From the moment I read the review in Scotland on Sunday I’ve been looking forward to stepping into doggerfisher and experiencing the Graham Fagen show, Closer, for myself. Robert Burns is the subject. Actually, the subject matter is three boats. Simple images, silkscreen prints, appearing as white lines—of ship and wave—on top of a black ocean-cum-sky background. The Nancy: clear to sail from Greenock to Savannah-la-Mar, Jamaica, on 10 August, 1786. The Bell: clear to sail for Kingston, Jamaica ‘by the end of September’. And The Roselle, which ‘will positively sail on the 15th of December’ from Leith, bound for both Jamaican ports. Burns booked passage on all three boats, one after the other, but he never did exchange his turbulent life in Scotland for whatever was waiting for him in the New World. What was happening to the poet in the second half of 1786? Graham Fagen doesn’t tell the viewer. It’s the restraint of the artist’s installation that is one of its strengths. However, the work compels the viewer to find out what did happen. In my case, reading the review was enough to prompt me to do the research, so that the story surges through me live, in the gallery, in front of the work itself.
Leaving aside the two pregnant girlfriends (one dies, the other gives birth to twins) as Burns temporarily did, it’s the story of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect . A small edition of his first book was published ten days before The Nancy sailed, and its enthusiastic reception amongst his own folk of Ayrshire was such that he let this ship sail without him. By the time The Bell was due to leave Greenock he’d heard from the Edinburgh literarati: there was enough interest in the ploughman poet for him to travel to the capital instead of embarking immediately for Jamaica.
By the middle of December, arrangements were in hand for a second edition of the Poems to be published by William Creech, with 100 members of the Caledonian Hunt at the top of a list of eminent subscribers. And so The Roselle sailed from Leith without a poet on board.
Graham Fagen has examined the legacy of Robert Burns in previous works. Radio Roselle was a radio station fictionally located on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic whose play-list consisted of reggae songs and Burns poems, alternately. Why the juxtaposition? Apparently, when Fagen was growing up in Irvine, in the middle of Burns country, it was hardcore black music he listened to for pleasure, while at school he was force-fed a washed-out version of the local poet.
For his show in 2005 at Tramway, Glasgow, Fagan commissioned Adrian Sherwood, black music producer, and singer Ghetto Priest to record ‘Clean Hands Pure Heart’, a song the artist had composed using lyrics from two Burns songs, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. In researching the sound he was after, Fagen made the pilgrimage to Jamaica. That journey is further referenced in the installation. At right angles to the wall on which three boats are a-sailing is a photograph called ‘West Coast Looking West (Atlantic)’. It’s a photograph of sparkling ocean and clear blue sky. On the opposite wall from the boats, across the ocean, as it were, is a photograph of a black guy’s madly grinning mouth. If Burns had actually made the journey it would have been to work for a plantation owner alongside slaves. His life there would no doubt have been as full of laughter and misery as the life he chose in Scotland. Moreover, the life of whatever transplanted African slave the grinning soul image might represent could have been full of what the poet’s life consisted of post-Edinburgh: poetry, sex, childbirth, illness, despair and early death. The last view the 37-year-old Burns would have got of the Atlantic Ocean would have been while standing up to the oxters in the Solway Firth, shivering in the freezing waters. This was the medical profession of the Enlightenment’s idea of how to treat a wrecked and emaciated body at the end of its tether.
Jamaica and 1787. A long way off in space and time, respectively, but brought together at doggerfisher for a purpose. The exhibition can be seen as a study in loyalties. Fagen’s loyalty to his exotic tastes in music, and to a bloke who grew up and left his mark on the place Fagen calls home. It’s a mark that Fagen has come to realise was of as much significance to him as to anyone else: Robert Burns is part of Graham Fagen’s cultural heritage. A lot of other people’s too. ‘The rantin dog, the daddy o’t.’
Duncan McLaren is guest editor of this issue of MAP