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Back in September 2012, during the induction week for the course, the MFA artists were given an introduction to the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, which is on the campus of Dundee University. Later, the Museum was offered as a site for the MFA to make a temporary exhibition. Alas, the call for submissions went out just before assessments - shortly before Christmas - and so there were no takers. However, when a reminder went out at the start of the new term everyone said that they would be doing a piece. Well, no, not Kate. Why was she not contributing? Because every time the museum’s name came up she didn’t think D’Arcy Thompson the biologist-mathematician, author of the influential book
On Growth and Form, but Darcey Bussell the ballet dancer. This got a laugh from her fellow artists and it changed her mind. She would put in a piece, and what’s more she knew exactly what it would be. A tutu for the gibbon!

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Kate bought the materials, principally pink netting, and did the sewing at home. During this process, a few things came to her mind. She remembered that as a child she’d wanted to be a ballet dancer. Indeed, in our lounge there is a photograph that was taken at her dance class. I took a good look at it...

ellietutu

Yes, that’s Kate all right. What is she saying?

“This is the index finger that we share with the apes, our closest animal cousins, whom we share 99% of our DNA with. Fifty years of putting my finger on things will probably leave me with arthritis in it.”

Kate’s finger hurts even if she applies gel to it every day. Her eyes are not really up to close work these days. But she gets the tutuing done. We agree that the gibbon’s waist is probably about the same circumference as the bottle of wine that we are going to share this evening (three-and-a-half glasses for me, two for Kate). The tutu fits the bottle of wine like a glove. But, referring back to the skeleton of the gibbon, we realise that the hip bone which the tutu will rest on is not circular, but more-or-less two-dimensional. So we discuss it a bit more and Kate works out how she can build in some leeway. She seems confident that the tutu will both fit onto the gibbon’s hip and not cover up too much leg-bone. A tiny bit of Velcro will supply the finishing touch.

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Over our evening’s wine, Kate tells me about her career as a dancer. It’s zenith was when, as a nine-year-old, she performed a solo dance at the Bromborough Festival in 1959.

“Were you wearing a tutu?”

“Yes, I felt fabulous. I was so looking forward to the event.”

“Would Gaga have been there?”

“Oh yes, Gaga was there at the end of the dance to hug me and tell me how wonderful I was.”

Kate still knows (sort of) the dance steps she performed that night and she takes me through them. That is, she does the
Funky Gibbon in front of our fireplace. What do the words say at the top of the wall? Ah yes, I can just make them out.

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After the dance, Kate remarks that her snap decision to go for the tutu piece - an idea which she’d thought had been a one-liner - was one that she now feels has some depth. Does this validate her intuitive creative process? Perhaps, Kate reckons, there are many prompts that would have brought the tutu to mind. She was bound to have done work about this sooner or later.

Friday lunchtime. I get a call from Kate to say that the installation has gone well, except that the gibbon’s hand fell off. However, as Matthew Jarron, the museum’s director, has assured Kate no permanent damage has been done, she does not intend to dwell on the matter. The tutu fits - that’s the bottom line!

So all is set fair for Friday evening. I’ll meet Kate at her studio in the Crawford Building (blue tack in the map below) and see what changes she’s made to her surroundings in the first fortnight of this term. We’ll go together to the D’Arcy Thompson Lecture Theatre (red tack) where Mark Wright, the London-based painter, is giving a talk on how the natural world feeds into his work.

Then we’ll go upstairs to the Lamb Gallery where there is to be an exhibition, featuring three artists, which takes its title: ‘Drawn from Structures Living and Dead’ from D’Arcy Thompson’s celebrated book, which the biologist wrote in Dundee back in 1915. Now even if all this input comes a little too soon after the talk for comfort, there will be wine available in the Lamb Gallery, so that should be fine.

Then it’s a very short walk to the Zoology Museum (green tack) where the MFA show will await. OK, I’m happy with the evening in prospect - bring it on!

