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Semen straw sculptures coming to home of ‘livestock celebrities’ – University of Reading

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Semen straw sculptures coming to home of ‘livestock celebrities’

Release Date 30 January 2019

Sculpture entitled 'Production/Graph' mounted on a bull, part of the Sire art exhibition at The MERL

Straws used to artificially inseminate cattle have been turned into eye-catching works of art, which are going on display at the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) at the University of Reading.

The sculptures in the Sire exhibition, which runs from 5 February to 5 May, reflect things like protein and DNA structures, and reference breeding techniques used by farmers for nearly 200 years to perfect their livestock. Genetic modifications included removing horns and improving milk yields or muscle mass.

Artist Maria McKinney was inspired by collections of 18th and 19th century livestock portraits in The MERL’s collections, paintings that exaggerated the features bred into the animals and turned them into the ‘first viral celebrities’. McKinney completed her sculptures by mounting them to the backs of live bulls and taking photographs mimicking the formulaic style of these paintings.  The nine large-scale photographic prints she produced, which refer to the nine different techniques used in a new breeding programme in Ireland, will also go on display at The MERL.

McKinney said: “It was essential for me that the sculptures communicated something about the lived reality of these bulls. And the reality is their entire lives are shaped around human consumption. Their bodies enter our bodies through this consumption of meat and dairy. So having their bodies as an intrinsic element of the work was my reason for putting the sculptures on them.”

McKinney visited The MERL in 2015 to explore its archive of livestock portraits, as well as other farming artefacts symbolising fertility, which heavily influenced her sculptures and photos. The MERL exhibition is a one-time-only chance to see the artwork surrounded by the archives that conceived it, and the first time the entire series has been displayed in England.

The international fame The MERL has found recently through its ‘absolute unit’ tweet of a large ram, and other farming-themed items it has shared on Twitter, also made the Museum an apt place for the artist to exhibit.

A free In Conversation event with McKinney takes place on 5 February to mark the opening of the exhibition.

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