....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Thinking about Landmarks - and Gretna

A major public art project is underway in South West Scotland at the moment - it is exciting to be so close to something which is potentially so significant at a regional and national level. The project is sited on the Scottish side of one of the major border crossings with England and aims to explore ideas of identity and boundaries. The process undertaken to date has now resulted in three proposals - there is a link  to the BBC report and a PDF of the proposals themselves here

A student from Edinburgh College of Art sent me a copy of a paper he had written about identity and 'Scottishness' in public art - in it Mike McCallum argues that collective action is at the root of much of contemporary public art practice in Scotland. This is something which I also feel passionately about and set me thinking about the Gretna project in the context of 'national identity':

For good or for bad[i] the prevalent national mythology in Scotland is that of the determined/canny underdog triumphing against the odds. Admittedly a cliché ..but like all clichés there is a vein of truth here. The self-depreciatory trait of the scots runs very deep – never do we see ourselves as the natural favourite in any contest, rather we would prefer the ‘moral victory’ and look for the ‘true essence’ or ‘hidden depths’ of someone rather than impressive display. Much of this is rooted deep in the culture – but, one suspects that, much is also directly attributable to the fact that our lives have been controlled from afar for so long…be that in the form of absentee landlords of massive estates or political control from Westminster.
The things we have control over are the small things…the mobile and easily concealed things…stories, songs and objects which have great meaning for us, but which display none of the usual trappings of power.
My thinking here is that these national characteristics are reflected in the way we produce and view cultural events and objects…hence the ‘monument’ in Scotland is one of two things:
A display of power placed in public by the ruling elite (eg Duke Of Sutherland monument in Golspie - 1833)
Monument to the First Duke of Sutherland (notorious for his role in the Highland Clearances) - history records that the monument was paid for by his tenants...though contemporary reports question the 'voluntary' nature of their contribution

OR
Something created out of genuine feeling and significant action/generosity by a community (eg Burns monument in Auchinleck - 1823)
Local people organised a vast public collection to raise a monument to the national poet (who spent much of his early life in the town) - so much money was raised that it also paid for a row of cottages that were rented to the elderly of the town
A large object being raised in a public place is a peculiarly loaded act in a country such as ours…the processes of consent, negotiation and ownership are vitally important. We need to know who is doing such a thing and why.

Anthony Gormley 'Angel of the North' Gateshead, England 1998
One of the most remarkable things about the oft-cited ‘Angel of the North’ was the process that the team and the artist went through to gain the consent of their public. My recollection is that one of the most significant parts of that process was Anthony Gormley staging his ‘Field’ project in Gateshead – in this, members of the public create very simple clay ‘people’ by squeezing clay between their palms and pressing two ‘eyes’ with their fingers – literally hundreds of these tiny figures complete the final installation. I remember being genuinely moved by a version of field that I saw in London. This simple act of ‘feeling part of a process’ is vital to a new work arriving in a public space. 
Anthony Gormley 'Field for the British Isles'
Detail of 'Field'
Particularly in Scotland, it is not possible to rely on respect being paid to a famous artist…the public suspicion being that famous artists to be the playthings of the rich and powerful rather than agents of the people.
Once the proposal for the Gretna Landmark has been decided by the core team – there is still a lot of work to be done by the artists in including local people in their vision in order to turn the monument into something ‘of the place’ rather than a symbol of external power. I hope the team will be up for this challenge...it will be worth it in the long run and I'm sure the final work will benefit from the process


[i] There is a bigger discussion to be had about whether we should be attempting to change this in order for Scotland to begin to believe in itself again as independent and strong….ie to begin the process of recovery required for a country following a period of colonial rule. However, this is manifestly not part of the stated remit of the Gretna Landmark.

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