Under the Central
Scottish based artists returning from abroad, frequently complain of the
romantic, idealistic picture many seem to have of artistic life in Scotland.
Londoners in particular seem to need to believe in Scotland (Glasgow specifically)
as the home of egalitarian, socialist co-operatives where everyone supports
and nurtures in a pseudo cultural wonderland. The reality, of course,
is infinitely more complicated and contradictory. The idea that the lack
of private contemporary galleries in Scotland is responsible for the present
flowering of artistic production, glosses over the competing and conflicting
pressures that exclusive public funding generates. The following partial
sketch of gallery activity is designed to shed some light on the nefarious
shenanigans, disputes and moves which have taken place of late in Glasgow
Transmission Gallery is probably one of the best known venues in Scotland
for contemporary art. Possessing a formidable reputation, based largely
on its breaking in of many of Glasgow's most successful art stars,
its being consistently perceived as the hip, young thing of Scottish Art.
However, over the past two years this reputation has often looked precarious.
Its previously innovative approach to exhibition programming, which had
it leaping from solo shows of Jo Spence to group shows mixing Lawerence
Weiner with then little known local artists (Douglas Gordon for example),
had increasingly started to look like a 'radical' agenda slowly
solidifying into a predictable orthodoxy.
The problem for newer committee members is 'following in the footsteps'
of the successful godparents of new Scottish art, artists such as Ross
Sinclair and Christine Borland, involved in Transmission in its earlier
days. These and other equally well known artists, had themselves broken
the stranglehold of the 'Glasgow boys', booting their parochialism
into touch and waving good-bye to their council flavoured, stereotypical,
painterly representations of 'real working class life'. The
high profile careers this relatively recent generation of 'Transmission'
artists embarked upon, resulted in explicit and implicit pressure (from
within and without) falling on those 'taking over the mantle'
for more of the same. This has the effect of producing something of an
identity problem for the gallery, unable to effectively escape the confines
of what was expected of it, it had frequently succumbed to tried and tested
avenues. For a while you knew what you were going to get at a 'Transmission
Lately, however things have markedly picked up, recasting the original
ideas and spirit that originally propelled Transmission to prominence.
Casting their net wider than before has thrown up some genuine surprises,
such as "21 Days of Darkness" and "Hong Kong Island".
This coupled with a newly rediscovered impetus to exhibit some of the
rising hotshots of international art (the artists then known as Art Club
2000, Paul McCarthy and coming soon Alex Bag) and a frequently interesting
basement space (which in accepting members' applications allowed
a limited reappearance of gallery democracy - there's still the
suspicion, however, of the basement being where the naughty children are
sent). All this and the commitment of the new committee has helped to
navigate Transmission out of predictable waters. Its recent increase in
arts council funding, after a protracted freeze, was long overdue.
While new Transmission operatives are no doubt almost exclusively responsible
for this turn around, a developing friendly rivalry with Scotland's
other artists run space, the Collective in Edinburgh, is playing its part.
The Collective Gallery has in the last two years also had its share of
hits. Zoe Walker, Spencer Finch, Terry Atkinson, Dave Shrigley and Chantel
Joffe have all shown there, as well as less well known local artists in
gallery curated shows such as "Rear View". Its investment in
a project room, designed to allow for short term projects, prompted Transmission
to follow suit, while its development of a free listing guide has helped
to significantly inform the cultural stew in Scotland.
At present, its only noticeable shortcomings are its inability to secure
quality international work, either for solo shows or as part of larger
group shows (something Transmission has been consistently successful at)
and its rather limited brief, which has it too exclusively tied to representing
Edinburgh artists (the local art College is hardly a fertile ground for
up and coming talent, while the city itself has less of an arts community
to draw upon than Glasgow).
