Newhailes House, near Musselburgh, was home from 1709 to the influential Dalrymple dynasty, and it was the third baronet, Lord Hailes (1726-1792), who built up the house’s superb library. There are no books there now however—they’ve been taken a few miles down the road to the National Library in Edinburgh. The house has belonged to the National Trust since 1997, and after showing me the empty shelving in the library, the fancy fireplace, and more, the Trust’s guide has turned to leave the room. Is she not going to say a word or two about the art installed by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan?

‘I’ve been told that the contemporary art can speak for itself’, says the guide. Even if that was the case, it needs time to be engaged with. So to create that, I say a few words myself. I tell the guide that the words ‘HEROIN KILLS’, its letters made from different coloured marble, is drawing attention to the varieties of marble used in the conspicuously luxurious fireplace. The two short words may also be calling out to what an inadequate substitute they are to the millions of words that were once shelved here in leather-bound volumes. But, it’s surely useful to know also that these are the two words that Tatham and O’Sullivan have repeatedly used in installations down the years. The words appeared large, spelled out by massive black letters in Tramway in 2001, in a show that also presented extracts from interviews with Glasgow’s heroin users. And the words glittered round the neck of selected visitors to the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. Tatham and O’Sullivan’s work may be speaking to the room, but it’s also speaking of and about itself.

The guide tells me about a letter that David Hume sent to Lord Hailes, advising the baronet that the philosopher/historian was in need of a particular book about Oliver Cromwell in order for him to carry on with his History of England . Hume asked if it would be possible to borrow the book from this private library, and, in true Enlightenment spirit, the loan was made and the learning shared. Having delivered her Trust-approved words, my guide turns to go. But there is a second Tatham and O’Sullivan piece installed here: a large wooden wedge. My eye bounces off the veneered slope to those bare wooden shelves that reach all the way to the ceiling in the background, and to a sparkling chandelier in the middle of the room. I point out that in the past the artists have painted the features of a face on such a shape, creating an Easter Island statue effect. But on this wedge there’s no face … I notice that the guide is paying little or no attention to either myself or the contemporary artists. But that’s OK, nobody is insisting that anyone takes part in the tentative discourse that’s going on over the centuries, the borrowing and lending of distilled wisdoms.

Rhetoric Works and Vanity Works and Other Works is the name of the Newhailes’ show. This is the first visual art commission through the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland (NCSS), which is managed by the Contemporary Art Society and supported by the National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council (SAC). Tatham and O’Sullivan have been favourites of the SAC in recent years. After featuring peripherally in Zenomap, Scotland’s first appearance at Venice, they were one of the three artists taken to the next Venice Biennale by curators JasonE Bowman and Rachel Bradley. A version of the Venice show, Selective Memory, was then staged at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. And it seems that the work made for Newhailes will be shown in some way at each of the museums that make up the NCSS. That is, a sophisticated challenge has been set for curators at Aberdeen Art Gallery; City Art Centre, Edinburgh; McManus Galleries, Dundee; Paisley Museum and Art Galleries; the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow; and the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness. HEROIN KILLS? It seems to be doing rather well for the artists who are dealing in it.

If Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan have been conspicuously successful at convincing art insiders that their work has merit, my own initial instinct was to be unconvinced. The first show of theirs I came across was ‘The Glamour’ at Transmission in 2001. And what I took then to be its deliberate obfuscation left me cold. However, I went along to the Edinburgh re-staging of the 51st Venice show in 2005, and found their work much more engaging. I began to appreciate the work’s historical and mythical associations alongside the light contemporary touch that seemed to be behind it. As I stood in the arch made by the hipbone and upper thighs of one of a pair of top-hatted stickmen (that I now know have cropped up several times in the artists’ work), I began to see the advantages of playing with a restricted set of signs, symbols, images, materials and objects.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan, Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works, 2006 
Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works, 2006

Another way into the artists’ oeuvre that I’ve discovered is via their page on the Modern Institute’s website. A bank of images shows variations on the same motifs and titles. There were no titles on display in connection with the work at Newhailes House, so to check that position I phone the education and information officer at the property. I’m told that the works do have individual titles, but that the artists asked the guides only to give that information when it was specifically asked for. He e-mails me those titles along with some images of the show.

The list of work reveals that I missed the sculpture in the first room of the tour. At that stage I was listening closely to the guide while trying to ignore the plastic bags that she was wearing on her feet to protect the carpet from her stiletto heels. So I missed the Tatham and O’Sullivan cube, just as it’s possible to miss Think Thingamajig in the wide-angle, black-and-white image that I’ve opened on my computer screen.

