"There is a great lesson in humility when you pay attention to the magnificence of the natural world": an interview with artist Kate Daudy
Margot J. W
Margot J. W • Aug 26

"There is a great lesson in humility when you pay attention to the magnificence of the natural world": an interview with artist Kate Daudy

by Margot J. W

Kate Daudy is a British visual artist and writer, known for her work investigating the transience of the human experience in the context of the natural world. She is recognised for her written interventions in public and private spaces, made with embroidered fabrics, based on an ancient Chinese literati practice.

She has worked on sound work, film, performance, interactive collaboration, photography, sculpture, large-scale installation, and more recently a book.

 Kate wearing a black velvet jacket, white v neck t-shirt, and long blue skirt, is sitting on the floor of her studio wearing a long blue skirt surrounded by some of her art pieces.  Directly in front of her is a large piece with lots of white and yellow flowers and the words
Kate in her studio.

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Daudy exhibits worldwide; this includes a large-scale installation of her work “Am I My Brother's Keeper?” inside London's Saint Paul's Cathedral, “It Wasn’t That At All” a commissioned contemporary response to ‘Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ at the Saatchi Gallery in London, and "We Can Talk about it in the Car", an installation across Manchester about belonging and identity. 

Margot: Hi, Kate. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. Today, we're gonna be talking about your art, your inspirations behind it, and how it's shifted throughout your career. I would love to hear first just what it was that initially drew you to the art world. Was this something that you grew up wanting to do, or did you find yourself in that world almost unexpectedly? What was your journey to becoming an artist?

Kate: When I was a child, I was very shy. I used to fill my pockets with objects that were in a sort of code that made me feel like I was carrying my home with me wherever I was. Also, I used to pick the hems and jackets of my clothes and put poems and words inside them so I had this armor of sorts of words and objects that made me feel safe and secure, but I didn't think that that was odd. I was always making things. I was always doing tapestry, and sewing, and making tiny villages out of rocks.

But I didn't really think I was an artist. And then I wrote a book. They said they were gonna publish it on the Tuesday, and on the Friday they said, "Actually, no, I'm not going to publish it." But, in the meantime, on the Tuesday, I'd told everyone I knew that I was getting this book published, and it was so exciting, and then on the Friday, they changed their mind.I was really devastated and didn't want to explain to people over and over again about this kind of failure, and I also felt...I don't know. I felt everything. So, I wrote the story of what had happened to the book on an outfit: a top, a jacket, and a skirt. I used to buy (and I still do, actually) loads of really fantastic clothes on eBay. I had this '70s plum-coloured, velvet suit, and I wrote the story of what happened to my book. So, if people wanted to ask me, I'd say, "Look, you can just read it on my clothes, but I don't wanna talk about it, yeah?" The words were cut out in felt and then sewn onto the outfit. And that worked; I didn't have to talk about the same thing over and over again.

And then one friend of mine asked me for a dinner jacket, so I made him this really beautiful dinner jacket all embroidered with writing and buttons. He wore it out to dinner, and a woman he was sitting next to said, "I would like to give a show to that girl who made that." The woman was this great artist, so I was really surprised. In the meantime, there was somebody in China who offered me a show. In between me and that girl doing that show in China, which in the end I never did, I got offered a show in Paris. I did it with my friend Grant White. That show went so well that we ended up doing costumes for Rufus Wainwright, Björk, and a bunch of other performers.

I guess suddenly, I was perceived as this artist because I'd done an art show if you see what I mean. But it was an accident. You see, I never really intended to become an artist. I just had all of these things to say, and art seemed to be the medium.

Margot: That's so wonderful, because certain people see art as a communicative medium, so you sort of epitomised that, you and your whole journey. Were there any artists that particularly inspired you along with your career?

Kate: There's a person who supported me in my career apart from my family. She was a ceramicist, actually, called Kate Malone. She was so helpful. Right from the start, she said, "You know, you're a great artist, but you've also got three kids." I had three children in four years, and so I really was flat out with work. It's funny, I was just reading this morning about Adrienne Rich. I don't know if you're familiar with her poetry. She had children and found it very difficult to work. On the contrary, I found it very inspiring to have children, but there's obviously a massive time constraint in between meals and mopping up the floor and all of that.

Who do I find inspiring? Of course Paul Klee, whose work I very much love and admire. I like the work of a Greek sculptor called Takis, as well as Louise Bourgeois’ work. A photographer called Adam Fuss was also very supportive of my work. He's a great photographer-artist.

I'm also really inspired mainly by Ancient Chinese art. The core of my inspiration is this ancient Chinese literary tradition of writing on objects. There is an art form from Ancient China where you absorb yourself in an object—a landscape, painting, tree, or anything else—look at it for about a day or two, and you allow your mind to travel inside that object. You re-evaluate your life at that moment and see what you can learn from that experience of interacting with the world around you, then you write how you feel. You write on the object about your relationship with it, where your life is right now, and what it has taught you.

