
Selected Works, Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury Christ Church University
2013
Complex Systems, Gusford Gallery, Los Angeles
Multiplicity, All Visual Arts, London
2011
Copse, All Visual Arts, London
2009
Mimetes Anon, The Economist Plaza, London
Not Waving but Drowning, The David Roberts Foundation, London
2006
Sticks and Stones, Mark Moore Gallery, Santa Monica
2005
Terror Firma, Max Wigram Gallery, London

Group Exhibitions
2017
ARK, Chester Cathedral, UK
Pure Nature Art. Natural Materials in Contemporary Art, Museum Kunst der Westküste, Germany
450 Year Anniversary of the collection at Ambras Castle, Innsbruck, Austria
Proof of Life, Weserburg Museum of Modern Art, Germany
Force of Nature, The Art Pavilion, London
2016
Abu Dhabi Art, Paul Stolper Gallery, UAE
I Prefer Life, Weserburg Museum of Modern Art, Germany
Art Brussels, Copperfield / Division of Labour, Brussels
Force of nature, Galerie Valérie Bach, Brussels
Forever, Bubox, Kortrijk, Belgium
Works on Paper and Wood, Galerie Ernst Hilger, Vienna
Empty Rooms – The Beauty of Emptiness, Museum Kunst der Westküste, Germany
2015
Manchester Contemporary, Copperfield Gallery, Manchester
Shared, Somerset House, London
(6 month sabbatical)
2014
Here today…, The Old Sorting Office, London
What Marcel Duchamp Taught Me, FAS, London
Alchemy, Nest, The Hague
Additions of the present, Kunstmuseum Bochum
Building Site, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Home – The Crisis Commission, The Strand Gallery, London
Obsessive Compulsive Order, Copperfield Gallery, London
Art and Alchemy – The Mystery of Transformation, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf‏
2013
Glasstress: White Light / White Heat, The Wallace Collection, London
The Art of Chess, Next Level Gallery, Paris
Habitat, Barnwell Park, Northamptonshire
Glasstress: White Light / White Heat, Palazzo Cavalli, Venice
Paper Vernacular: Drawings and Constructions, Cutlog, New York
2012
Wonderful – Humboldt, Krokodil & Polke, Me Collectors Room, Berlin
Metamorphoses – The Transformation of Being, 33 Portland Place, London
Intersections – Science in Contemporary Art, Weizman Institute of Science, Israel
The Art of Chess, Saatchi Gallery, London
Everywhere and Nowhere, Reydan Weiss Collection, Villa Jauss, Oberstdorf, Germany
Through the Looking Glass, Me Collectors Room, Berlin
2011
Memories of the Future, La Maison Rouge, Paris
Restless Nature, Newlyn Art Gallery, Newlyn, Cornwall
House of Beasts, Attingham Park, Shropshire
Polemically Small, Torrance Art Museum, Los Angeles
Identity Theft, Mimmo Scognamiglio Arte Contemporanea, Milan
2010
Vanitas: The Transience of Earthly Pleasures, All Visual Arts, 33 Portland Place, London
Locus Solus, Benaki Museum, Athens
Living in Evolution – Busan Biennale, Busan Museum of Modern Art, South Korea
Crucible, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester
Lust for Life and Dance of Death: Works from The Olbricht Collection, Kunsthalle Krems, Austria
Passion Fruits, Me Collectors Room, Berlin
Dead or Alive, Museum of Arts and Design, New York
The Art of Chess, Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague
Wonderland, Assab One, Milan
2009
The Age of the Marvellous, All Visual Arts, One Marylebone, London
Distortion, Gervasuti Foundation, Venice
The Art of Chess, Reykjavik Art Museum, Reykjavik
2007
Still life, still, T1&2 Gallery, London
The Avatar of Sacred Discontent, 9 Hillgate Street, London
Nature and Society // Parallel Lines, Ethnographic Museum, Dubrovnik
Says the Junk in the Yard, Flowers East, London
Conflict, 20 – 21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire
Obstacle – New UK Sculpture, Spectacle, Birmingham
ARTfutures, Bloomberg Space, London
Waste & the Lost World: Memento Mori, Adventure Ecology HQ, London
2006
Houses in motion, Fieldgate Gallery, London
Panpoticon, Bearspace, 154 Deptford High Street, London
2004
If you go down to the woods today, Rockwell, London
Selected Sculpture, Max Wigram Gallery, London
New Blood, Saatchi Gallery, London
Esoterica, Ibid Projects, London
Born, Cry, Shit, Fuck, Die, Rockwell, London

Text By Coline Milliard. Photo credits Tessa Angus, Ian Stuart, Artur Tixiliski, Richard McDonough

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