Publication: The Times
The remote Hebridean archipelago of St. Kilda has been an enduring subject of fascination for artists. The work of the Victorian photographer George Washington Wilson, for example, includes extraordinary documentation of a way of life which has long since vanished. These images inspired the poet Douglas Dunn to write about the islands seen, as it were, through Wilson’s lens. Contemporary artists such as Liz Ogilvie have created meticulously crafted works derived from a depth of experience —(Ogilvie’s grandmother lived on the islands until they were evacuated 70 years ago).
None of this should, of course, preclude further artistic exploration of the subject, although the quality and scope of work created by previous practitioners should serve as some kind of example. Ross Sinclair has similarly chosen St Kilda as theme for a number of installation pieces which centre on aspects of the islands — their culture, institutions and history. Sinclair’s ideas, as far as they go, are interesting enough. In one work, using two slide projectors, he juxtaposes events from world history with events from St Kilda’s past. The effect, while being mildly informative, is nevertheless rather mundane. The idea that events occur synchronously on a global and local level, often with little or no relevance to each other, is hardly new. In an adjacent space, Sinclair has stacked hundreds of cardboard boxes on which are written various bits of factual information about St. Kilda — that it had a parliament, that there was no crime, no police etc. etc. — which seem to confer some kind of utopian status on the islands. This is confirmed in the blurb accompanying the show which states that the parliament was an “open and non-hierarchical institution”. The contemporary significance of the Scottish parliament is not lost, but the fact that, for example, there were no women in the St. Kildan equivalent is conveniently glossed over.
The problem with work such as this is that the large physical space it occupies and the depth of the concepts and ideas it conveys are often in inverse proportion to each other. This banality is also found in an accompanying series of works by Martin Boyce which occupies the ground floor space of the gallery. The work is in three components: a large fluorescent light installation in the shape of a spider’s web; a room covered in grid-patterned wallpaper and, lastly, large chromalins of chairs propped against doors which prevent them from being opened. We are told: “The grid refers to the plan of the modern metropolis...The wallpaper is not pictorial — it is instead a reduced graphic motif for the generic metropolis.” In fact, these works could “mean” almost anything — they are an almost blank space onto which meaning can be fixed. The fact that as an audience we are given an interpretation which is then offered as meaning reveals, on the one hand, the thinness of ideas on offer and, on the other, the insecurity of the artist or the gallery showing his work — or both. At best it is intrusive and at worst, patronising. It is illustrative too, perhaps, of the various funding bodies’ insistence on interpretation and accessibility.
This show surely calls into question the way in which work such as this is supported by publicly-funded bodies. That one of the criteria being offered for its display is nationality/subject matter (Scottish) in no way ameliorates this situation and, in fact, makes it worse.
The Fruitmarket Gallery
0131 225 2383
Until 13 Nov.
Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 25-10-99