November 25, 2004. I’m at Queen Street Station, Glasgow, with half an hour to spare. I’ve forgotten to pack any shirts, so do I make good that omission, or do I pay a visit to the Modern Institute instead? I’ve got plenty pants and socks, so I foot it to the gallery which is showing Problem Does Not Compute by Chris Johanson.
I only have nine minutes with the work, so what can I say as I exit? In Johanson’s painting ‘Modern Business’, a near-abstract head of many colours seems to be sucked into grey modernist buildings. The image connects with the show’s card, where a mournful figure peers out from the nth floor of a dull brown cube. Such forlorn individuals, devoured by the modern city, are so not me, because I’m off to the country for the weekend with Hi-Arts, the arts development agency for the Highlands and Islands.
As I board the bus, I’m reminded of the coach trip organised by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie in September 2004. That jaunt was to Zlín in the Czech Republic, site of the old factory HQ of Bata Shoes. My fellow passengers then were mostly ex-shoe workers from closed down factories in Maryport, Cumbria, and East Tilbury, Essex. That huge yellow coach had ‘WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF THE FUTURE’ emblazoned across the side of it, in English and Czech, and an art film was made of the journey. The Hi-Arts minibus has no such slogan decorating it, but a quick chat with my travelling companions on this occasion—fellow writers and journalists—is enough to establish that we are not afraid of the next three-and-a-half days.
First stop is Kilmartin Museum in Argyll. This place, established with lottery money a decade ago and now run on a shoe-string, is in the middle of a zone of six-mile radius that contains about 350 ancient monuments, 150 of them prehistoric. This represents a truly awesome resource, rivalling the archaeological inheritance of Wiltshire, because of the number and quality of sites, and the fact that the remains have been so much less disturbed by subsequent layers of history. There are stone circles, a series of cairns, and great sheets of rock covered with ring and cup markings that are so obviously (to my naïve eye) ancient maps. An artist-in-residence programme based there works in tandem with scientific research, and the lucid director/curator shows us the ‘Glebe Field Project’.
Edinburgh-based artist Renny Nesbit (who has been in Norway making arrangements for felled fir trees to burst into flames come the winter solstice) has taken advantage of the existence of a power-line pole close to the Glebe Cairn to mark where the pole casts its shadow at sunrise and sunset throughout the year. The site-specific installation stands out like a sore thumb at present, surrounded as it is by an electric fence. But when the indigenous red and white clovers that have been planted have established themselves, the work will, for a short time before the plants spread out, be a subtle counterpoint to our ancestors’ millennium-lasting tributes to the movement of the all-powerful sun. What a place! At a rough guess there is work for a thousand artists-in-residence at Kilmartin, though inadequate funding for any at the moment.
Just a couple of miles north of Kilmartin we turn right to traverse the east shore of Loch Awe. This is where Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco took Joseph Beuys on his first visit to Scotland in 1970. Apparently, it was while walking along the north end of the loch, close to the ruins of Kilchum Castle that Beuys handed Demarco a lump of peat and a long thin piece of malleable metal—a Eurasian staff symbolising the reciprocal movement of energy and ideas from pole to pole and from east to west —along with the instruction that the objects should be placed in a lidless lead trough. Their conversation in the spectacularly glaciated valley might have continued as follows:
Demarco : ‘Wonderful, Joseph. What do you intend to call it?’
Beuys says nothing.
Demarco : ‘Joseph. What shall you call this centuries-deep, neo-Celtic, pan-
European Loch Awe piece?’
Beuys (grinning) : ‘Ricky, my dear Scottish gas-pal, we shall call it “Loch Awe
Next stop is Ballet West, a world-class dancer development centre near Oban, owned and run by Glasgow-born Gillian Barton. Our group has the privilege of sitting in a windowed studio (misty rain outside, steamy heat inside) as the students and professionals perform in front of a long mirrored wall. It’s fascinating being up close to the running and flexing bodies, though there is also plenty puffing and slouching to admire following energetic solo routines. Most striking of all is the concentration and single-mindedness of the dancers and their coach as they work through particular movements in search of perfect grace. My experience of sitting in this studio is so informed by having looked at countless contemporary art installations, that I think it would be wrong not to point this out in passing, and with gratitude to all concerned.
On to Oban, and into the premises of Kranenburg and Fowler Fine Arts. I get off on the wrong foot here. Partly because paintings are shown alongside ceramics and jewellery rather than the cutting-edge video and installation I’m used to; but also because there has been a mix-up over dates, and the co-owners are not expecting us. Caught on the hop, one of them speaks to his visitors like a Black Watch officer might address his troops, perhaps not realising that most of the journalists in front of him are English-bred. In reference to the gallery’s principal artist John Lowrie Morrison (his paintings are signed ‘Jolomo’, so it’s maybe just as well his real name is not Hans Harold Harrison), he declares that all good artists are prolific, backing this up with the fact that Turner painted 10,000 pictures in his lifetime. Not one of us says anything in response, even though the fact that Enid Blyton wrote 10,000 words in a typical working day, and that Vermeer only painted a handful of pictures in his entire life, would both seem to be pertinent observations and might lead to a stimulating discussion.