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The MFA’s David Fyans is on the door, showing people the way to the basement collection. He has produced a map and list of works that is a pleasure to read. I glide round the well-attended show. Susanne and Kathryrn have hung drawings on the Museum’s walls which draw attention to the nobility and resourcefulness of animals (while Susanne takes a swipe at the soullessness of mankind). Deirdre, Sam (Samantha) and Bom (Krissana) have all produced books which I hope to get a chance to read before the end of the evening. Anna has filled specimen jars with colours and forms that echo the Museum’s exhibits that they’re juxtaposed with. Tam (an artist who has joined the MFA this term) shows that he’s already up to speed with a sculpture that makes use of a shredded D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum guidebook. Acts of Displacement? Yes, I think that sums it up.

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I take a photo of one of Nicole Bennett’s pieces (Number 1:
Behind Rats). It’s a text that refers to two jars, each of which contains a preserved rat. The creatures - who look as if they’re using their front paws to keep their noses clear of what I assume is formaldehyde - would seem to be talking to each other. At least, that’s what the sheet of dialogue - which is from Waiting for Godot - implies:

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So let’s read what the tramps - those slimey rats - are saying to each other at the end of Beckett’s notoriously bleak play, courtesy of Nicole:

ESTRAGON: “You say we have to come back tomorrow?”
VLADIMIR:
“Yes.”
ESTRAGON:
“Then we can bring a good bit of rope.”
VLADIMIR:
“Yes.”
Silence.
ESTRAGON: “Didi?”
VLADIMIR:
“Yes.”
ESTRAGON:
“I can't go on like this.”
VLADIMIR:
“That’s what you think.”
ESTRAGON:
“If we parted? That might be better for us.”
VLADIMIR:
“We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.”
ESTRAGON:
“And if he comes?”
VLADIMIR:
“We’ll be saved.”
Vladimir takes off his hat (Lucky's), peers inside it, feels about inside it, shakes it, knocks on the crown, puts it on again.
ESTRAGON:
“Well? Shall we go?”
VLADIMIR:
“Pull on your trousers.”
ESTRAGON:
“What?”
VLADIMIR:
“Pull on your trousers.”
ESTRAGON:
“You want me to pull off my trousers?”
VLADIMIR:
“Pull ON your trousers.”
ESTRAGON (realising his trousers are down):
“True.”
He pulls up his trousers.
VLADIMIR:
“Well? Shall we go?”
ESTRAGON:
“Yes, let's go.”
They do not move.

No, the rats don’t move. But I do. For a complete change of mood, I move towards the pair of exotic birds that I clocked earlier (Number 12:
Bloom). Yumi Choi has placed a decorated object in with the birds, but what is it?. Kate, our paths crossing for a minute, tells me that it’s a piece of bark that has been first covered with a layer of PVA glue, which was left to harden, then painted gold. After that, other colours have been stitched and painted onto the material. It is rather yummy on the eye. Oh, that feathery orange!

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OK, I want to try an experiment. I want to see if Beckett’s existential gloom can work in this blooming context:

ESTRAGON: “You say we have to come back tomorrow?”
VLADIMIR:
“Yes.”
ESTRAGON:
“Then we can bring a good bit of rope.”
VLADIMIR:
“Yes.”

As I thought,
Bloom brings out the humour in Beckett. Hang themselves indeed! When the creatures have got a rope as life-enhancing as those two! The timelessly happy birds do not move. But I do. Time to take on board Kate’s piece.

Blast, I can’t get near it. Tracy, the course leader, is talking to Kate about the work, while Lucas, studying for his BA, is listening in. They must have been talking for a while. I overhear Kate saying to Tracy:

“I didn’t wear a tutu at the Bromborough concert, even though I told Duncan that I had.”

Tracy thinks it’s interesting the way that we sometimes embellish reality to suit our inner aesthetic needs.

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Any sense of disappointment that I feel whilst working through the revelation that Kate did not, in fact, perform in a tutu in front of Gaga when she was an eight-year-old, disappears when I get to lay my eyes on
Dancing With D’Arcy.

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I can’t help smiling. Kate, who moves from chat to chat with all the grace of her childhood heroine, Dame Margot Fonteyn, tells me that when Alex (Alexander Storey Gordon: see DRIVE-IN-THEATRE) saw the installation a few minutes ago, he burst out laughing. Always a good reaction to a piece of work!

