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Kenny Hunter, 'Where in? Where at?', 2007

Claudia Zeiske, director of Deveron Arts, seems relieved to see me. She wonders if I would say a few words about the publication being launched as part of the George MacDonald of Huntly Festival that is kicking off at the Brander Library, Huntly, Aberdeenshire. As I say something about the book, Kenny Hunter will be getting the sculpture he’s been commissioned to make out of its packing case. Is it a good idea to have a writer or artist talk self-consciously about his work? It seems to be an assumption that’s made these days that expertise in one area of activity should be matched with at least competence in ostensibly related areas.

So I say something to the people who have gathered in the entrance hall and on the stairway. I tell them that when Claudia told me it might be possible to stay in the house in which this eminent, but now little known, Victorian novelist, MacDonald, grew up, a place still called simply The Farm, I was eager to follow up the possibility. And thanks to the hospitality of the property’s current owners, the Heinemeier family, every day for a week I had the privilege of waking up in a house that eerily echoes the dwelling that George MacDonald’s Princess Irene woke up in long ago, the house that she unforgettably explores in his masterpiece The Princess and the Goblin .

Once I’ve spoken for a few minutes, explaining how the residency led to the text in my hand, I step to one side to allow an uninterrupted view of Kenny Hunter—robustly assisted by Nuno Sacramento—revealing ‘Where in? – Where at?’. The work depicts a scene from Lilith, which was written in MacDonald’s old age shortly after the death of his daughter Lilia. The sculpture began as a separate commission, with funding mainly from the Scottish Arts Council. My own residency was also separate, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, though Claudia made it clear that it would be handy if my text could somehow refer to Kenny Hunter’s sculpture. These two commissions were well underway when Nuno Sacramento was asked to build a George MacDonald Festival around them, bearing in mind Deveron Arts slogan: ‘The Town is the Venue’. Tomorrow there will be a couple of lectures—one about fantasy writing in Scotland, the other on the contribution of Mcs and Macs to Scottish art—given by academics in a room upstairs in the Brander Library. Over the weekend there will be a couple of fantasy walks around the streets of the town led by story-tellers from the north east. There’s also a ‘Geo Mac Folk Night’ scheduled for Sunday with a George Macdonald Festival Service to take place in a local church earlier in the day.

'Exposure', 2007
'Exposure', 2007

It’s an intriguing mix, full of light and shade, but there’s a theoretical aspect to the curation as well. Nuno Sacramento has been working with the concept of ‘shadow curator’ since 1999, although the term was first used in an exhibition organised by him in collaboration with Jenny Brownrigg at Duncan of Jordanstone in 2004. The idea is that curating could usefully be the result of a dialogue between a curator and a shadow curator, in the same way as government policy is set by a minister who is formally required to listen to the views of a shadow minister. For the MacDonald Festival, Sacramento has acted as curator and Zeiske has been shadow curator. What has this meant in practice? Claudia is standing right beside me now, so I ask her:

‘Nuno came up with a few ideas like a symposium. But I was keen that the festival would be something that a lot of people in Huntly would engage in. So we had endless discussions, and what we found that was most interesting, was not just MacDonald’s writing, but the fact that he went out into the world and his childhood memories went with him and were recorded in his writing.’

‘He was an ambassador for the town?’

‘Yes. And then we thought there must be loads of Huntly-ites across the world, and that they also were ambassadors in their own way. How could we get them involved? The one thing they all had in common was that they drank the same water and they went to the same school. We looked at the Gordon Schools’ website and there was a picture from 1958 or so with all the pupils. That led to the idea that we wanted to better this.’

I ask Claudia what she means exactly, and she does her best to explain. But to really appreciate what’s involved I am going to have to wait until tomorrow.

It’s Saturday morning and I’m alone in the foyer of the Brander Library. Kenny Hunter’s sculpture now has room to breathe. ‘Where in? Where at?’ looks stunning in the daylight. The elaborate tiles of the foyer floor, the richness of the yellow paint high on the wall, the hardwood panelling lower on the wall, the intricately patterned stained glass window—all are brought to attention by the sculpture’s simple lines and muted palette. I should have known the sculpture would make an impact, after all, Hunter’s ‘Girl with a Rucksack’, 2004, invigorates its site in the Gorbals. Just as another cosmopolitan figure, a girl listening to music on headphones and holding aloft a bunch of flowers, portrayed in ‘Feedback Loop’, 2003, lights up the ground floor of Aberdeen Art Gallery for everyone who enters the space.