While the Collective has noticeably improved, the Fruitmarket Gallery,
Edinburgh's other venue for contemporary art has taken what looks
like a plunge into mediocrity. While it has been popular to accuse Charles
Esche, head of Glasgow's Tramway Gallery, of misusing public funds
by pursuing an exhibition policy more akin to a private gallery, Graham
Murray, Frutmarket's 'surpremo', has somehow managed to
largely avoid the accusation. However of the two, the mud sticks more
persuasively to Murray. Steadfastly following a path dictated by his personal
predilections, he has demonstrated a disinterest in most 'contemporary'
art (especially Scottish). Instead, he has opted for staging 'discovery'
shows of new Asian art (China and Japan with India to come) with group
and solo exhibitions of romanticised, elemental work.
Bubbling under the surface of the Fruitmarket's exhibition programme,
there has been a tangible, almost exclusive orientation towards that traditional
nexus, the Artist and Nature. Holed up within the confines of the gallery,
lies an unreconstructed modernism, where the artist remains the sole creator
of his work, authentic materials embued with meaning abound and everywhere
there is the promise of an art of quasi-religious transformation.
With only a couple of notable exceptions, the Fruitmarket has increasingly
begun to behave like a bastion of self professed good taste, ardently
protecting all that is proper and right about art, in the face of a perceived
onslaught of young British artists' childish, puerile fantasies.
In this drawing room, where aesthetic propriety is the master, the only
fart to be heard of late was Pierrick Sorin's video works, from the
gallery curatedshow of French artists "In/conclusive States".
The sight of Sorin videoing his own arse, an exercise designed to squeeze
humour out of introspective probing, finally managed to leviate the heavy
cloud of solemnity which had engulfed the gallery. How long the Fruitmarket
can survive, behaving like an irritated ostrich with its head in the sand,
is tellingly up for grabs at present. A shave off its art council funding
has seen to that. It's about time the Fruit Market looked outside
of 'itself' for some revitalisation, when it does (as in In/conclusive
States and hopefully the Lectures Beyond Art and Science) it's a
breath of fresh air.
If the Fruitmarket is the cankerous old uncle of Scottish Art, harping
on about the good old days when you knew where you where, the Centre for
Contemporary Art in Glasgow (the C.C.A.), often comes across as suffering
from a mid-life crisis. Lurching from notable highs (Ross Sinclair's
"Rocky Mountain") to depressing lows ("Phenomena",
the "Wallpaper show"), its exhibition policy could arguably
point to a lack of artistic conviction, opting instead to reference all
the 'right' cultural bases, in an over eager attempt to please
Sinclair's show, a full size reconstruction of a slice of prime Scottish
hillside, complete with stuffed animals, a running stream and the folk
warbling of the artist sitting in his hilltop hut, was an exceptional
example of the gallery sticking its neck out. His complex, humorous and
contradictory take on that popular chestnut 'National identity',
was a welcome interjection into an increasingly polarised and simplistic
political and cultural debate ( arguments raging over both Glasgow's
Museum of Modern Art - what was 'real' Scottish Art - and
Euro 96). The C.C.A.'s support for a local, internationally successful
artist, offering him a platform to produce new work at 'home',
as opposed to shipping it out of Scotland, was exemplary. Unfortunately
the C.C.A. seems as equally interested, if not more so, in developing
and expanding its other exhibition strategy, the themed group show.
C.C.A. themed group shows curated by hired guns (Francis McKee the most
recent and decided) variously try to hang individual artists works on
advertising hooks. Creating tidy packages examining 'hot issues'
("Phenomena", UFO's, X-Files, end of the millennium; "Lost
Ark", humanity/nature; "Inbetweener", gender/identity)
they have in their strenuous attempts to cover all the angles, frequently
ended up missing all the points. While the range of the exhibited works
is often interesting, it's often hard to escape the feeling that
the individual pieces are secondary, with the curator's concept the
main attraction. Whereas heavily curated shows like those organised by
BANK in London, have succeeded by virtue of their wilful belligerence
about appearing virtuous, the C.C.A.'s shows in their nod at this
issue, wave at that issue, frequently end up producing something less
than the sum of its parts.