Kate goes off to talk to her colleagues. Leaving me to take in the work on my own. On my own? Well, I’m not sure about that:

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The urge that I feel to do the following is irresistible. So I don’t waste time resisting it:

VLADIMIR: “Pull on your tutu.”
ESTRAGON:
“What?”

Hang on a minute, I’ve got to work out who’s speaking here. I know who Estragon is, but which is Vladimir? The big guy up top? One of the smaller dudes down below? Or the gibbon that’s still got its own skin and fur and tail? (Is it a gibbon? No, its arms are far too short.) Perhaps the answer will come to me if I just go with the flow:

VLADIMIR: “Pull on your tutu.”
ESTRAGON: “
You want me to pull off my tutu?”
VLADIMIR:
“Pull ON your tutu.”
ESTRAGON (realising his tutu is down):
“True.”
He pulls up his tutu.
VLADIMIR:
“Well? Shall we go?”
ESTRAGON: “
Yes, let's go.”
They do not move.

After the show we got to a bar opposite the DCA to eat and drink. Kate and I merrily chat to Deirdre (who has re-joined the MFA course after a two-year break) and Derek, her painter husband. But there is a large party of us and a good vibe. Later, as we walk along the bitterly cold street, Kate tells me - with my scarf tucked inside my coat - that I look more like Stanley Spencer than Rudolf Nureyev. I try not to let this affect my mood. The Beckett lines come back to me though. We’re just like those tramps, stuck between the tragedy of impending death and the farce of not being able to dress ourselves properly.

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When we get home, Kate looks up Darcey Bussell’s official website. She’s retired from dancing and is now selling dance-related merchandise. On the News page it says: ‘
Every young girl’s dream is to become a star ballerina...from the very first click you enter into the magical world of dance where young girls imagine being a prima ballerina dressed gracefully in a starry pink tutu ready to go on stage to perform in front of an adoring audience of parents, grand-parents, brothers and sisters alike.

Kate tells me a story that she’s come to realise is relevant to her piece. When her daughter was a child, she was obsessed with monkeys. Ellie wanted one as a pet (a real one: a soft toy was
not an acceptable substitute). At about the same time, Ellie also wanted a tutu. Kate made her one by sewing some pink netting onto the bottom of a vest. The sewing was roughly done as far as Kate was concerned, but the tutu seemed fabulous in her daughter’s eyes.

Kate was living in York at the time, where she’d gone to do a degree in Sociology as a mature student. She would regularly travel by train to Oxford to meet her own mother, Gina. On one occasion, Ellie insisted on wearing the tutu for the journey. So off they went in the train, Ellie dressed in her tutu, woolly tights, red wellies, with anorak on top to complete the look. As Kate puts it, “Ellie was a feisty kid.” When Gina met them off the train she took Kate aside and remarked on the incongruity of her grand-daughter’s appearance. “I know,” Kate said, “but it’s what she wants.”

I ask if there are any photos of Ellie in her tutu. Kate says not. Five seconds later she retracts this: “There was another time. We took the train to North Wales to see friends. And photographs may have been taken then.”

Kate disappears upstairs. Soon a shout of triumph tells me she’s found what she’s looking for:

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Kate then goes back into her computer. Because on her birthday this year, Ellie forwarded a text from the grandchildren (‘
Happy birthday Granmar”) together with photographs of them. And the one of Sophia simply has to be shown in this context:

photo 1

Lovely! The miracle of life triumphs over both the fear of death and the shame of dressing inappropriately. But let me put it this way:

ELLIE:
“Pull on your tutu.”
SOPHIA: “
You want me to pull off my tutu?”
ELLIE:
“Pull ON your tutu.”
SOPHIA (realising her tutu is down):
“True.”
She pulls up her tutu.
ELLIE:
“Well? Shall we go?”
SOPHIA: “
Yes, let's go.”
They do not move.

Gaga, Gina, Kate, Ellie, Sophia... Now we know why the gibbon has such long, long arms. It’s in order to hold five generations in the one all-embracing hug.

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