Steve Dilworth: From the ancient land (1998)

The art of Steve Dilworth may at times shock with its use of "material"—dead animals and bones, yet it is drawn from a strong feeling for the cycles of life as well as from the windswept landscape of the Isle of Harris, in northwest Scotland.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This feature article first appeared in World Sculpture News, 4(3), pp. 26-9 in 1998.

Steve Dilworth: From the ancient land

"This is disgusting," shouted one shocked woman in response to one work by British artist, Steve Dilworth, at one of his recent shows which featured dead animals. Allegedly her glass smashed on the floor as she ran out of the gallery. Such a response suggests that there is not much to prepare you for the art of Steve Dilworth. "It’s not as if I go out and kill these things," says Dilworth. "I mean sometimes my cat kills them, but I don’t train them to."

Within moments of meeting the artist at London’s Hart Gallery, he took me back into the storeroom to see Cat Box (1995), a beautifully crafted trunk-like case which contained a tarred, dead cat, while an entombed horse skull rested nearby, as if observing our conversation. Yet, despite using dead animals in his work, Dilworth doesn’t necessarily aim to shock. On the contrary, he claims to be "anti-shock," and finds no value in it. "For me, shock is like telling a good joke," says Steve Dilworth. "The first time you hear it, it’s pretty good, but by the third time you’ve heard it, it’s not very good at all."

In a body of work that includes entombments, contemplative hand-held objects, and land art, Steve Dilworth’s use of dead animals has been his most controversial. Over the past 30 years, he has been perfecting his art, preserving it and conferring upon it a different life. As early as 1967- when 1995 Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst, known for his [sensational shark] encased in formaldehyde, was just a toddler- Dilworth was already plotting his course as an artist for what many people consider not only highly unusual materials but also extremely suspect. "A bird is a bird, but it is also a material. I’m trying to find ways of using materials simply. What you see is what you get, and then you get more than what you see," says Dilworth, 48.

So, how do you reconcile these differences between shock and anti-shock? It begins where Steve Dilworth resides, which is as far from the claws of the London avant-garde art scene as it is possible to be in the United Kingdom. Since 1983, Dilworth, an Englishman, has lived on the Isle of Harris, just off the northwest coast of Scotland, a place known for being one of the most isolated areas on Europe. Here, Neolithic standing stones, Viking names, Protestant fundamentalism, and spectacular landscapes of hill, sky, water, and rock are commonplace. Here, too, is persistent inspiration as Dilworth pursues his artistic quest for material and meaning in the folds of this ancient landscape.

Steve Dilworth’s entombments make connections between exterior and animal "interiors"- which act as starting points. Instead of painting or sculpting the dead with distant material, many of his animal "interiors" are retrieved after death on the island. They include birds such as woodcocks, owls, herons, and seagulls, as well as dolphins, walruses, horses, squirrels, and sand eels. "Sometimes I find road kill, sometimes things get washed up," says Dilworth. "Herons get caught up in salmon cages trying to catch fish- they get their necks broken or drown." In addition to those personally retrieved or brought by the locals, Dilworth claims to get a lot of material from that which has been discarded by natural history museums. An avid collector, he has saved things for 30 years which he has yet to use. Dilworth preserves the forms with a recipe believed to be from an early 20th century expedition to the Amazon.

With the interiors as a point of reference, Steve Dilworth creates beautiful objects or tombs, again using material mostly drawn from the Island, including driftwood, stone, marble, bog oak, and iron. "Sometimes I get stone from a hill ridge where I found a Viking quarry. Sometime I get timber—as with Rocking Horse Skull (1993)—from a nearby boat yard. I’m always picking stuff up. I rather enjoy the idea of going up into a mountain and taking a piece of stone, bringing it back and carving it," he says. The results are occasionally humbling, with intricate and simple objects suggesting a religious starting point, where the interior inspires material connections, abstracted form, and a spiritualized exterior. The shock of his animals results from our disassociation, and in some way, our denial of nature.

Steve Dilworth’s work includes broken wishbones, air from different locations, and water from the sea, sky, and deep wells. He recalls emotionally what he considers to be one of his most important works, part of a recurring form of hand-held objects. "The first one I made was for a friend of a friend. She was dying of cancer, and she liked Harris, so I wanted to make a piece of Harris for her," he says. "I took some sea water on a perfect, flat calm day, and put it in a vial and inside a piece of wood to make an object to hold in your hand. It’s not about a grand gesture, it’s an object of contemplation. It was a genuine thing that I could do, and I felt that for once in my life I had done something valuable with my talent."

In striking contrast to the small pieces, Steve Dilworth pushed psychological boundaries and the use of materials with a work entitled Hanging Figure (1979), where he combines a soon-to-be-discarded human skeleton, purchased at an anatomical supplier for £100, with the preserved remains of a calf. Described as an object where human and animal are given equal "respect," Dilworth experienced a profound impact. "For me, this was the beginning of an understanding that I was making objects that weren’t primarily visual. I’m making ’real things’—what’s inside is as important as what it looks like. When you are dealing with things like meat and human bone, it’s not a game anymore," he says.

"A lot of this work is like reinventing a religion, but I’m really also looking at archetypes— the source of religion is the same kind of source that I’m looking at. I try to find connections with our common consciousness. People seem to have a familiarity about these things although they’ve never seen them before. It’s almost as if it’s part of them— because of the subjects and the archetypal nature of some of the materials, shapes, and objects. Sometimes, I see them as ritual objects for a tribe that doesn’t exist."

From his internal landscape, Steve Dilworth has also altered the environment with Navel for "The Sleeping Woman" (1995). On a mountain ridge that looks like a sleeping woman, he cut away the rock and inserted a bronze cast of a human navel and set it inside two polished stones. Through holes in the stones, the viewer can "breathe" into the mountain and "identify with the landscape." Dilworth draws a connection between human and land forms, and, as in all of his work, aspires to make art that works in all ages.

Over the past five years, Steve Dilworth has received greater attention and is able to support himself from his art— this hasn’t always been the case—and has required a certain amount of obsession. "For the first 20 [years], I didn’t make any sales. I was largely ignored," he says. "I’ve done all sorts of jobs: catching rats and picking shellfish just to scrape along and it’s only in the past few years that I’m now just about surviving. There are very few people that are mad enough to spend a lifetime of energy doing this sort of work."

Steve Dilworth’s "madness" should not be underestimated, particularly as the power of his work cannot be adequately presented in photographs. Inside the beauty of a crafted form, a beak can stick out just six inches away, reminding us that life’s clock is ticking and its cycle is always in motion, regardless of any temporary state of denial.