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Essay: Of Maggots and Madonnas

by Susannah Frankel on 21 November 2001

Writer Susannah Frankel on the story of Nick Knight and Alexander McQueen's metamorphic Angel collaboration.

Writer Susannah Frankel on the story of Nick Knight and Alexander McQueen's metamorphic Angel collaboration.

Angel Installation, La Beauté en Avignon (2000)

The concept is quintessential Knight/McQueen. Create the face of an angel and place it, pride of place, in a church in the southern French town of Avignon. Nothing much new about that, you might think, except that instead of using stained glass or any other such obvious and/or widely deemed appropriate materials, the pair constructed the piece entirely out of dyed maggots – 80 gallons of dyed maggots, to be precise. It’s a frankly horrifying thought, which is, of course, the point.

The designer and photographer have by now collaborated on more than one idea that subverts our preconceptions of what is and isn’t beautiful. Ideas that, on the face of it, may rile the more politically correct among us and appear to be no more than sensational, once executed seem rather more tender, lovely – moving even – than had been expected.

'Get the ugliest thing on the planet, the maggot,' Alexander McQueen says, 'and transform it into a Madonna.' Stranger things have happened, after all.

Notable among these was a Dazed & Confused cover story featuring eight models each with extreme physical disabilities. 'Anyone with the slightest brain cell will know that it is the quirkiness and imperfections in a person that attracts other people,' Knight told me at the time. 'That is completely obvious to human beings, it's just when it gets to a corporate level that it all falls apart.' As far as Angel is concerned, he says: 'We’d been commissioned to do this piece as part of an arts festival. We wanted to do something angelic but we wanted it to move, breathe even. The idea was to dye the maggots in the colours of the human face. The maggots would be fed the dye at just the right time and then placed into different sections, a bit like painting by numbers really. But although they were separated, some of them would escape into the wrong sections so that the colour would bleed. And as the maggots turned into castors they would become darker, turning brown before hatching.'

Björk wrote a gentle harp music soundtrack. McQueen went so far as to create a scent to mask the smell of the maggots which would have been unappealing to say the least – or so we’re led to believe. The piece would be a six-foot cylinder on the ground. From close up and side on, it would look like nothing but a sea of writhing larva. The angel’s face would only be discernible when reflected back at the viewer by a huge mirror placed high above it at which point it would be displayed in its entirety.

Detail from Angel (2001)

Some things are not to be, however. 'We just couldn’t keep the maggots alive,' says Knight, matter-of-factly. 'We’d spent so much time on it that it seemed a terrible waste that no-one would see it so we decided to recreate it here.' He promptly travelled to a maggot farm in Cambridge. Again, any preconceptions were overturned entirely as, according to Knight, the maggot farmer, far from being a macabre figure was, in fact, hugely refined. The humble maggot farm caters to the nation's anglers, after all, and where this is concerned, it seems, not just any old maggot will do. 'The man who runs the farm is the most delicate, amazing man. It all has to be done just right,' Knight says. With the maggots finally in place, Knight instructed one of his assistants to photograph the piece every two hours, twenty-four hours a day for two weeks. It’s a dirty job, as they say... 'It begins with pure colour, looking very Andy Warhol,' says Knight of the finished product, 'but then, as expected, the maggots escape over the section edges and things become less clearly defined.'

The camera was placed twenty feet above the face and the whole thing was then enclosed in a white tent. 'When the castors hatched,' Knight says, 'the white went solid black with flies.' The last word goes to McQueen who sums up the project neatly as is his wont. 'Get the ugliest thing on the planet, the maggot,' he says, 'and transform it into a Madonna.' Stranger things have happened, after all.

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80 gallons of live maggots form the face of an angel in this film of Knight and McQueen's art installation, set against a special soundtrack by Björk.