The rise of the 'curator superstar', essentially seems nothing
more than a mutation of that classic modernist division of labour, whereby
the critic (everybody needs a Benjamin Buchloh) becomes the mouth piece
for the artist. In Scotland's ever increasing bureaucratic culture
industry, the new breed of free floating curator, rapidly assumes the
position of cultural manager, liasing and brokering on behalf of the artist
with both the gallery (heh I got a great idea for a show) and the public
(we got some great films and some of that art stuff too). In Glasgow,
ravaged as it is by a deep schism between its art intelligentsia and the
public, brokering of this kind through the catch all theme show, is an
attractive prospect for administrators pressured by accusations of elitism
desperate for some populist clothing.
The C.C.A.'s interest in such crossover shows utilising all of its
facilities, also stems from its immanent redevelopment (with lottery money)
into a more self sufficient centre for all contemporary arts. This kind
of art centre was originally what Charles Esche had envisaged and planned
for the Tramway Gallery, unfortunately Esche's departure makes the
future of the gallery look far from secure.
Under Esche's control the Tramway won the 1996 Prudential prize,
a jackpot of £25,000. While this was almost universally recognised
amongst the 'progressive' members of Glasgow's art community
as being well deserved, local council commissars chose to ignore it, continuing
instead with their policy of putting the boot in. Esche undoubtedly made
some mistakes in his exhibition strategy, the simplistic universalism
of the show "Trust", with its call to arms, "to suspend
disbelief" and the previously mentioned accusation that he was rather
too transparently using the gallery as a launch pad for an exclusive stable
of artists, didn't help in his dealings with a suspicious and openly
antagonistic arts establishment. However when it came down to it, what
eventually sunk his plans for Tramway, was its location. While its south
side position is geographically close to the heart of the city, symbolically
for culture mulchas, it might as well be in London. Esche had professed
a hope for the gallery becoming a fully fledged art centre, with a studio
complex (for local and visiting international artists), darkrooms, cafe,
cinema and so on. Occasionally Tramway had succeeded in generating sufficient
energy to convince that this was a viable project, however the increasingly
apparent problem lay in sustaining this energy over a protracted period
of time. With the potential audience for Tramway's brand of 'neo-conceptualism'
being relatively small (drawn as it is almost exclusively from the artistic
community of the city) Esche eventually and grudgingly had to accept that
there was a finite limit to his expansionist plans for the gallery.
Redirecting his energies, his new incarnation will be as overseer of an
'artangel like body', instigating public and private art projects
with local and international artists in Scotland, his first venture has
been the recent "Wish you were here too", organised with local
artists Dave Wilkinson and Beata Veszely in their Glasgow flat. While
Flat shows have become relatively popular of late, I hope that with Esche
and his floating art body, they don't become the rule. Their hermetic
approach, advertising through the usual channels, preaching exclusively
to the converted, is OK as far as it goes, but I can't help feeling
its popularity might again be symptomatic of how the polarised cultural
climate in Glasgow produces a pendulum like response to the problems of
"reaching a wider, more unfamiliar, audience for art".
A productive example of a 'show outside the gallery', which
avoided the patronising tone of many a parachuted in public art project
I've had the misfortune to walk over this year, was Graham Ramsay
and Simon Payne's show "Bleep Bleep Bleep" at Diva Records,
"Bleep Bleep Bleep", an exhibition of artist produced 12 inchers
in a specialist dance, music shop, succeeded in amusingly and productively
disrupting many expectations about shows outside the gallery. At Diva,
confusion and incomprehensibility existed in an unusually more equidistant,
productive relationship. The seasoned record buyer, armed with extensive
information about labels, DJ's etc., found themselves confronted
and bemused by the presence of labels, DJ's, they'd never heard
of (a Club Adorno release for instance), while the members of the art
audience, unable to instantly seek, find and enjoy the art, had none of
their specialist skill's validated (at the private view many people
thought the 'art' was the DJ's set, the artist produced
'fake' 12 inchers passing them by). Unusually at Diva, members
of the art community might have left feeling bored and out of place.
The Scottish art scene occupies a particularly precarious position at
present. On the one hand it's continuing to successfully expand,
with home grown and Scottish based artists consistently attracting national
and international attention, while simultaneously, these same artists
operate in cities hovering on the threshold of economic, social and political
collapse. How long it can continue to maintain this present status, in
the face of such pressures, is something which may well be beyond its