Still, all is well, because we are each given the beautifully designed catalogue of Morrison’s most recent show, and the paintings of slate quarries and cottages in the Easdale area, with the sea and islands looming, do make a positive impact. Apparently, Jolomo has had a couple of exhibitions organised by Kranenburg and Fowler on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. But there is no such luck for us, and our boat to Mull does not even have ‘WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF THE INNER HEBRIDES’ emblazoned along its flank. Nevertheless, we travel across the water in good spirits, with me wearing a brand new Oban-bought t-shirt that sports the slogan ‘BOOTY FUN CLUB’.
We give Mull a good going over. At least we drive backwards and forwards along the coastal road that surrounds the great lump of a place. Our jaunt culminates in a visit to the arts centre, An Tobar (Gaelic for The Well), in the island’s capital of Tobermory. Again it’s lottery funding that’s responsible for the building itself, which contains studio space for both artists and musicians, a café and a gallery. And again, a shortage of revenue funding leaves the gallery scrabbling to make the most of its potential. The island’s population is only 2,500, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Lee Hendrick—the person we first met this morning in her Workshop Gallery nearby, whose prominent piece we came across on the island’s sculpture trail, and who is responsible for the set design for the production of Jekyll and Hyde we will be seeing this evening—is here to greet us in her role as An Tobar’s Visual Arts Officer. One head, myriad hats. Isn’t that how it goes in the film Local Hero ?
Anyway, she introduces us to the gallery installation Passing, by Ursula Ziegler. This is a straight transfer of the artist’s 2004 degree show from Glasgow School of Art. Every day for a month, Ziegler pushed a wheelbarrow through a circular route in the city centre, the flat-tyred, rusty old vehicle supporting a pane of glass in which the artist watched the world pass by upside down. The perversity, delicacy and tenacity of her viewing experience are captured in the photographs and slides that make up the uncompromising installation. German-born Ziegler, formerly a resident of Mull, was artist-in-residence at An Tobar for a month in 2004 in which period she developed further her ideas of self-consciously walking and looking by ‘invigilating the land’ with the use of the frame of a chair stripped of its furnishings. She both sat on the object and used it as a frame in which to regard the Mull landscape at different times of the day and in the endlessly varying weather conditions. An attempt is being made to get funding so that a future show in the gallery can bring together Ziegler’s field-work for the people of the island to mull over.
When I awake on the last morning of the tour, conscious that the long drinking evenings and the early cooked breakfasts haven’t been leaving much time for sleep, I feel surprisingly fresh. I pull on my second new t-shirt, a primary blue job overprinted in red with the words ‘NODDY GOES TO TOYLAND’, I switch on my mobile. Shit, there is no message from the director of Cove Park, which means I won’t be bailing out of the bus journey back to Glasgow in order to visit that Open Studios site—just outside the territory of the Highlands and Islands development agency and so not scheduled into our tour. Never mind, because on a future journey I will explore Cove Park and investigate its seven annual residencies and close links with Glasgow School of Art. Never mind also, because I still have the present day at my disposal.
On one wall of my Tobermory Hotel bedroom is a recent oil by Jolomo whose nightscape—a dramatically moonlit bay—neatly complements the view through the window. The real Tobermory Bay presents a placid sunrise, with red infusing the otherwise pale blue sky. The wash of pink above the horizon takes me back to the very thing that started me off on this journey—the pink poster advertising the Chris Johanson show at the Modern Institute. Let me recall it in detail: from the mouth of a crudely drawn figure with the letters ‘CONTEMPORARY’ running through him or her, is the observation, ‘Gradually systems are breaking down’. A figure with a cube-shaped head replies via a voice-bubble of its own, ‘Problem does not compute’. When in Glasgow, I appreciated the concern of the despairing city dweller. But now, after my—admittedly privileged—journey, and from a non-urban perspective, things simply don’t look the same. To my mind it’s the cube-headed modernist who laments, ‘Gradually systems are breaking down’. The reply from the upright organic figure, whom I see as an amalgam of Renny Nesbit, Joseph Beuys, and Ursula Ziegler, is a resoundingly confident,‘Problem does not compute.’
Duncan McLaren is a writer. His story ‘From Doctor Watson’s Casebook, Infallible: In Search of the Real George Elliot’ appears in the newly published book Infallible: In Search of the Real George Elliot, edited by Roxy Walsh and published by ARTicle Press