Alice McCabe, Floral Artist: ‘Dada shapes the whole understanding of art for me’

What does it mean to draw and build on Dada and how can it infuse current art practice with particular meaning or purpose? These are among the important questions which exercised the collective mind of the project Take Dada Seriously – Writing Womxn in the summer of 2020 and have also informed the work of Alice McCabe for many years. We met to discuss her work one afternoon at her studio in London, and seeing the elements of her installations and props for her events revealed so much more than photographs can ever convey. The woody aromatic dried flowers festooning the walls and the treasure-trove of creative ephemera used in her work suggested a very individual artistic vision. She is an artist whose approach exemplifies so much of the exploratory nature of Dadaism. There are many layers and connections with Dada in her work which bridge the distance between its early manifestations from 1916 onwards and the issues that occupy us over a hundred years later. She examines intensely personal ideas of change and mutation, belonging and alienation through the prism of global environmental concerns. Artistic responses to crisis in its many forms can expose shared fear and vulnerability and find ways to direct our emotions and find solace.

McCabe took her BA in fine art painting at Brighton University in 2005-8 before completing an MA in Curation and Arts Education in Zürich at the Hochschule der Künste in 2012-14. Her studies in Zürich enabled a formative encounter with the earliest manifestations of Dada, those which took a less political form than the work typical of Berlin Dada and instead ‘strongly emphasised performative meetings’.[1] Raimund Meyer notes, ‘No artistic movement’s origins were so closely tied to the cabaret as the avant-garde hybrid Dada’ and Emily Hage outlines the connections which performances and exhibitions at the Cabaret Voltaire had with other avant-garde art movements such as Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism, founding members of which all contributed to the Cabaret’s creative success.[2] This stimulating historical background gave McCabe her first experience of ‘a group of people interacting as art form’. She was also lucky to be supported by an inspiring tutor during her MA studies who helped her understanding of the broader power structures emanating from the Institution and mentored her thesis. This took the form of a Sitcom Pilot “The Unimportance of being Earnest”, part of both an exploration of misunderstanding as a tool for Gallery Education and a theoretical study looking at misunderstanding within critical forms of Arts Education.[3] The idea of misunderstanding for interpreting art lies at the heart of Dada as a means of disrupting and diverting expectations and enables humour, aberration and eccentricity to challenge the status quo. McCabe initiated the ‘There There School of English Dada’, having questioned why the English and the continental Dada movement did not unite in a shared artistic endeavour after 1918.  Her earliest explorations of Dada were performance-based, inspired by the original Cabaret Voltaire and staged in events there over the years of 2011- 2016.[4] She has continued to experiment with the possibilities of subversion and ‘playful reflection’ through performance as part of her interest in critical arts education and the broadly political and social issues which are embedded in the art she produces. She observes, ‘You bring your own understanding to Dada now’.

McCabe’s concept of ‘Misunderstanding’ encompasses so much that original Dada relied on but was also, as Malcolm Green suggests in his introduction to Dada Almanac, the reason it eventually fell apart.[5] McCabe has found that it ‘shakes things up’, puts people out of focus, adds paradox, irony and layers of disconcerting alternative meaning to disrupt and divert any complacent assumptions about what we are seeing. This was a driving force behind Tristan Tsara’s ideas. In her article on his Journal Dada (Zurich, Paris, 1917-21), Hage notes that through such publications Dadaists were able to forge ‘a sense of identity based on diversity and distance, rather than on conformity and proximity’.[6] The collage effect of ostensibly unrelated text and image featured in the journal forced the reader to search for meaning, but she quotes Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck as saying ‘Dada was intentionally meaningless from its inception’.[7] The general concensus of writers and critics who focus on Modernist and Avant-Garde art is that collage originated with Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1911-12).[8] Current research projects remind us that collage was in fact a much earlier medium and certainly one embraced by women, albeit constructed and largely remaining in manuscript form. Recovery of this aspect allows a significant broadening of the genre and a reinscription of female artistic practice into the prevailing account.[9] Research on Dada generally concedes that it ’embodied the male as a term and a movement’, so McCabe’s use of collage not only relates to original Dada applications but offers ways of adapting its possibilities to express current concerns and viewpoints from an additional female-nuanced perspective.[10]

