Journey Four: The Strathbogie Triangle

Duncan McLaren treks to artists residencies in the north and discovers David Blyth, Rona Lee, Warren Neidich and Claudio Caldini in the wilds

Journey Four: The Strathbogie Triangle

It takes a couple of hours to drive from my base in Blairgowrie to Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, site of SSW. The letters stand for Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Unambiguous words in these times of socially engaged practice.

I’m here at the invitation of Rona Lee, who was at SSW last autumn along with eight others for a month-long development residency. She’s one of three who’ve been invited back this year to move from research into production. On one level, Rona’s present work is concerned with our relationship—physical and psychological—to water, and she shows me models of swimming pools whose eye-catching feature is their organic-seeming, cavern-like sides and floor. I’m attracted to the pink, translucent forms as they are, but I have to try and envisage what the objects will be like when they are cast into bronze using the SSW foundry.

It’s easier for me to get to grips with the photographs that Rona has taken of a tidal swimming pool close to Banff—deserted now, but as awesome as it must have been from the day some idiosyncratic patron first looked upon the completed commission. The elegant pool architecture and wild water combine in a fantastic way —just where is the dividing line between modernist water palace and ocean?

Equally other-worldly is some video footage that was shot at a deep-sea-diving training site near Fort William, which Rona also shows me on her laptop. One of the features is a two-storey pool built for some kind of commercial exhibition purpose and now fallen into neglect. There are quiet corridors leading to a pool full of post-industrial mystery. It’s like something out of a Tarkovsky film. The camera angles are amazing, thanks to staircases and windows, and the next thing Rona has to do—as with the Banff material—is decide whether to have a human figure occupying the space, or leave it open for the viewer to walk, wade or swim through on their own.

Rona has to give her pre-cast models another coating, so I have a chat with Hilary Nicoll, the director of SSW. Hilary’s main function seems to be to allow things to happen here. She invites artists to this part of the world in the hope that they will gain from each other’s company and from their surroundings. Having said that, she herself has initiated a ‘reeking lum’ project. This is in response to both the recent Scottish Land Reform Act, and an old local custom: if you set up a structure with a chimney, this gave you rights over the surrounding land.

She has invited four mid-career artists with international experience to respond to the brief. One is Shimabuku from Japan. Apparently, he proposes to create a hearth consisting of intersecting hammocks. I wonder if this will involve using the foundry. But there I go making the mistake of thinking that any work done here needs to involve the foundry or the wood-working machines, simply because their presence is so substantial. Does an unused lathe sulk? I have no time to ask Hilary because tonight there is an opening at the nearby Glenfiddich Distillery and we’re all going along to it.

Two carloads of us travel the few miles, and then we get stuck into the hospitality and the art. Eight international artists have been invited by the distillery to spend the summer in residence and to create an individual expression of ‘the independent spirit’. And in the  adjacent Dufftown pub, where food has been provided, I get chatting with the American artist Warren Neidich. The main motif of his work is the eye cut out of a painted face, so that the viewer’s real eye can take the place of the other’s painted eye. He uses the ‘who’s looking at who?’ idea effectively in both the gallery near the entrance to the distillery and in a cottage that’s been set aside for art installations.

Warren is full of bright ideas—full of himself too—and I thoroughly enjoy our exchange. His favourite places are New York, Los Angeles and London, so what is he doing here in rural Aberdeenshire? Oh, he’s developing a body of work, and that takes him all around the world. Apparently, he’s a writer as well as an artist and he’s got a book coming out called The History of Conscious Thought. He wants to know if I think this is a pretentious title. No time to answer, because Warren is explaining his book’s theme—that people only started to really think about life with the invention of photography. I see what he might mean—for hasn’t human thinking taken another big leap forward since the invention of the PC?

Warren and I both think we are shit-hot at our respective work, but we both agree too that the next generation is going to be shit-hotter. Why? Because they’ll have had computer-assisted brains from a much earlier age. The alcohol-fuelled conversation—not just ours, everybody in the pub is talking animatedly—goes on and on.

In the morning, I’m all set to travel to meet Claudia Zeiske, organiser of the Glenfiddich programme. As I walk through the kitchen of SSW at 10am, Stephen Murray—who only arrived yesterday—is frying three sausages in a pan. ‘I’ll just see to these, then I’ll get cracking,’ he tells me. Get cracking on what? His residency, I suppose he means. Doesn’t he realise that his residency started yesterday at the distillery? And if not at the distillery, then last night when he got back here and many of us chatted around the big common room table which is the closest thing to a hearth in the SSW complex? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he does know that. And so does the calm and friendly Scott Laverie who’s also up here as a result of SSW’s partnership with the enterprising Embassy Gallery in Edinburgh.

Claudia seems prepared to answer anything I might ask about the Glenfiddich contemporary art programme, so I take the risk of bringing up the one work in last night’s presentation that I really didn’t take to. A film by the Argentinian, Claudio Caldini, it consisted of whirling and blurred footage of the distillery, the word Glenfiddich occasionally appearing on a sign, or on the side of a still. ‘Whisky makes you dizzy,’ is the inane message I took from the film, and no-one I talked to about it last night had a positive response either.

