Writing in the publication, Real Life and How to Live it, edited by Nicola White, which complemented Ross Sinclair’s renowned show Real Life Rocky Mountain at the CCA in 1996, Donnie O’Rourke neatly described the cultural confidence which motivated a good deal of Scottish art in the 80s and 90s: ‘For many people Scotland was becoming a viable idea. A place sufficiently well imagined to be real.’ Sinclair continues to be inspired by this sentiment. He has long scrutinised the viability of various Scottishnesses, uncomplacently challenging and augmenting our versions of reality with bouts of extrovert creative imagining.
The latest is a joint project with artist and academic Craig Richardson, part-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In Aberdeen Art Gallery’s demure 19th century room, directly in front of Edwin Landseer’s ‘Flood in the Highlands’, 1860, as if to illuminate it by obscuring it, Richardson and Sinclair have positioned an outrageous installation; a clapped-out Land Rover festooned with clamorous Scottery.
The vehicle is parked on a dais covered with old LPs; everything from the Dysart and Dundonald Pipe Band to Will Starr’s ‘music with a kick’. Tartan adorns the cab, and neon silhouette abbreviations of Scotland’s landmass hang like designer labels from deer antlers as if to authenticate the morbid trophies as true Scottish heritage.
The garish spectacle is powerfully (and literally) backed-up by a music video which presents Sinclair, characteristically from behind, singing a pop song he penned for the occasion. The first line runs: ‘Edwin Landseer died in 1873, I don’t know what he means to you, but I’ll tell you what he means to me’. The video plays on a screen attached to the tail-gate of the Land Rover: we look at the rear here, at history, as the bandwagon rolls on. At the front, the vanguard on the mud-guard, Sinclair’s daughter appears on another monitor. She sings a rapid acappella version of the same song, complete with air guitar, and leads us, with her innocent and unknowing aping, into the fog of the future.
Sinclair sings on. Referencing Landseer’s connection with Walter Scott he cries: ‘Together they invented Scotland for the world,’ immediately followed by: ‘Well, we know now they didn’t get it quite right.’ The performance finishes with Sinclair pointing up to the heavens, rock star-style, which directs the viewer’s attention ‘back’ to the Landseer which hangs on the fringe of vision to the right.
So, the Land Rover as embodiment of collective consciousness traverses a landscape founded on myth, and Landseer is one important landmark. National identity is a patchwork of stories and pictures and songs—there is an arbitrary distinction between true history and true myth in any culture’s self-awareness. This much we know. What makes Sinclair’s no doubt lifelong project repeatedly powerful and engaging is his emphasis on the performative nature of identity construction. His is an uplifting and active quilting, one which seeks to sew in one or two patches of self-generated myth amidst all of our various cultural givens.
In a way, this is less Sinclair versus Landseer and more Land Rover and Land Seer versus us—to what extent are we self-deprecatingly and generously Scottish enough to sing out our own mythic anthems—or are we happy only to receive them? Richardson and Sinclair have picked a good year to ask the question.
Ken Neil is head of Historical and Critical Studies at the Glasgow School of Art