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Duncan Marquiss, 'No Volunteers Came Forward', 2006, pencil and chalk on paper

Duncan Marquiss’ work has been receiving growing exposure since he graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, in Dundee. In 2002, his work in the group show They Had Four Years, at artist-run space Generator Projects, was seen by curator Frances McKee, who promptly booked it for the Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2003. The artist explains: ‘It just takes one thing, and then other things develop from there.’ That is the message the 28-year-old hoped to get across to Sicilian artists during his recent residency in the town of Scicli as part of the ISIDEM (Islands and Identity in Movement) project. Marquiss was astonished to learn that Italian art students are educated only in history and traditional mediums. ‘I had no idea that they do not teach 20th century art history. So we would meet quite frequently to discuss contemporary artists, and I talked to them about unconventional exhibition spaces.’

The young artist’s encounter with the Sicilians made him grateful to have grown up in Scotland because—although it is a tiny country on the cultural fringe like Sicily—it has a strong arts infrastructure that has promoted a sense of community and an active dialogue among artists. And he is convinced that the Italian artists could employ similar tactics to break out of the heavy constraints of tradition. ‘Initially, the Sicilians did not see the long-term benefits of working together, but what came to light in the workshops was that they could develop a group identity and forum for their work. If they form a network there is no reason why they could not take their work beyond Sicily,’ Marquiss says.

Duncan Marquis, 'A Nothing With a Vengeance', 2006, video still 
Duncan Marquis, 'A Nothing With a Vengeance', 2006, video still

Sasha Vinci, who attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, says he had to train himself by experimenting with materials such as resin and hemp to produce the ghostly, white dripping figure in his sculpture ‘Attesa’ (‘Waiting’), shown in Rats in the Basement, the workshop’s final exhibition at the Palazzo Spadaro, 22 March–30 April, 2007. Marquiss asked the ten local artists to make pieces that would interact with the frescoed Baroque setting. ‘The outcome was that it pushed them to do new things,’ he says. ‘One artist ended up taking a radical departure from her previous work that was quite successful.’ Carmela Saturnino covered the floor of the ballroom with a reflective material that transformed the space into a sort of mirrored fun house, both irreverent and subtle at once. Curated by Emanuela Nobile Mino, the harmonious show successfully employed the historic palace as a backdrop for the contemporary artwork.

The other two visiting artists also came from places operating on the periphery of the international art world—Sancho Silva, from Portugal, who stayed in La Valletta, Malta, and Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, M who was based in Syracuse. The final exhibition of the three residents’ work, Che ci faccio qui ? (‘What am I doing here?’), was shown at the Syracuse Gallery of Contemporary Art, Montevergini, 24 March– 30 June, 2007. Marquiss exhibited two drawings, ‘I Don’t Know’ and ‘The Choral Copse’, along with the video ‘A Nothing with a Vengeance’, 2006: sepia-toned images of caves in the hills near Scicli, followed by dancing silhouettes performing some ritual, ulminating in bright flickering light accompanied by frenetic music composed by the artist, evoking a tunnel-of-death scenario. The title is taken from The Devils of Loudun, 1953, an account of demonically possessed 17th century nuns by Aldous Huxley, who equates various types of intoxication through ecstatic experience— whether induced by sex, drugs, starvation or religious hysteria—a subject that fascinates Marquiss.

Duncan Marquiss, 'A Nothing With a Vengeance', 2006, video still 
Duncan Marquiss, 'A Nothing With a Vengeance', 2006, video still

Scicli made a serendipitous stage for Marquiss’ darkly compelling work: saints and angels gesturing from atop ornate Baroque churches, grotesque gargoyles leering from palazzo facades, Baron Spadaro’s private alcove with its secret back stairs. ‘I love horror films,’ he says, claiming that they are the classic site of all the hang-ups and fears and desires of Western culture. ‘You can imagine something far more horrible than they can put on the screen.’ His plumbing of popular culture also includes fantasies such as Lord of the Rings and the avant-garde films of Maya Deren. Marquiss’ images provoke feelings of desire combined with the dread of losing control to our own dark nature. ‘I am sometimes troubled by my selection of images, but maybe that is a good reason to work with and show them. Like David Lynch’s films, you can’t exactly describe what they are about—the imagery goes straight to the subconscious. My visual tastes and viewpoint are a product of the culture I grew up in—a lot of my sources are from film stills. The world has been colonised by the imagery of cinema, which is coded by a predominantly male established order. How do you question something if the only tools you have are full of associations and baggage?’ He notes with a tinge of concern that, for some reason, he often portrays women.

Marquiss is especially attracted to our tragic alienation from our primal nature, perhaps influenced by his biologist father, with whom he has often spoken about evolution and natural selection as imposing a moral code through the social cooperation necessary to our survival. In fact the deeply affecting ‘Lycanthrope’, a finely detailed drawing of the mythological wolf boy, might be a wistful self-portrait. Shortly after returning home to Glasgow in April, he travelled north to shoot 16mm footage for his next project, a short film funded by the Scottish Arts Council, about the way the Scottish landscape has changed. It will feature conversations with his father, who studies birds, and a colleague who has examined the ecosystem through snow.

But it seems that Marquiss has left a mark in the Mediterranean. ‘The centre of the art world is collapsing, so the idea is that you can be successful wherever you come from and wherever you work—the important thing is your ideas and how you work,’ says Salvatore Lacagnina, director of ISIDEM. ‘Duncan’s attitude and his Glasgow experience were very useful in the workshop with the young Sicilian artists, who have decided to establish an artist-run space with the workshop participants from Siracusa—a very good result.’

Cathryn Drake is a writer living in Rome