Obviously, the artist hasn’t been whisked all the way from his homeland under instructions to be so specific in his referencing. Claudia tells me she hadn’t seen the work until yesterday, and doesn’t try and defend it directly. But she explains something of her own role in being a go-between between Glenfiddich and the artists. She tells me the bullet-points that the directors of Glenfiddich asked her to bear in mind when putting together the programme and why she’s been comfortable working within that remit.

She feels she has succeeded in giving artists time and space to experiment. She doesn't commission new work , and therefore doesn't expect to get finished and polished work from the artists. Nevertheless, she reckons that most of this year's artists have come up with great new work  for the show. Did I miss the owl movie by Bertrand Gadenne in the window of the butcher's shop (which was the whole point of going along to the pub)? And what about Jochen Flinzer's intruiging comments on British life? Or Alison Watt's rich new paintings? All I can say is that it was a private view and I was distracted by the social whirl. Except, that is, in the space  where Caldini's film was shown in a concentration-inducing darkness and silence.

Claudia Zeiske is also the director of Deveron Arts, and Ken Neil wrote about its two main projects for 2005 in issue three of MAP. The organisation also supports a town artist for Huntly, and this year that is David Blyth. Claudia hands me a map, which shows where various works created by Deveron artists over the years can be found in the town. I use it to locate Blyth’s Road-Kill in the premises of a garage. Actually, I have to ask the garage receptionist where the work is, because the bronze (cast at SSW) is at present under a stack of timber. However, the timber is on batons, holding the wood a few inches clear of the once-removed—and at least once flattened—rabbit.

I’m glad I make the effort to drive the ten miles or so to David Blyth’s base, because he is about to put on a show and the near-completed work is all in his studio. Pommell horses! He’s taken several examples of this piece of gymnastic equipment, given them new legs (lathed at SSW) and covered the bodies in a variety of sensual fabrics. They look fabulous. I can’t resist taking my hand—both hands—and rubbing the flanks of an implied horse. Gender issues fly to mind. I remember being in a line of competitive boys whose only relation to the pommel was how vigorously they could vault over it. I picture adolescent girls tenderly sitting on the backs of ponies in English meadows. I see the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci doing her international thing, decades ago. God, that woman’s sense of balance, her head-to-toe aesthetic pull.

As I’m combing my fingers through each of the genuine horse-tails in turn, David tells me about the historical associations. Strathbogie is an arable area, worked for centuries by horse-drawn ploughs. The relationship between ploughman and horse was important in maximising productivity. But so, for other reasons, was the relationship between ploughmen. These workers formed a secret society—effectively a union, but with almost masonic rituals. Apparently, a prospective new member had to grasp a calf’s foreleg and swear allegiance to the Secret Society of Horsemen. The SSH! I wonder if I should suggest to Hilary Nicoll that she might consider bumping up the ritualistic part of the SSW. If it was appropriate for the ploughmen of the area centuries ago, might it not be suitable for today’s artists-in-residence?

I recall that on the way to Glenfiddich last night, I asked the artists sharing the ride if they knew anything about the spectacular yellow wildflower that is currently rampant in roadside fields. ‘Ragwort,’ someone said. Another passenger contributed that it was a bugger to get rid of. And Rona Lee chipped in with the story that she used to be involved with a horse-drawn theatre, and that when they would arrive at a new site it was her job to get rid of the ragwort, which is very bad for horses.

My head swirling with this recollection that conclusively links the past with the present, we go into David’s house. On his laptop he plays me ‘The Scranky Black Farmer’. This is a bothy song composed by a ploughman, and it relates his misery after being taken on by an oppressive local farmer for a seasonal contract (the residency from hell). Rather wonderfully, the exhibition The Bridle Suite is going to take place in the nearby stables of the actual farm mentioned in the song!

As a second version is playing, David tells me of another work he’s making, whereby a stylus plays a black vinyl record in the normal way, the sound being of the horse-drawn plough slicing through the fertile earth. He also mentions—not for the first time—that ploughmen were notorious for their promiscuity. As he tells me this, he produces a calf’s leg. The hoof shines; the hair, the flesh and the bone are wrapped in the prettiest of pink ribbons, like something out of an Edward Lear poem. I’ve a feeling the hoof should be kissed. But I confine myself to clasping the ankle with my right hand. The great ‘secret’ of the SSH goes shooting up my arm, the secret that once upon a time—in male-only bothies with smoking chimneys—the ploughmen never tired of saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have a job where it feels like you’re permanently getting your end away?’

David talks enthusiastically about SSW, Glenfiddich (he was part of the 2004 residency programme), Deveron Arts and the people who comprise these organisations. If it wasn’t for them, it would be a shallower and lonelier furrow he'd be ploughing. He sums it up for me with a single sentence: 'Isn't it great to have a job where it feels like you're actually communicating with your fellow human beings?'

Duncan McLaren is an author and arts writer