A Strategic History of Art
Richard Demarco looks back at the long and inspirational road he has travelled, which has led him to operate today under the shadow of a nuclear power station
In 1961, Richard Buckle brought the sculpture of Epstein to the Edinburgh Festival and in so doing transformed the Waverley Market into Edinburgh’s first gallery of modern art. It was sadly short-lived.
This exhibition sowed seeds in my imagination to consider Edinburgh College of Art as the ideal location for the Demarco Gallery’s official Edinburgh Festival exhibition of contemporary art from Canada in 1968.
Strategy: Get Arts followed in 1970, fulfilling the aims and ideals of the Demarco Gallery’s founders: Andrew Elliott, John Martin, Jimmy Walker and myself as artistic director, to help internationalise the Scottish art world by linking Scotland to a Europe which was showing, through West Germany, all the signs of hopeful regeneration.
I firmly believe that true and enduring art and art initiatives originate in the meetings of friends and their shared values and ideals. And without the Festival’s international arena of friendship, there would have been no Paperback Bookshop, no Traverse Theatre and no Demarco Gallery.
It inspired me to plan an exhibition programme at the Traverse Theatre Art Gallery, including artists such as Mark Boyle, Jasper Johns, Abraham Rattner (the friend of Henry Miller who had attended the Writers’ Conference in 1962) and Cecil King, the Irish artist who, with his friend Michael Scott, was in the process of planning an international exhibition in Dublin, to be entitled ROSC.
The first ROSC in 1967 showed the world’s leading artists, chosen by a jury which included James Johnson Sweeney and Willem Sandberg, both great defenders of the avant garde. In the same year Roland Penrose and David Baxandall joined me to present Scotland’s answer to the John Moores exhibition, the Edinburgh Open 100, a painting competition which attracted 2,500 British artists.
At the ROSC exhibition, I met John Latham, the English artist represented by his burnt book sculptures. I also encountered Günther Uecker from Group Zero, German artists who worked in the spirit of the new realists, initiated by Uecker’s brother-in-law, Yves Klein, and Pierre Restany, the French art critic.
In 1967, it was this spirit of new realism which predominated in the first major exhibition of the Demarco Gallery, presented in collaboration with the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, the Ulster Museum and the Oxford Museum of Modern Art. Collaborations followed in 1968 with the Unions of Artists in Poland and Romania. In my travels to these eastern European countries, I found ample evidence that the dadaists were being taken into serious consideration along with the legacy of the Russian and Polish constructivist artists.
Last year, the exhibition at Skateraw (the 21st century incarnation of the Demarco Gallery) continued in the spirit of Strategy: Get Arts, along with several other exhibitions in the city of Edinburgh.
They defined a tripartite programme inspired by the life and work of Blinky Palermo, one of 36 artists I invited to Edinburgh in 1970 as representatives of Düsseldorf, the city which had successfully challenged New York in the late 60s as the art world capital for contemporary artists.
The conurbation of Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn on the confluence of the Rhine and the Ruhr provided the heartland for the West German economic miracle. Artists from all over the art world were attracted there. Among them was Palermo, born Peter Schwarz in Leipzig in 1943. Like a number of the Strategy: Get Arts artists, he represented the European diaspora which had caused many artists in communist eastern Europe to move westwards. He had benefited from the teaching of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, and earned the respect of Beuys’ professorial colleagues, Günther Uecker and Gerhard Richter. During a discussion in Richter’s studio, both agreed, along with me, that a Scottish exhibition would depend on the willingness of the artists to travel to Edinburgh and make site-specific work.
Palermo responded to this charge with ‘Blue, Yellow, White, Red’, a wall painting inspired by the main stairwell and entrance hall of Edinburgh College of Art. Recognising its resemblance to the Düsseldorf Kunst Academie, he felt ‘at home’, just as I did—it was my alma mater in the early 50s. Here was an opportunity for Edinburgh Festival-goers to take contemporary visual art seriously.
In October 2005, Edinburgh College of Art mounted an exhibition which focused on the fact that the Palermo wall painting had been painted over and all traces of the original exhibition removed by the college authorities. The show and two-day international conference entitled Four Colours Suffice: Palermo, Art and Architecture, explained how Palermo’s work could be reconstructed. By way of further education, Edinburgh University’s Talbot Rice Gallery presented an exhibition of Palermo’s works on paper from the archive of the Kunstmuseum in Bonn.
