Art

At a Glasgow Museum, Local Artists Grapple with National Politics

Ross Sinclair, 'We Love Real Life Scotland' (2015), installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ross Sinclair, “We Love Real Life Scotland” (2015) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

GLASGOW — Through the end of February, in order to enter Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) you have to go through a door flanked by two neon-bright panels. “We <3 Bannockburn 1314” reads the panel on the left, and “We <3 Culloden 1746” on the right — referring to the two greatest battles in Scottish history. Artist Ross Sinclair writes that they are the “twin pillars of the national psyche calcified in an understanding of ‘ourselves’ as an endless ping-ponging between ‘success’ and ‘failure.’”

Sinclair’s 12 panels each declare love for something recognizably Scottish, questioning notions of identity and just what this national belonging means — a pertinent question so soon after the referendum on whether or not Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom. The installation nods to various Scottish stereotypes like our love of drinking and self-pity — “We <3 Alcohol” and “We <3 Failure” — as well as hinting at constructions of Scottish nationhood. Other panels declare love for Walter Scott and Edwin Landseer, who, through literature and painting, respectively, created a romanticized view of post-Culloden Highland life, conveniently emptied of its people (“We <3 Highland Clearances” reads another panel). The visitor, then, writes Sinclair, “must pass through/get beyond” these ideas in order to see the current exhibition, Devils in the Making.

'Devils in the Making,' installation view
‘Devils in the Making,’ installation view

GoMA opened in 1996, the same year Douglas Gordon became the first Scottish artist to win the Turner Prize. While Gordon and his fellow Glasgow School of Art (GSA) graduates were mounting acclaimed exhibits around the world, GoMA’s opening exhibition eschewed the work being produced in that city in favor of a more international collection. In the intervening two decades, the gallery has made an effort to redress that omission by regularly exhibiting GSA grads, highlighting them with a special sticker when their work appears, and, currently, with Devils in the Making, the museum’s first dedicated survey of work by Turner-winning or -nominated GSA graduates made over the past 20 years. Seeing these artists exhibited together seems to naturally create a dialogue around national identity.

Beagles & Ramsey , “We Are the People – Suck On This” (1999–2000)
Beagles & Ramsey, “We Are the People – Suck On This” (1999–2000) (click to enlarge)

Once past the Pantheon-like columns and into the grand, high-ceilinged, neoclassical building, which was built for an 18th-century tobacco merchant and harks back to a more glorious era when Glasgow was a world leader in shipbuilding and trade, you are greeted with a quintessential image of Britishness: two black canine statues, “Churchill’s Dogs” (1996) which is Kenny Hunter’s representation of Churchill’s “black dog,” the name he gave to his depression. Turn right, however, and you are thrown immediately into contemporary Scottish politics: “We Are the People – Suck On This” (1999–2000) a four-and-a-half-minute video by Beagles & Ramsey that examines notions of political disenfranchisement. In it, Graham Ramsay, dressed as Travis Bickle, goes to London and walks to 10 Downing Street to deliver the Prime Minister a petition, signed only by the two artists, on which is written: “We Are the People Suck On This.” Created in 1999–2000, the piece coincided with a watershed moment in Scottish history: Following the 1997 referendum on devolution, the first Scottish elections were held in May 1999, and later that year, powers were transferred from Westminster to the new Scottish Parliament. At the time, Scotland was questioning who could best represent its interests, a question that led to the 2014 independence referendum that still feels unsettled. The referendum result was split 55 to 45%, highlighting a deep division within the country. So who are “we the people,” really, and who speaks for them?

Nathan Coley, "Lockerbie Witness Box" (2003)
Nathan Coley, “Lockerbie Witness Box” (2003)

Nathan Coley’s “Lockerbie Witness Box” and “Lockerbie Evidence” series (2003) developed out of the time he spent as a court artist during the 2000 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial. The trial was held in the Netherlands but, for its duration, the area in which the court stood was declared Scottish territory. Surrounding an exact replica of the witness box are Coley’s drawings of the evidence presented at the trial: briefcases, ID cards, luggage tags, and dry-cleaning bills. Coley has often examined trauma and the aftermath of terrorist acts through his work, but seen in the context of this exhibition, the eeriness of the piece also encourages questions of nationhood, such as: If a nation can be so easily recreated on foreign soil, then what exactly is its value?

Continuing around the space, the construction of human identity takes precedence over that of nations. David Shrigley’s entertaining animated video “New Friends” (2006) sees a square character fall through a mysterious portal to a world filled with round characters, and the square fits in simply by having its edges razored off. Performance artist David Sherry examines the absurdities of the social contract by subverting the accepted mores that supposedly make us human. Sherry performs works on occasion throughout the exhibition’s run, but outside of those times, visitors are invited to rummage through drawers containing records relating to them: a transcript from “Great Meals I Never Had” (2006), for example, in which he sits down at a restaurant table and immediately requests the check, or a diary documenting his “Serial Psycho Interviewee” project (2000), for which he spent three months applying for jobs and attending as many interviews as possible, with no intention of accepting any of them.

David Sherry, "Serial Psycho Interviewee" (2000)
David Sherry, “Serial Psycho Interviewee” (2000)

Finally, shown on the top floor and physically separated from the rest of the exhibition, is Christine Borland’s “After a True Story – Giant and Fairy Tales” (1997), in which the images of two skeletons are created in shadow against the wall. The original skeletons, held by the Royal College of Surgeons, are of a seven-foot man and a two-foot girl. Borland tells their stories in book mounted in the center: Both were exhibited in late 18th/early 19th-century freak shows, and their bodies were later sold or stolen for medical research. Coming at the end of a deep dive into the construction of cultural identities, the piece serves as an admonishment and a plea to consider how easily an individual’s identity can be disregarded.

Borland, “After a True Story – Giant and Fairy Tales”
Christine Borland, “After a True Story – Giant and Fairy Tales” (1997)

Devils in the Making continues at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow G1 3AH) through February 28.

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