Craig Richardson celebrates Scotland’s
inaugural participation in Venice
While the eleven overarching themes of this year’s Biennale revolve around the power of the spectator and provide an opportunity for the viewer to confront individualistic, artistic tendencies, increasingly such global presentations are clarified through curatorial intentions which have become detached from individual artists’ practices. Given the homogeneity of practices which result from the osmosis of art’s mushy philosophical propositions, can the thread of intent be traced from, for example, this year’s Biennale director, Francesco Bonami, to a Scottish-based artist like Jim Lambie? If not, a specifically Scottish participation is a common-sense proposition.
For the very first time, this year’s
Biennale sees a Scottish Pavilion: that is a separate showing distinct from
the other countries of the United Kingdom, and certainly in
contradistinction to the traditionally London-centric contribution served up
at the British Pavilion, which this year features a solo showing of Chris
Ofili. Zenomap, selected by Kay Pallister and Francis McKee, presents the
work of three Glasgow-based artists – Claire Barclay, Jim Lambie and Simon
Starling – in the seventeenth-century Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin overlooking
the Grand Canal. Its various interior spaces and effects, including mirrors
and friezes, will provide a suitable foil to their practices.
In the absence of substantial commercial
support, the State’s sponsorship of artists in the nineties proved
particularly important and played a key role in these artists’ development.
While it is only the State-supported galleries that can comfortably
commission large, elaborate and conceptually premised projects, as a form of
investment in artists and ideas, and in a move almost unprecedented in
Scottish affairs, State funding allows The Modern Institute to actually
represent artists in the same vein as commercial galleries such as
Edinburgh’s doggerfisher. For example, these two galleries between them
represent all three artists in the Scottish Pavilion.
There is a raft of slow-burning arguments in the smouldering heart of Scottish visual art which the selectors have cleverly sidestepped in this international platform. The uneasy historical relationship with England is one. Perhaps there is such a thing as a Scottish diaspora, continuing to this day, and a congruent cultural resonance with America. The artist Graham Fagen, included in Zenomap’s related performances and events, deadpans these feelings of national hurt in his photo-text work West Coast Looking West (1999). Showing the sparkling Irish Sea, or perhaps the Atlantic, the accompanying text reads: ‘When the people of Irvine on the west coast of Scotland become confused, depressed or downhearted they go to the beach and look out to sea. It is thought they are looking towards America – the New Land. This is where their distant relatives sailed to. Some were forced. They were cleared from their homes by landowners, who replaced them with sheep. This was more profitable.’
It has been argued that contemporary Scottish art has shaken off the shackles of arid post-Conceptualism as practised by the so-called Transmission Generation: perhaps the speed of reading of a typical Glasgow artist’s work in the mid-nineties had begun to induce passivity in the viewer. By comparison, the neo-futurists of the following generation resist interpretation. The works of Victoria Morton, Lucy McKenzie, Eva Rothschild, Mary Redmond, and occasionally, deviously so, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, are often visually arresting, with the artists gravitating towards formalist painting.
Jim Lambie’s work is particularly at home within this group of artists, and perversely revisits the more formal aesthetics of European and American Conceptualism. His spectacular vinyl floor installation for Tate Britain’s recent Days Like These, for example, came accompanied with a sign reading: ‘You may find the brightly coloured visual effects confusing; please use alternative routes or ask a member of staff for assistance.’
These concerns for our well-being, as if we
were imminently to lose our connection with reality, institutionalise the
work’s mania, and are a crude example of the techniques museums
unintentionally employ to disarm and absorb work such as Lambie’s, which has
the capacity to energise spaces for public pleasure. But, in general, his
floor works, and the work of the aforementioned artists, present a
trouble-free relationship with their institutional or physical settings.
Much contemporary Scottish art, however, makes awkward its social relations
and at its best deals directly with ethical or national debates. Consider
the occasionally harsh use of living organisms in Christine Borland’s work,
or the forensic judgements of Nathan Coley’s ungentle Lockerbie display,
also seen recently in Days Like These.
Pondering the selection’s emphasis on sculpture, I see qualities of reminiscence. In Barclay’s sculpture, ecological attachments and material delight refute routine formulas in much the same way Eva Hesse participated in but distinguished herself from minimalist art. Equally, Starling’s installations are in the direct lineage of English sculpture, most especially that of Bill Woodrow and Cornelia Parker. Yet substantial differences emerge once we consider his frequently cold explications – usually in the form of texts or sequential arrangements – which help us to navigate his readings of Modernism as unsustainable and narcissistic. These are not without intended humour. In his Showroom gallery brochure from 1995, for example, he refers to his approach to a museological vernacular as a language he could ‘kick around a bit whilst still being respectful to it’.
Starling’s Djungel, first exhibited last year at Dundee Contemporary Arts, is a staged transformation of a felled West Indian cedar tree, incorporating a gallery-wide hand-printed curtain with a botanical design by Josef Frank. An assumption is made when looking at art that its material concerns and maker’s intentions have ‘arrived’ on the same plane, and the compromises and negotiations artists undertake to enable this are often what constitute creative practice. In many ways Starling’s installations depersonalise this negotiation. They contain very few compromises, sometimes verging on the near-impossible in their material pliability and transmutational cleverness. At Djungel’s heart is a printing-bed assembled from an odd assortment of domestic tables. Each table plays its supportive role in creating the resultant unified horizontal surface, mirroring the artist’s working process in which the ‘fragments which make up the work are read on the same level’.
Starling’s installations reveal the fictions behind the spatial boundaries and historical timelines which twentieth-century art, design and architecture devised as discrete and separate evolutions. He uses a variety of objects and activities which are becoming increasingly recognisable as his imaginative property. These include planes, cars, bicycles, branches and wood, together with a variety of tools used in the making of chairs and tables. There is also a fascination in the accompanying processes and apparatus of such diverse areas as migration, replanting, reassembly, slow burning, clamping, chain-sawing, and disassembling. As he conflates his sources on ever grander scales and in more prestigious galleries, his well-researched but increasingly opaque formulas (or ‘recipes’) suggest a kind of logic which at times follows the rules of comedy, but in which fractions and fragments emerge as round numbers. Yet somehow we also sense that it is a fabrication of sorts; a kind of trade between truth and lies.
Craig Richardson is a Scottish artist who lives in London and is a Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University
Jim Lambie, 3 Minutes, 1999, roller skate and enamel paint. Photo: Jonathan Juniper. Courtesy: The Showroom, London