At the same time, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the exhibition Strategy: Get Arts Revisited, drew from the archives of both the gallery and the Demarco European Art Foundation, as well as that of photographer, George Oliver. Further afield, the Demarco Skateraw Project exhibition was housed in a large-scale barn specially built by Johnny Watson on his farm near Dunbar on the East Lothian coastline, in close proximity to Torness nuclear power station. As a farmer and seed merchant, he fully supports Beuysian ideals linking the worlds of farmer and environmentalist with that of the artist. His commitment to the exhibition’s subtitle, Agri-Culture, has caused many fellow farmers to become involved.
The ninth of February marked the revelation of a work by Ken McMullen, created in collaboration with writer John Berger and nuclear physicists associated with the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Torness has been transformed into the large-scale sculpture, ‘Lumin de Lumine’.
It brings back memories of Joseph Beuys celebrating the tenth anniversary of Strategy: Get Arts in 1980. The exhibition poster showed Beuys with a spade digging in a ploughed field close to a nuclear power station and asked ‘What’s to be done in 1984?’, a reference to Lenin’s exhortion to his fellow revolutionaries as well as to the world of ‘Big Brother’.
It is a pity that the massive dada exhibition which opened in October 2005 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris is destined for the USA and not the UK. It provides vital information on the development of dadaism, and into the cultural heritage shared by the artists represented in Strategy: Get Arts and in the Romanian, Polish, Austrian, French and Yugoslav exhibitions I presented between 1971 and 1974. This included exhibitions related to Edinburgh Arts, the Demarco Gallery’s experimental summer school in Edinburgh in the spirit of the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The school enabled me to ask Joseph Beuys to teach alongside Buckminster Fuller, a leading figure at Black Mountain, with the Polish theatre pioneer Tadeusz Kantor and the artists of his Cricot Two Theatre, and with the Romanian avant gardist, Paul Neagu.
Kantor contributed an artwork for Edinburgh Arts 72 which defined the difference between the true and false avant garde. He entitled it ‘A Demarcation Line’, and insisted, ‘It must be made everywhere and always, quickly and firmly as it will function anyway, whatever we choose to do, automatically and relentlessly leaving us on one side or the other’:
Backward The Few
Presumptuous The Unofficial
Settled The Neglected
Taking their seats Refusing Prestige
Judges Not afraid to be ridiculous
Opinion makers The Risk-takers
Cultivators, cultivating their
line and their individualities
Pseudo Avant Garde Impossible
The Strategy: Get Arts energy continues to flow in these winter months, linking 2005 to 2006 with this demarcation line fully operational—the three-day conference held last December in Krakow celebrated the 15th anniversary of Kantor’s death, and focussed on the ways in which Kantor and his Cricot Two Theatre worked effectively in the West German art world in the 1960s and 70s. The exhibitions and film programmes showed just how much Beuys and Kantor had in common.
The demarcation line also operated on 23 January 2006 in Dublin at the Goethe Institute marking the 20th anniversary of Beuys’s death. The conference there illuminated his art, both in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland. My contribution was to emphasise the importance of Strategy: Get Arts, in a talk illustrated by the massive photographic mural covering a 135-foot wall of the Skateraw gallery.
The mural begins with images of the Paperback Bookshop and Traverse Theatre, and of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Garden Temple at Dunsyre in Lanarkshire in its beginnings, and ends with the way the garden is now revealed as Little Sparta. I see these as nodal points on what I have described as ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’—a journey over land and sea, from Malta to the Hebrides. It is the road taken by all those artists who accepted my invitation to explore the reality of Scotland. It is the road that leads to the coastline at Skateraw, providing a perfect viewpoint of the North Sea horizon from which to take seriously Beuys’s words, ‘New beginnings are in the offing’.
It is from this viewpoint that, for the first three months of this year, over 80 Edinburgh College of Art architecture and fine art students, led by architects and artists including Elizabeth Ogilvie and Glen Onwin, will create a work around the title Do Something for the Wilderness and Make the Mountains Glad, resulting in a Skateraw exhibition in March. This must surely cause the Strategy: Get Arts energy to realise Joseph Beuys’s hopes for countless new beginnings through the language of art in the 21st century.
Richard Demarco is director of the Demarco European Art Foundation. He is based at Skateraw, East Lothian