There is no modern figure in ‘Where in? Where at?’ Instead there is a raven perched on the only branch emanating from a wizened treetrunk that has a pool of water at its base. In the MacDonald book that inspired the sculpture, the protagonist follows a shape-shifting raven through a mirror located in a garret at the top of the house, upstairs from a library. The mirror in the book turns out to be a conduit to another world. What about the mirror in this sculpture? Looking down into the round-edged pool I see a reflection of strip lighting in the ceiling above me. But when I look into the pool again—from a more acute angle—I seem to see the gate in the field close to The Farm that was my own conduit to another world. It was under that gate, on the same Ba’ Hill that features in MacDonald’s novelistic memoir, Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood, that I spoke to George through a rusty old pipe leading into the hillside. We discussed MacDonald’s time in London, when he became friendly with Charles Dodgson. MacDonald and his family played an important role in the publication of Alice in Wonderland under Dodgson’s pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. MacDonald himself was on the receiving end of a tribute from Dodgson/Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, which was published the same year as The Princess and the Goblin . The tribute—according to my research—was the wonderful poem known as ‘A-sitting on a Gate’.

Via the two-way pipe in the hillside, I was able to communicate with George about many things. I didn’t think of it then, but perhaps my role was as shadow writer to him as writer. Though here the word shadow is used differently than in Sacramento’s shadow curator concept. Is it possible for the biographer of a world famous author—GeorgeMacDonald—to step out of the shadow cast by his chosen subject? It might be possible but would such a move be desirable? I think that the shadow writer must, on the one hand, be very careful how much of himself he puts into the biography that he’s writing. But, on the other hand, he must be sure to give it his all.

'Exposure', 2007
'Exposure', 2007

It’s time for the event, so I follow the curator along the road towards the school. Claudia asks if I could write up this weekend from George MacDonald’s perspective for the local paper. Geo Mac back from the dead? I’m not sure that I could do that, but I’ll give it a go. When in Huntly, you do give things a go. At least that’s what my experience has been, and I think other artists have found this too. The town has a population of only 4000 or so, but most weeks in The Huntly Express you can read about some art project that’s happening in the area, courtesy of Deveron Arts. Other towns in Scotland, far bigger towns in the central belt, might look to the example of Huntly and go green with envy (at its per capita arts funding) or blush red with shame (at the impact on the community that is achieved here).

Into the school then, where helpers have ‘George MacDonald of Huntly Festival, 2007’ printed on their t-shirts. What would George have made of the sight? Indeed, what would he have made of the Disney-style cartoon of The Princess and the Goblin that is showing on a large screen in the hall? Perhaps he would have been able to work out that the moving colours and fluid shapes had something to do with the words he’d painstakingly marked with black ink on white paper in 1872.

Nuno Sacramento is introduced to me in the midst of a room full of Huntly citizens, many of whom are visiting the school again years after having last been here. The artist both commands respect and seemsrespectful to all the people that come before him. It is an unusual combination of self-belief and humility that he exhibits. I ask him about shadow curating.

‘In a nutshell, it is based on a dialectic view of curation. It is a position of “constructive criticality” rather than attack. Between the view of the curator and the view of the shadow, one hopes to find a third position.’

‘Does it always work?’

Nuno tells me that in the past he has encountered problems with the process. But with Claudia, who he has found totally open to criticism, they seem to have managed to maximize possibilities in those projects where he has shadowed her . And this time around, with Zeiske shadowing Sacramento in the curation of the Geo Mac Festival, it’s been up to him to be just as flexible. He hopes he has been. He has forgotten which of them came up with the basic idea of the large scale portrait project, Exposure, and reckons that is a good sign. In effect, they both came up with the idea.

Nuno goes on to explain that a composite photograph will be made of all the people, young and old, who have attended or are attending Gordon Schools. Exposure will be put together from lots of individual family photographs taken today. Anyone entitled to be in the picture, but who can’t be here today because they are in New Zealand or South Africa or wherever, can—by having signed a permission form —be represented by a model of George MacDonald.

I think that if George MacDonald was really here, he would suggest that we did not focus overmuch on him. He would suggest that the extraordinary thing about today was the presence—in spirit where not in flesh—of so many of the people of Huntly. Such a variety of folk who were born and raised in the town and have not forgotten their roots.

Duncan McLaren is author of Looking for Enid, www.portobellobooks.com

The George MacDonald of Huntly Feestival took place over the first weekend of March, 2007, www.deveron-arts.com