Obviously, this merging of the contemporary and the historic, the blending of art into its setting, is an aimed for effect in these black and white images. In contrast, the colour images supplied allow anyone who has been lucky enough to do the tour to focus on a single viewpoint for a while and absorb the detail. On the tour itself I was always on the move, and couldn’t settle on one perspective. Now I can scrutinise to my eye’s content, peeling apart the layers both of the work and my own experience of the work…

A title that crops up twice is: You have forgotten why you asked me here, I cannot remember why I came . The images allow the viewer to realise that the two objects are slightly different, but what they have in common is blunt-topped pyramids —with primitive abstract patterns on some facets, symbolic facial features on others. My recollections of the two pieces in the show are very different. First, the piece appeared downstairs in a sitting room, in close conjunction with an embroidered screen, a white marble fireplace decorated with classical motifs and a full-length Allan Ramsay portrait. (Newhailes House is dripping with Ramsay’s work, the painter being as successful with the rich patrons of his day as Tatham and O’Sullivan are in theirs, though patronage in Scotland has largely switched from private individuals to public bodies). I found the experience of looking at the cube-with-projecting-pyramids-and-wedges in the visual clutter of that sitting room a complex but rewarding experience. While upstairs, I just could not drag my mind away from the explanation the guide was giving me concerning the cabinet behind the second version of the pyramidal piece. Now I’m staring at the downcast mouth on the face of the sawn-off pyramid, and I could swear that the upstairs version of You have forgotten why you asked me here, I have forgotten why I came is sympathising with my on-site predicament. Anyway, in retrospect, my dismay was rewarding. The artists wanted their work to be experienced in the context of the historical guided tour, so the times of confusion as well as the times where everything seemed to fall into place must all have been part of the artists’ expectations.

The education officer goes on to tell me that Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan approached the National Trust about staging work in Newhailes, having already been offered the six museum venues. To begin with, the Trust was ambivalent about inviting contemporary artists into the historical site. However, they were soon reassured by the way the artists talked about the site in relation to their work, and how they took on board the conservation issues at the heart of the Trust’s own management of the site.

I ask why the artists didn’t use their top-hatted stick-men in the house. He doesn’t know, but provides me with the artists’ e-mail address. They’re able to inform me that they’d thought about using the stick-men, for instance, in a wall-mounted photograph, but that the creation of illusionistic space didn’t seem necessary in the end. The artists use the stick-men as a kind of framing device, and that didn’t seem necessary in Newhailes House, where every room is a framing device. I think I understand that. Moreover, I reckon that if the stick-men had been present at Newhailes as sculptural objects—as at the Selective Memory shows—then there wouldn’t have been so much room for such pairings as Allan Ramsay and Lord Hailes. Or perhaps such pairings (Hailes-Ramsay; Hailes-Hume etc.) would have been underlined, and this wouldn’t have been fair on the Dalrymple dynasty. The impression I took from the house’s interior was very much of husband and wife teams. The introduction of the Tatham and O’Sullivan work in the bedrooms in particular seem to have monumentalised that. The untitled painted wedge in the final room of the tour, large in the relatively small space of the Alcove Bedroom, seemed to pick up the natural light coming into the room and to throw that light back onto the containing walls and the room’s time-worn objects. So much is apparent from the colour photograph (whether or not its effect has been achieved with natural light). But what the image doesn’t reveal is that there was a dressing table behind the wedge that features a diamond pattern, and shades of pink. That old piece of domestic furniture is a wonderful object when scrutinised closely, its dignified sensuality undimmed by the passage of time, indeed heightened by the temporary presence of a sensitively placed, simple but effective piece of contemporary art.

Maybe sensitively placed isn’t quite what I mean. The untitled wedge so dominated the final room of the tour that I felt I had to ask my guide on the day if the chaise longue had had to be pressed back to the bed in the alcove in order to accommodate the sculpture. She assured me not, but that’s certainly how it looked. I think that in that last room, part of the sensitivity of the placement was in the fact that it allowed the contemporary art to finally come into its own and to assert itself.

It won’t be possible for the curators of the various public museums to compete with such site-specific riches as were seen at Newhailes. But no, I’m wrong there. The works have already thrived in a white cube setting and will do so again in different contexts, providing the right kind of sensibility is at the helm.

Duncan McLaren is guest editor of MAP