Though her expressive paintings have an important space in her studio and exhibition history, and her vibrant watercolours are an important means of recording her performance narratives, collage and other media seem more suited to the ideas McCabe wishes to explore. She uses wit and surprise to transform everyday objects into strange and unique exhibits. Her media of choice include textiles, newspaper and found objects which she recycles and places in new relationships and contexts. Intriguing boxes of resources are stacked in her studio. The storing of material by artists is itself a creative act, replete with possibilities.[11] She credits her mother Honor Godfrey, who founded the Ephemera Society in Australia before editing The Ephemerist in London, with giving her a love of collecting a variety of materials and always seeing the potential in the overlooked and undervalued.[12] She points out that repurposing objects requires both mental and physical space and the dedicated labour of the artist to exploit the potential for new life and meaning. Such work is not an easy option. Newspaper has intrinsically ephemeral qualities, usually classed as waste, suitable only for covering other surfaces to keep them clean, and fixed in a past moment and past interest in events which have largely lost their appeal or relevance. Dadaists and avant-garde artists in the early twentieth century incorporated printed text to confuse the viewer rather than clarify an idea, as part of a structural principle that reflected the complex and chaotic media-dominated world. The examples they used now have a fascination in their own right as signifiers of a crucial historic moment.

Time will tell how significant McCabe’s newsprint backgrounds might become. Her websites show a variety of images from her work covering artwork from different projects. Those made during the Zurich years utilise local papers and supermarket bags printed in German, convenient available materials but at the same time referents to early Dada works.

Bright, loosely painted figures suggesting the circus and pantomime, human and animal or apparitions in white overlay newsprint pages in McCabe’s Zurich Dada Props series of 2010-14 (see above). One striking example shows puppet-like figures painted over a news feature entitled ‘Der Mann mit der Maske’ or ‘The man in the mask’, a review about a 1994 television film based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Man in the Iron Mask (1839). We can read into this as many connections to concealment, identity and fate as we wish, or in the spirit of Dada we can choose to ignore it.[13] Most of the interactions between paint and background are less apparent. The scale of each piece varies widely and, divorced from their purpose, we can only imagine their performative functions. We rely heavily on the digitised images of artists’ work, particularly since physical access is currently restricted, and this can problematise our perception of their impact as objects in real space.   McCabe’s props clearly connect with the stagings at Cabaret Voltaire by Sophie Taeuber for example, shown dressed in cardboard mask and collaged textile and paper dress in a rare photographic survival, discussed in depth by Nell Andrew.[14] Newsprint as a medium continues to interest McCabe.The complexities have only increased. Newsprint in her recent work covers reportage on ongoing Brexit debates. She observes that the subject of misunderstanding is even more potent now, with arguments about deliberate obfuscation in politics high on journalistic agendas. Her practice is as much about the written word as visual art, as shown in her performance scripts, and newspapers have proved a useful source for ‘found poetry.’ 

Among her Zurich ‘props’ are several pieces which resemble shields. Armour with its protective talismanic qualities has continued to provide a fruitful source of inspiration for McCabe’s art.

She showed me her ‘floppy paper suit of British armour and tassels developed for attachment to a cloak or shield designed to both represent and ward off fears concerning Brexit’. A sense of the need for protection and awareness of our frailty has become increasingly urgent over the year and we have gained real understanding of the human dilemmas which have devastated communities facing plague and pandemics in the past. Not least of these is the Spanish flu which gripped Europe during the post-1918 years of Dada experimental art. McCabe’s suit of armour is built on a base adapted from a found postbag, a discarded grey loosely woven Post Office bag which resembles a chainmail tabard. This is covered with McCabe’s signature collage material, the decorated tops from miniature Swiss milk cartons. These are quintessentially disposable items but seen as a group they have delicate beauty in their range of represented cultural topics and iconic subjects. McCabe has a file in which her collection is arranged through swathes of colour-related examples, and continues into her own cut paper tokens based on the same shapes.[15] Here, the individual tokens metamorphose into abstract series in which details of colour and line have their own rhythm and logic. Her suit of armour featured in walks, such as that along the Pilgrim’s Way in 2017, when she explored the beliefs which are attached to objects and the ancient motivation for pilgrimage. She finds that through walking one is able to ‘resolve things’. Commemorative walks have long established artistic provenance such as those made by Richard Long, or the collaborative walks filmed by Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair, in Edith Walks (2017) and The Whalebone Box (2019).[16] Such walks  inscribe both particularity and tradition on to the landscape and reconstruct the long line of human interaction with the environment. The purpose of McCabe’s walk was to observe wild flowers in season and seek connections with the commercially grown flowers sourced from Holland on which her work as a floral artist depends.

