10 Dialogues: Richard Demarco, Scotland and The European Avant Garde.

November 2010

Publication: The Times

One of the exhibits here is a short film, dating from around 1970,  of a group discussion.  The group, which includes the art critic Cordelia Oliver, the Scottish artist Fred Stiven and, pivotally positioned, Richard Demarco  discuss the work of the Romanian sculptor Paul Neagu – who is also present.  The excerpt is remarkable in a number of ways not least because all, with the exception of Demarco, are no longer alive; but more than this it illustrates what Demarco was (and still is) all about: dialogue, conversation and what he refers to as the “meeting of friends” as the true catalyst for art and ideas. It’s a precious moment among thousands of precious moments captured by the cameras of Demarco and others such as George Oliver and Rory McEwen.


Demarco has touched the lives of innumerable artists but the curators have wisely chosen a small number to represent the spirit of Demarco’s achievement. 10 Dialogues, while clearly a tribute to Demarco (now in his eightieth year) and a celebration of his work as collaborator, facilitator and friend, is much more than this. It’s a visual-historical document and a forward-looking show of fresh ideas, demonstrating both Demarco’s intellectual vivacity and the new, innovative spirit of the RSA.


While it contains important documentation and work by the giants of twentieth century art — Tadeusz Kantor and Joseph Beuys —  it also has new work by Alastair Maclennan, Ainslie Yule, David Mach and Magdalena Abakanowicz. All of these —as well as Rory McEwen, Paul Neagu, Günther Uecker and Marina Abramovic — have worked with Demarco in the past. Many met each other only because of Demarco, either on board the Marques, the sailing ship which he chartered for his famous Edinburgh arts expeditions or through some theatrical or visual arts event.


Abakanowicz’s specially commissioned monumental sculpture series ‘The Court of King Arthur’ is a vastly different affair to the type of work the Polish artist was making when she was first encountered by Demarco in the late Sixties.  Back then, she came to prominence for her tortured, disconcerting anthropomorphic ‘Abakans’ ; these metal figures, like giant chess pieces, are less shocking perhaps, but equally present.  By contrast, Mach’s work although clever and amusing often seems to lack serious intent and here he is the joker in the pack.


It’s hard to escape the raw power and violence of Uecker’s ‘paintings’ —full of sharp pointed objects and smashed fragments of rock and wood. Uecker was one of a generation of artists who came after Beuys, carried by the older artist’s confident assertion that it was possible to successfully confront his country’s recent past through art. Beuys’ famous ‘blackboard’ from his Three Pots for the Poorhouse ‘action’ — along with editioned prints and a sled from his 1970 work The Pack — represent what Demarco considers his most important ‘collaboration’.


Tadeusz Kantor (a Polish Jew and therefore a victim of Germany’s brutality) met Beuys through Demarco’s offices in Edinburgh in 1973.  Kantor’s production of his last work, from 1988, I Shall Never Return  can only be represented here by a series of props and films;  nevertheless it’s possible to gain a sense of the visceral, haunting, orchestrated danse macabre of the live stage.


Combined, these images (there are hundreds here and hundreds of thousands in the Demarco Digital Archive housed at the University of Dundee) and art objects tell a remarkable story of how one man —a human dynamo, a visionary, erratic, unpredictable, impossible, lovable genius — brought the spirit of the post-war European avant-garde to Scotland.