A NEW exhibition featuring sculptures made of semen straws will go on show in a local museum next week.
The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) at the University of Reading will be holding Sire from Tuesday, February 5, looking at how farmers have used artificial insemination to breed cattle over the past 200 years.
The straws used to impregnate cows with bulls’ semen have been taken by artist Maria McKinney to create the works of art.
She said that she 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.
And the exhibits 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.
The artist 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 MERL four years ago, where she explored its archive of livestock portraits, as well as other farming artefacts symbolising fertility. 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 Tuesday at 6pm to mark the opening of the exhibition. Places are free, but should be booked in advance.
Sire runs until Sunday, May 5.