Home Stories

Maria McKinney on ‘Sire’

All my grandparents were farmers; I grew up in the countryside surrounded by farms and helped neighbours herd sheep and cattle into the field. My body of work called ‘Sire’ looks at the genomics of modern cattle breeding.

Words by Maria McKinney

  • Story
Somewhere in Between exhibition. Sire by Maria McKinney, in collaboration with Michael Doherty and David MacHugh, Michael Bowles. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Sire’ consists of large-scale photographs of pedigree bulls, each wearing a sculpture on their back. Genomics, in this context, is putting the knowledge of genetics into breeding practice to produce more commercially productive and healthy animals for food production.

I got the title ‘Sire’ from the cover of a catalogue that farmers use to select the bull that will father their next generation of cattle. I always take materials that aren’t necessarily associated with art-making and use my hands to transform them into something else.

The spirit of fertility

When I was learning more about how cattle are bred and about artificial insemination (AI), I found a material that’s a big part of that: semen straws. Semen straws are plastic storage receptacles for bull semen. They come in a variety of bright colours and each colour is designated for a particular breed. Once all the semen goes into these straws, it’s stored in huge freezers of liquid nitrogen. The straws go into a long pipette that is inserted with the AI man or woman’s hand into the vagina of the cow. The person wears a big, long glove, finds the opening of the womb, and pushes the semen out of the straw into the cow.

The sculptures are made from woven semen straws. With this quite contemporary material, I used the ancient handcraft of straw weaving, which was used to make corn dollies. A modern-day interpretation is that corn dollies were possibly part of a pagan ritual to worship the spirit of fertility. Farmers would take the final sheaf of the field and make a doll out of it, in the hope that the spirit of fertility would jump from the field into this doll. They would keep the doll safe through the winter months and then, when they were sowing the seed the following spring, they would return the doll to the field to allow the crops to grow. This may have replaced more bloody practices of animal sacrifice and, before that, human sacrifice as a way to please the gods. I am interested in how humans try to influence nature’s behaviour, which we’ve tried to do since pre-Christian times through ritual or magic.

Heavily influenced by genomics

These sculptures reference the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) headings for Ireland [the EBI helps farmers identify the most profitable bulls and cows for breeding]. The EBI contains the breeding directives for farmers in Ireland to achieve the cow of the future. They are incentives that are now very heavily influenced by genomics; these include “good fertility” and “resilience to changes in climate”. One of the EBI directives is “easy to manage”, and the sculpture I’ve made to represent that depicts four rows of horns. They are trying to breed horns out of cattle because hornless animals are less dangerous for humans to be around. There are certain breeds which are polled, which means ‘hornless’, and I know they’re looking for the gene that programs for polled, which will influence breeding practices.

The production graph sculpture references the EBI directive for “good milk production” and shows the increase in milk production from about the 1920s to 2014. The first strands are made from straw because that time was pre artificial insemination, genetics and genomics influencing the breeding of cattle. Around the 1950s artificial insemination was introduced, so that’s when the straws change from natural straw into semen straws. You can see an increase in milk production from the 1950s onwards. Around the ’70s, the straw size changed from 0.5 ml to 0.25 ml as lab techniques improved. From 2010 to 2014, the straw colours become regular because that’s when they brought genomics into the breeding of livestock. There’s a dramatic increase in milk production from the 1920s to 2014, like thousands of gallons of milk per animal per year.

The human–bovine relationship

I wanted to make these animals, which are quite hidden away from humans, more visible again. I made these elaborate objects and put them on the backs of live animals, but I knew that in order for them to not be merely decorations, they had to make a very direct reference to animals’ position in the world now. I seriously questioned the human relationship with animals and how we’ve completely manipulated and shaped them for our own ends. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t allow people to turn away easily or just call it pretty.

Within the human relationship to the bovine species over many centuries, we’ve always been breeding them in order to consume them. Their bodies that we’ve created enter our bodies through the consumption of their milk or their meat and I see that the human–bovine relationship is so intertwined. ‘Sire’ makes the reality of the current situation of animal breeding and genetics more visible and allows people to come up with their own judgement or conclusions on it. In the context of a very urban audience, whose only exposure to livestock is the image of a cow on the front of meat packaging, ‘Sire’ reminds them that this meat comes from a living being and that the whole process surrounding that production is very scientific. People might think farmers are in the fields and stuck in the 19th century but that’s really not true; they’re actually putting into practice really cutting-edge work.

A space to think about new questions

The bulls I photographed were from Dovea Genetics, a pedigree bull stud farm based in Thurles, County Tipperary. Negotiating access wasn’t easy or straightforward; I had to reassure them that my intentions were good and it was worth collaborating with me to make these processes visible. I worked very closely with the bulls’ handlers, who knew each of the bulls’ personalities. They were able to recommend bulls that would be more agreeable to putting an object on their back. The whole proposition of using animals in an artwork is a contentious issue and one that I had to be really conscious of throughout the development of Sire. When we were making the photographs, what was first and foremost in all of our minds was the health and safety of the animals.

‘Sire’ disseminates complicated scientific ideas in a tangible way. Art shouldn’t be about merely illustrating what science does. Art–science collaborations should open up a space to think about new questions; I think art functions well whenever it poses a question back to the scientists. These collaborations should encourage us to think about where we’re going as a society and as a species.

‘Sire’ is part of the Somewhere in Between exhibition, which is open 8 March 201827 August 2018.

About the author

Maria McKinney

Maria McKinney is an artist based in Dublin. She undertook a residency at University College Dublin in 2016. Her work explores the impact of human intervention on the natural world, often bringing together unusual contemporary materials and traditional craft techniques. She was awarded a Wellcome Arts Award in 2015 to produce ‘Sire’.