McCabe has built a business through her floral displays at events and galleries. In some ways these demonstrate separate skills from those seen in her art work but in fact they all depend on an eye for design, colour and shape. She has seen a recent boom in floral art, with innovative trends and creative displays unlike any seen before, using wild flowers and excluding foliage for example.[17] In addition, during lockdown, there has been growing interest in nature, and in permaculture and the ‘permablitz movement’. Flowers as signifiers of time and decay have always occupied artists. They are still potent subjects, for example in current paintings of vases of dying flowers by Jill Mulleady, which track and mirror signs of human ageing.[18] McCabe’s current display at the Glass Cloud Gallery incorporates dried flowers and grain crops in her exploration of natural cycles, and once again her tokens signify human intervention and alternative meanings.[19] For McCabe, Dada has provided a rich fund of references and artistic method, but always integrated into her work on her own terms and related to the materials which are best suited to her purposes. The dried flowers and boxes of fir cones in her studio signify both her art and her business and it will be exciting to follow her projects as they develop. Our meeting was over too soon but I think we parted, each energized by our discussions.

A personal thank you to Alice McCabe for this glimpse in to her life and art.

Words: Miriam Al Jamil


[1]Renée Riese Hubert, ‘Zurich Dada and its Artist Couples’, Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender and Identity, edited by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (Cambridge Mass,:MIT Pres,1998), pp.516-545, 516.

[2]Raimund Meyer, ‘Embracing the Absurd: Cabaret Voltaire’,  Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art, Catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, 2019, p.106; Emily Hage, ‘The Magazine as Strategy:Tristan Tsara’s Dada and the Seminal Role of Dada Art Journals in the Dada Movement’, The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, vol.2, No.1 (2011), pp.33-53, 35.

[3]McCabe’s MA tutor was Carmen Mörsch: https://zhdk.academia.edu/CarmenMoersch/CurriculumVitae.

[4]This venue has reopened as a bar with performances/exhibitions space.

[5]Malcolm Green, Richard Huelsenbeck, eds., The Dada Almanac (originally published in Berlin: E. Reiss,1920; English translation London; Atlas Press, 1993).

[6]Hage, ‘The Magazine as Strategy’, 34.

[7]Hage, ‘The Magazine as Strategy’, 36.

[8]See for example Wojchiec Drag, Collage in Twenty-First-Century Literature: Art of Crisis (New York; Routledge, 2019), ch.1; Magda Dragu, Form and Meaning in Avant-Garde Collage and Montage (New York: Routledge, 2020), Part 3.

[9]See for example, P. Elliott, Cut and Paste: 400 years of Collage (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland Publishing, 2019); <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKzA5sZBNJw&feature=emb_logo>; Freya Gowrley, ‘Collage before Modernism? Periodization, Gender and Eighteenth-Century Women’s Collage’, in ‘Making Women: Creative Constructions & Material Knowledge’, International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference (Edinburgh, 14-19 July 2019).

[10]Sawelson-Gorse, Women in Dada, x.

[11]See discussions for example in Deep Storage, MoMA PS1 Exhibition, 5 July-30 Aug 1998: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/4631.

[12]See https://www.ephemerasociety.org.au/; https://fliphtml5.com/xnky/xkeh/basic

[13]McCabe notes: ‘This piece was a prop from The Royal Act – a celebration for the non-invited to Prince William and Catherine’s marriage, and reference to Royal Family – hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’.

[14]Nell Andrew, ‘Dada Dance: Sophie Taeuber’s Visceral Abstraction’, Art Journal 73, no.1 (Spring 2014). <http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=4680>

[15]  McCabe notes that these were part of her project to dissect the build up to the election of David Cameron in 2015.

[16]Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking (1967), Tate, Ref.AR00142,  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-a-line-made-by-walking-ar00142; A discussion between Kötting and Sinclair at the LRB is available on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKA272zRrdk

[17]See for example Phaidon Editors, Bloom (New York: Phaidon Press, 2019).

[18]See Jill Mulleady, Gladstone Gallery, Decline and Glory, until 14 November, 2020: <https://www.gladstonegallery.com/exhibition/7645/decline-glory/work-detail/7885/i-a-thought-that-never-changes-remains-a-stupid-lie-ii-i>

[19]<http://lucywritersplatform.com/2020/10/05/alice-mccabe-fieldworks-at-the-glass-cloud-gallery/.

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