Jim Lambie is back from New York. Home after a two-year dalliance with the Big Apple, he has returned to his Glasgow base, the studio located on Robertson Street in the now historic building inhabited by the Modern Institute and many of its artists. The place is, ironically, New York in feel—redbrick, fire escapes, sliding iron lift-shafts. That and an old Victorian institution.
Maybe it is the latter that is making me feel nervous as I peer along the empty corridors trying to find the right door. A tall, skinny, red-headed man answers one knock and I apologise to Toby Paterson who sends me off in the right direction.
Jim Lambie’s most famous working style—circumventing room interiors in ever-decreasing strips of tape—suggests an obsessive, ordered mind; the quiet, scuffed-up, uneasy man I meet at first doesn’t quite tally with this picture. In the big white room that’s spattered with green paint from recent work sent to an art fair in Miami we don’t know where to sit; a radio is turned on and then off and we end up huddling over a plug-in radiator, trying to take the edge off the chill. Why did he come back? ‘I used to go to NY quite a lot—DJ over there and party and it was great,’ he says. ‘But then when I moved there, you realise there’s a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday as well. And then you seem to shrink and it seems to get bigger, in my mind anyway. Lots of people coming and going—usually it’s agenda driven—there’s nobody just there just to be there.’ So he’s happy to be back? ‘Yes, I’m glad to be here in Glasgow and get about some real friends.’
At first the room seems quite barren—harsh lighting illuminates stark white walls and floor. But start looking and hoardings of materials sneak out into view. Next to the sofa I’m sitting on, shelves are overflowing with black masking tape. ‘That’s still a hangover from Venice where I managed to order too much tape. Miscalculated a little bit, so there’s still a lot hanging around,’ he says. ‘If you ever need masking tape, I’m your man. I get it from a company called Fast Signs about ten miles from here. They do all the cutting for me, the tape comes in broad sheet so I need to get it cut into lines in different colours.’
Near the door stacks of mirrors pile up from a show in Düsseldorf, the ones that didn’t ‘make the cut’. Rows of chairs line one edge, making it feel like a village hall disco, dusty towers of vinyl lean over (art material, not for playing) and a glitter ball twinkles in the corner. Over by the shelf of paints, pictures from magazines are stuck on the wall and Elvis beams down in orange glory.
The studio for Lambie is, then, more of a big storage space. ‘Because I make a lot of work on site and in gallery space, there’s only so much I can prepare here, unless I’ve got a basic idea of how the show’s going to position itself,’ he says. ‘But a lot of it is much more immediate by trawling junk shops where the show is, so it’s not really the kind of studio based work you see when you go to a gallery—it’s a mix. I would say maybe 30 per cent of the work is made in the studio.’
The Modern Institute’s rise from near artist-run space to major international force (director Toby Webster was the only Scottish gallerist to be voted in ArtReview ‘s Top 100 most influential people in the world) is interstellar, regularly punching way above its weight—Scott Harrison in the form of Muhammed Ali. So why did Jim Lambie get involved? ‘It was never really anything that was dicussed, it was just a case of we’re doing this—do you want to be a part of it?’ he says. ‘There’s a kind of natural involvement in what’s going on. Toby was setting up that space and I was in here helping, it was as simple as that. We were just all in painting. I didn’t really know what he was doing. I knew what he was thinking about but I didn’t really know what the potential was or even what his sort of mission was. It got big.’
I wonder how this relationship works, now that both parties have grown to greater proportions. ‘It’s not that I feel like some kind of servant of the gallery or anything, it’s just handy,’ he says. ‘It’s just there and it is easier actually—questions and calls and if I need to order a material, they can call and source it for me. Plus I can use their photocopier.’
And I’m sure you couldn’t say that for New York. The big working storage cupboard at number 73 may not be glamorous but it’s full of Lambie stuff. The prodigal son seems tiredm, but Lambie’s relieved to be back in his cold white room full of artistic leftovers and cast-offs. He’s home.