[The slightly longer original version of an article published earlier this year in The Irish Times.]
This summer, in advance of Scotland’s landmark independence vote, an outstanding example of independent Scottish thinking has been on show at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). Illuminating the ground floor of this grand neo-classical museum is Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from 1992 to Now: a loosely encyclopaedic survey of the art of Douglas Gordon, clustered and condensed as a single, elaborate installation.
Blinking and blaring together in the darkened gallery are over 100 television monitors. Each one offers an intense cinematic insight into the maverick imagination of this extravagantly inventive, internationally acclaimed Glaswegian. And each one, somewhat surprisingly, sits on a plinth made from a humble beer crate: global art-market style meeting Glasgow flea-market style. It’s a telling combination — a pairing of the refined and the rough-edged — both in relation to the distinctive qualities of Gordon’s work and contemporary art from Scotland more generally.
Gordon’s compact anthology contains a potent mixture of highbrow conceptualism and pop cultural plundering (his most famous work, 24 Hour Psycho, stretches out Hitchcock’s classic chiller to an uncanny and agonising day-long duration). He synthesises references to cinema, music and literature with forceful, unsettling natural imagery, moving between disturbing psychological extremes of dark and light. His GOMA mega-mix is an astonishing display of extraordinary creative diversity, and edgy, out-of-the-ordinary artistic effort.
As such, it’s both a dazzling highlight and a near-perfect microcosm of Generation: 25 Years of Art in Scotland, a summer-long, country-wide celebration of Scotland’s remarkable standing army of contemporary artists. Concentrating on those who have chosen to develop their careers in Scotland during the last two and a half decades — rather than on a narrowly defined idea of ‘Scottish art’ — Generation presents, as Douglas Gordon might say, ‘pretty much everyone from the late 1980s until now’. Over 100 artists are involved — including some such as Duncan Campbell David Sherry, Tony Swain and Cathy Wilkes who originally hail from Ireland, North or South — showing work in sixty different venues, across an impressive range of locations: from the main museums and city galleries of Edinburgh and Glasgow, to Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute and the Pier Art Centre in Orkney. The many parts of Generation are, indeed, pretty much everywhere.
In its introductory blurb, Generation is proclaimed as “one of the most ambitious celebrations of contemporary art ever held by a single nation”. In addition to the presence of Irish-connected artists, this is surely one good reason for us to pay close attention to it in Ireland, especially following the disappointment of the first, grandly ambitious, Dublin Contemporary exhibition in 2011. (A costly, large-scale venture that failed to engage or galvanize the visual arts community in Ireland to the extent that it could have.)
Significantly, Generation has arrived at a time when what it might mean to be a “single nation” is being hotly debated. As the project’s Associate Curator Katrina Brown points out, however, Generation was conceived before the referendum plan was announced, so it was never intended to carry a specific — and hefty — patriotic burden. Moreover, as the occasion for the realization of Generation is Glasgow’s staging of the Commonwealth Games — a context, Brown notes, that helped guarantee added “presence and clout” — it also benefits, some might say, from current UK affiliations.
But Generation nevertheless makes a strong, multi-faceted statement about the stand-alone strengths of art in Scotland. An important aim in representing the remarkable achievements of artists in recent decades was, Katrina Brown says, to create “a more extended footprint” than such a survey exhibition might usually be expected to have. Working with “as many art institutions across Scotland as wished to take part”, Generation has been able to emerge, she is pleased to say, as “a porous and generous family of exhibitions”. (Once again, there are good lessons here for Ireland: much might be gained, for example, by exploring new models of cross-country collaborative programming.) Generation emphasises the extent to which, as the writer Louise Welsh notes in an accompanying essay, Scotland’s recent art is “brilliantly diverse”. Yet the “ambitious scope” of the project, can also be seen, Welsh suggests, as representing the necessary ongoing effort “to imagine our cities, to imagine ourselves.”