In this art form, you use the world around you as a sort of visual diary, you know? It's a source of inspiration, but also a way to reflect and show your gratitude for it by inscribing it with your thoughts. That's really what I do. The heart of my work comes from that of writing on objects about my interaction with the world around me. I'm just learning. I'm always learning. I'm always trying to learn more.

 A piece of Kate's art. with a grey background with white flowers making the shape of a tree.  The words everything happens for the first time embroidered into the lower left quadrant.
"I just had all of these things to say, and art seemed to be the medium."

Margot: That is amazing, and leads me to my next question: you often use art to explore and to evaluate the human experience within the natural world, and I'd love to hear more about how you think that art and, for example, the practice that you were mentioning helps us bridge the gap between humans and nature. It feels like that is a gap that's becoming increasingly wider and increasingly fraught. How do you think art can bridge that gap?

Kate: I see art as a means of communication. I think we are all connected and we are all part of the same created universe; we just do all different arrangements of...I suppose it's mainly carbon atoms, water, and some metal and other elements. I think that nature teaches us that we're neither more nor less important than we should be. I think through my work, I'm really trying to bring forth this idea and underline this truth that we're all connected, that everything is connected, we're in charge of our own lives, and that that includes the world around us. We mustn't feel like things are just happening to us.

The whole world is slightly falling apart, in that we're destroying the natural world around us, but it doesn't need to continue. It has been that way up until this particular point right now, we can change that, and we're always very powerful individual agents for change. I think I'm trying to convey that through my work, through demonstrating we're all part of the same thing.

I'm sitting now in a meadow full of flowers in the springtime—well, now early summer—and thinking that there is a great lesson in humility when you pay attention to the magnificence of the natural world. We can try to think, ‘what do we have to offer, what do we have to learn, and how can we spread that message and lesson to those around us?’ The best way to convey a message is how you act rather than what you say, but it's also quite useful to say things through your work.

I like to think my work provides portals into messages that I'm trying to communicate. Now, for example, I'm working on a show that's going to happen at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in September, and a lot of the work that I'm doing there is a code for essays and small worlds of meaning. I think that nature, for me, is at the heart of my understanding of what it is to be a human being because we're all coexisting and in harmony with one another, although it might sometimes appear to be chaos.

Margot: That was absolutely beautiful. I almost feel like a question is an abrupt stop to such a gorgeous answer. I would love to hear a little bit about how you think art can bring about social change.

Kate: I guess I wish it could. I don't know if it can. I did a project a while ago—a tent that was a lot about ideas on social change. It's a project called "Am I My Brother's Keeper.”: It took me about three years to make this tent. It's a work about home and identity, but it's also about social change, about trying to promote an idea of brotherhood, our shared humanity, and the idea that our life is what our thoughts make it—that was the conclusion of the interviews I did with hundreds and hundreds of refugees in the Middle East and the south of Europe. And whether or not this tent has been useful, I don't know. 

It's sort of travelling. Now it's in Spain. It's in Castellón, then it's going to Toledo, to Madrid. Then it's going to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. We're in discussion with the Vatican, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of New York. It’s spread into many different projects that are trying to promote an idea of social change, such as outreach programs for refugees, or participatory performances. For example, at Manifesta in Palermo, we organized this procession, which ended up with something like 3,000 or 4,000 people attending. There were refugees from the camps and people who had just come off boats, all dancing through the streets, all these bands talking about brotherhood, generosity, bravery, and courage.

Meeting these extraordinary people really changed my life. What I observed is that if you have people who've had everything taken away from them—many of their loved ones, their family, any idea of sort of home or identity—you knock off all of the external shells and nonsense that we tend to build around our identity. At the heart of who we are, there's goodness and love for one another, and incredible bravery and courage. So, that became something that I really wanted people to remember about themselves. I think people forget what it is to be a human being, to have these qualities that set us apart from a rock or plants: we have this power to change, to adapt.

I did a lot of activism around that topic. I was saying, "Look, however small it is, even just appreciating what you have, is something that can bring about social change because you'll be happier, you'll have a more agreeable disposition. You'll smile at the guy walking past in the street, and that might change his day. However small a contribution you make, it's important to remember that if you make that contribution, it is meaningful.” The future is not just coming to us like a great juggernaut; we're not powerless. We're in control of more than we sometimes remember of our individual and collective destiny. 

So, I do believe that art can be useful for social change. Otherwise, I wouldn't break my ass trying to do it. I believe it can be useful. And even if it isn't useful, I believe that if that's what I think can be useful, then I should keep on doing it because it's trying to be useful. Do you see what I mean?

 A Photo of Kate standing against a shipping container surrounded by middle eastern refugees two adult men and lots of children everyone is smiling and waving at the camera
"Meeting these extraordinary people really changed my life"

Margot: Absolutely. If that's the intent, then that can be the outcome.

