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Steven MacIver, 'Stadium (Concept V)', 2007, oil on canvas

Lawrence Weiner’s text work ‘Above Beyond Below’, 1986, located in one of the Pier Arts Centre’s new galleries, acts as a metaphor for this inaugural exhibition’s modus operandi, which is to link past works from the collection with current works, whilst signalling future collaborations. By such means both the exhibition and furthermore, the new building, successfully highlight that the space we inhabit is made up of that which is always out of our reach, whether past or future.

This understanding of self and place over time is integral to the Pier. Although the building remains the constant, the cynosure of the title, it is impossible to view it as an isolated entity. Past temporary installations are conjured in the memory, such as Ross Sinclair’s yellow helter-skelter monument on the pierhead as part of his solo exhibition, Dream of the Hamnavoe Free State, 1998. Then there was the dark, fixed solitude of Christine Borland’s ‘Hoxa Sound’ 2001, two metal casts of a child’s leg brace which have been alone since the millennium and the WWII batteries on either side of Scapa flow, continuing the wait in a space where soldiers were positioned for a war that never came.

The vibrant voice of and founder of the Pier Arts Centre, collector Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005), is alive too in this place, with one quote recounting that she ‘wanted to snatch that painting off the wall’, on seeing a Peter Lanyon painting in his own home. Many of the works from her 20th century British art collection converse with new pieces; the recently acquired black void and linear structure of Steven MacIver’s ‘Stadium (Concept V)’ 2007, directly echoes the perspex with nylon filament construct of Naum Gabo’s ‘Linear construction No.1’, 1942-43. The immediacy of brush marks and colours in Katy Dove’s animation ‘Luna’, 2004, unites with the pace, colour and rythm of Orcadian film-maker the late Margaret Tait’s John Macfadyen (The Stripes in the Tartan), 1970. Her ouevre is co-held with Lux in an archive at Pier Arts Centre.

Helmut Federle, 'Untitled', 1978, pen and pencil on paper 
Helmut Federle, 'Untitled', 1978, pen and pencil on paper

The building’s architects both past and present share in this dialogue. Katherine Heron and Axel Burrough first converted the pier warehouse and hostel into a gallery. Their work has been practically left untouched—a small window provides a view through from old to new spaces, and the rafters of the old building are formally echoed in the ceiling recesses of the new rooms. One key work in the exhibition acted as a reference for Reiach and Hall Architects in their understanding of the potential for Pier Arts Centre. It is the drawing ‘Untitled’, 1978, by Helmut Federle which uses lines to link circles and squares; it provided a way of considering the centre as an interconnected set of buildings which looked beyond, to its relationship with the community.

Relationships abound as the exhibition unfolds. One room houses the drawings of Sylvia Wishart, the owner from whom Gardiner bought the building. These pen and inks of Orkney scenes were commissioned for calendars over a period 1970-76 by J&W Tait, Agricultural Merchants, the income of which helped Wishart exist as an artist. There are also works by artists that the centre has continuing connections with, in a sense collectively taking up the Gardiner’s role as patron. Alan Johnston who mounted a solo show there in 1987, and was part of a group show Ground in 1997, has made some refined pencil drawings onto the window recesses here. Two native Orcadians, Colin Kirkpatrick and Anne Bevan, are also represented, as is Colin Johnstone, orignally from Motherwell but living in Orkney for the past 20 years. The latter has a solo show at the centre in spring 2008.

It seems fitting to refer to a definition given to me by Orkney-based 2000AD comic illustrator Jim Baikie, for The Constant Moment, the Pier’s millennium off-site project he was involved in: ‘The constant moment is the peg in the middle that everything orbits around’. This in turn echoes T S Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton (No.1 of the Four Quartets, 1935): ‘At the still point of the turning world… there the dance is’. The Pier Arts Centre is the source, with this exhibition hinting at this full circle.

Jenny Brownrigg is curator of exhibitions at University of Dundee