Of course, one useful way of seeing a “single nation” — to recall Benedict Anderson’s famous definition — is as an “imagined community”. And there’s little doubt that for the last two and a half decades, artists in Scotland have taken imaginatively bold steps, while self-consciously cultivating a sustaining sense of community. This has been a period of widespread success and acclaim. During this time, six artists from (or based in) Scotland have won the Turner Prize. Douglas Gordon came first in 1996. Five years later, Martin Creed had a memorable win with his provocatively simple, barely-there installation The Lights Going On and Off. (The subject of many subsequent “Is this art?” conversations.) Since then, Simon Starling, Martin Boyce, Richard Wright and Susan Philipsz have also triumphed. Seventeen more key figures from the Scottish scene have made it onto the Turner shortlist: among them such terrific and entirely different talents as Karla Black, Christine Borland, Nathan Coley, Jim Lambie, David Shrigley, Belfast-born Cathy Wilkes and — both shortlisted this year — Irish-Canadian artist Ciara Philips and Dubliner Duncan Campbell.
Most of these are prominently represented in Generation. Nathan Coley, for instance, has re-staged a wonderful 2006 installation at GOMA (a few floors above Douglas Gordon) composed of 286 cardboard models of all the ‘places of worship’ listed in the Edinburgh Yellow Pages. It’s a fantastical coming together of distinct architectures of ‘belief’: a coherently imagined community of difference.
At Tramway, Cathy Wilkes is showing what the Generation guide calls “an imaginary environment”. Wilkes creates life-size dioramas peopled by obscure figures and scattered with beautifully cryptic accumulations of found objects. Typically for her, it’s a mysterious, moving work. Wilkes has been hugely influential in Scotland — and she is certainly one of the most compelling contemporary artists working anywhere today — but as a Northern Ireland native she merits much more consideration this side of the Irish Sea.
In his acceptance speech on winning the 1996 Turner Prize, Douglas Gordon made a point of thanking the ‘Scotia Nostra’ — acknowledging the crucial spirit of creative comradeship that had contributed to his success. Much of this close-knit activity has been concentrated in Glasgow — often centred around lively artist-run spaces such as Transmission Gallery. Excited by this concentration of world-class artists in the city some years ago, the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist even dared to talk of ‘the Glasgow miracle.’ It’s a much-quoted catchphrase, but for good reasons, it isn’t locally popular — ongoing graft and original thinking have mattered more than freakish good fortune.
For Katrina Brown, some other non-miraculous factors help explain the increased vitality and visibility of Glasgow art since the 1990s. The affordable cost of living and the modest population size, compared to other art-world hotspots, has encouraged a continuing influx of young artists — so repeatedly revitalising that essential spirit of community — while cheap air travel and the proliferation of new communication technologies have supported an effective outflow of artworks and ideas.
But critical too, as Brown and many others insist, has been the central role of the Glasgow School of Art. Back in the 1980s, artist-lecturers David Harding and Sue Ainsley introduced a new course at the school called ‘Environmental Art’ — one that sought to radically revise the traditional expectations of art education. It would gradually transform the habits of fledgling artists and the environment of the local art world. Many of the most important artists during these 25 Years of Art in Scotland learnt how to break art’s rules in the context of this course — re-imagining the everyday work of artists in a manner suited to the energies and exigencies of their evolving Glasgow community.
If there has been a ‘Glasgow Miracle’ in recent times, perhaps it occurred when the School of Art’s iconic Charles Rennie Mackintosh building was only-just saved from destruction earlier this year. An accidental fire destroyed some important spaces, but most of the cherished structure survived intact. A follow-up miracle might have been the inspiring level of national and international support for the school in the wake of the tragedy. Maybe it’s only when an art school comes close to disappearing that we begin to realise what the wider culture might be losing.
For Irish artist Duncan Campbell — one of three GSA graduates shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize — the art school has played a pivotal role in fostering Glasgow’s capacity to constantly renew and re-imagine itself. Having lived in Scotland for around twenty years now, Campbell sees Glasgow as “fundamentally an artists’ city.” As Generation comes and goes, perhaps it’s now worth asking if any cities on the island of Ireland might yet be celebrated in similar terms.