Kate: Perhaps. We hope. I still feel like art is never as useful as you think, but just like I was saying earlier, it may be more useful than we think and less useful than we hope, but it's still worth doing.

You look at the beautiful work, for example, of Mark Rothko. It might not be saying something explicitly, but I suppose what it's saying is, "Here's an invitation to consider your existence and how you want to live your life".

Margot: Absolutely. Even in more explicit ways, you've got things like Picasso's "Guernica" that represent atrocities in history in such a visceral way that even now one has quite an emotional reaction to it. That means that events like that are less likely, hopefully, to repeat themselves because people are so affected by this imagined memory that Picasso's given them.

Another medium of social change that is constantly growing and expanding is, obviously, social media. There's a lot of activism happening there. I'd love to hear how social media in your mind has affected the art world and how it's changed and shifted in recent years.

Kate: I've been trying to think about this so that I can answer your question. Would you like me to tell you just in abstract terms? Of course, social media has changed everything for everybody I'd say very radically. For example, Odessa Rae made this film with a musician called Moby. I think it was posted on YouTube. No one's really seen it, but it was put on the UNHCR, then on other people's websites, and made into lots of mini-films that were distributed through social media. The UNHCR—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—said that the work had eventually been seen by something like 5.5 million people, which is crazy. That to me was completely abstract because I hadn't been involved at all. 

Thinking of social media, I have a wonderful person called Paloma Baygual who has started to take control of my social media, which I never did, and it's very interesting to see what she says. Part of the reason I believe social media is extremely useful and powerful, and why I've asked Paloma to do it, is because I think it depends on who you want to talk to. I really want to talk, through my work, to young people. If I can put up a show, you know, I can put my work in gallery spaces and museums across the world, but the thing that means the most to me is education and conversations with the people who are building our future. 

In Spain, they put my tent on the national curriculum now, which is kind of crazy. That means more to me than having a show at the Saatchi Gallery or whatever. I think if you can't actually talk to someone, then social media is a fantastic medium to be able to interact with people who you'd never meet, and then it might mean that you do meet. Like, for example, you and I are meeting now. Of course, I hope that we will meet one day, but we're meeting through social media right now. 

That, for me, is a completely wonderful thing because it means that we're having this conversation, and the messages that I want to convey to people will get through. It's just great, you know? It's communication. Now I might be a bit of an old curmudgeon about really liking reading, or I'm working, or I'm with my children or my friends or something; I don't spend much time on social media. But I think unless the message is getting through somehow, there's not much point, is there? So, I congratulate you.

Margot: Thank you. Finally, I'd love to hear a little more about where you see your art taking you in the future, and how you think it's going to shift and change in the coming years. You have some really exciting shows coming up like the Sculpture Park is very exciting. I will certainly be there. Any excuse to go to Yorkshire. But where do you see your art taking in the future in a nutshell, or will you just let it happen, see what inspires you as the years pass?

Kate: It's taking so many different directions, mainly in a social media/cryptographic world generation direction. So, right now, I've moved into the medium of bronze, steel, and aluminium. I'm making large-scale outdoor work, which I also love because it's for the public. If you have a massive sculpture outdoors in a sculpture park, you're in communication with nature and paying homage to it. People who can sit underneath it and eat a sandwich. You know, you can act as though it were alive. I'm doing a project of wearable sculpture with a designer called Cora Shei, for the Louisa Guinness Gallery

Meanwhile, my tent's going all over the place. And I'm working on an NFT project, which is really interesting: it is half in the real world and half in the created crypto world, and that will be a lot through social media. We're doing a thing with the YSP, with Bloomberg, and all these other different social media channels, trying to get across this message that everything is connected through using the medium of social media to connect different worlds—the real world and the virtual world. We'll be using social media as a means of expression. 

I'm working on that with a Russian physicist called Kostya Novoselov. He discovered graphene, and he’s the youngest man to win a Nobel Prize for physics. He's a fantastically intelligent, interesting man. When we have these conversations, they always lead to completely new areas of thought and activity. I'm hoping that as I continue my practice, I'll continue to learn and explore new mediums.

Margot: I love that learning and communication underline everything you do. I think there's something really beautiful about that. And I love that you're working with a physicist because I've always thought that physics and maths at their highest levels become very creative and very artistic, so it's amazing that you're at that point.

Kate: Oh, it's fascinating. When you're a scientist at that level, it's philosophy.

Margot: There's a great course at Oxford which is physics and philosophy, and I've always admired everyone who does that.

Kate: Physics and philosophy? That is so cool. My daughter's really into physics; it sounds like a perfect course for my daughter, actually.

Margot: Thank you so much, Kate. This was a fascinating, inspiring, discussion, and I can't wait to see all the shows you have in the future. Thank you so much.

Kate: Thank you so much.  

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