Work

by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

March 2007 Archives

There can be few artists in Scotland better suited than Graham Fagen to a commission marking the bicentenary anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The artist has returned again and again to the interfaces between Scottish and Jamaican culture, whether real, imagined or brought into being by Fagen himself. In Radio Roselle, a pirate station broadcast a mix of reggae and Scots verse from somewhere in the Atlantic. With Blood Shed, Fagen continued to broadcast music and verse from the two nations, this time matching it to a map of the British Empire. His best experiment in cultural combining came with Clean Hands Cold Heart, a 2005 show at Tramway, which featured a video documenting the recording of reggae versions of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne and The Slaves Lament, sung by Ghetto Priest, produced by British dub impresario Adrian Sherwood.

Here, though, when explicitly presented as a meditation on the slave trade, in a building built on the profits of that trade, Fagen’s tangential, light approach threatens to buckle under the weight of his theme.

The show opens with West Coast Looking West (Caribbean), a photograph of a sunset, the sort of thing you might see when forced to view a friend’s holiday snaps. Beside it hangs another photograph, the Portrait of Alvera Coke (AKA Mama Tosh). A note explains that Coke is mother to reggae legend and one-time Bob Marley collaborator Peter Tosh, before slipping away from the standard, supposedly objective museological tone, telling us that Tosh, ‘a saint’, was ‘sent to save the world from the duppies and the vampires and all evil spirits’.

In the next room, which has been given a new coat of blood-red paint, we return to themes familiar from Fagen’s past practice. The roots of the artist’s fascination with Ecosso-Jamaican culture lie in his own love of Jamaican music as a teenager growing up in Ayrshire, and his discovery that Robert Burns, before his ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect’ proved a hit, sought out employment as a book-keeper on a Jamaican plantation. Three prints based on 18th Century advertisments detail three ships - Bell, Nancy and Roselle - on which Burns might have sailed had his poems failed. On the opposite wall hangs another print, ‘Plans And Records’, which shows the plan of a slave ship’s cramped conditions, its key replaced with a list of songs on slavery by reggae artists and groups with names that recall both African and European heritage - The Ethiopians, Junior Delgado, Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs - alongside, inevitably, Burns and The Slave’s Lament. Beside it, borrowing Am I not a Man and a Brother, the slogan of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England , for its title, another print shows two human skeletons, one in positive, the other in negative, touching hands.

This apparently glib plea for racial harmony points to a problem at the heart of Fagen’s practice, at least in this context, that continues in piece from which this show draws its title, Downpresserer.

A singer, trumpet player and bongo drummer are shown on a Jamaican beach, their improvised rendition of Burns’ A Slave’s Lament occasionally drowned out by surf crashing onto the shore. It’s a typical Fagen gesture, the poem is relocated to a new, apt setting, and voiced by descendants of the work’s imagined narrator, but here such a gesture raises awkward questions. The musicians are anonymous, uncredited and, quite possibly, unpaid. Does Fagen mean to highlight the ongoing impact of the slave trade through his camera’s ‘white gaze’? Or, in his rush to combine and juxtapose, has he forgotten the reason why ancestors of these men came to be on Jamaica, and forgotten the reason why his bringing together of Scots and Jamaican cultural histories is possible in the first place? Probably not, but without even a hint that Fagen is aware of these issues, it is difficult to avoid the possibility that his focus on cultural minutiae has blinded him to the bigger picture.

To borrow a term from Jamaican music production, Fagen is engaged in dubbing culture. Just as a reggae producer will take a finished song back to the studio and produce a dub version by stripping away some elements and highlighting others, so Fagen lights upon historical fact, extracting and combining elements to his own ends. But where the dub producer’s role is ultimately functional, emphasising the pulse at the heart of a song at the expense of the sung narrative, Fagen’s role is uncertain - we can see what he is doing, in his twisting and turning of historical narratives, but not why.

Ordinarily, Fagens simple gestures are not simplistic, they are subtle, rich, evocative, offering new routes into two cultures. But here, in this context, his works skate close to failure in their sidelong glances toward the issue at hand,. It is as if Fagen has chosen to continue along the road his work has long taken him, rather than take the opportunity granted by this commission to look anew at the slave trade.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 30th, 2007.

Nick Evans has returned from his residency at Tate St. Ives to mount a typically engrossing, complex and, best of all, enjoyable show.

There are just three works on show, but all are monumental in scale. In the first space at Mary Mary, are two teetering towers in brushed aluminium that stretch from floor to ceiling. At first glance, King and Queen are a closely-matched pair. Both are built up of curved panels, precariously balanced, as if a heavy step on the gallery floor might bring them crashing down. Some panels are smooth, machine-like, others are peppered with pock marks, others still are grooved and crenelated, like tree bark or weathered stone. Spend some time with them, though and it is the differences between the two totems that leap out. The six forms that are heaped up upon each other to make King are flatter than the seven that make Queen. Queen’s more stable, balanced and solid curves are countered by its, or her, top-most panel, which sits askew, adding further fragility to an already fragile form. Similarly, a crack in the base of King heightens the sense of instability, of potential motion, that counters the stolid, lumpen aspects of the two towers.

In the next room, in marked contrast to the cool monochrome metal surfaces of King and Queen, Worm is a multicoloured coiled form that threatens to overwhelm, and perhaps escape from the gallery, rendered in polyester resin and fibreglass. Built in four sections, Worm is a rather feverish piece. Its scale is almost threatening, and besides the form suggested by its title, the work resembles an intestinal tract, the curls of a brain, even the double helix of DNA. Each coiled section is built up from further coils, their surfaces gnarled and knotted. The sections are distinguished by colour - mucous green, black, blood red and blue - each one undermined by a grubby, apparently careless discolouration which, as with the first pair of sculptures, suggests weathering, as if the work has spent time elsewhere, becoming what they are now.

This apparent weathering, and the deliberate nature of every mark on the surface of Evans’ work makes for a distinctly tactile viewing experience. Standing before the gnarled surfaces of Worm or the fragile piles of metal that make up King and Queen, it is hard to resist the urge to break the cardinal rule of gallery-going, and reach out to cop a feel. Setting up this temptation is in part, one suspects, a deliberate tactic on Evans’ part. His sculptures eloquently communicate their own construction - one can almost sense the instinctive formal decisions behind each loop and knot of Worm being made - a tendency that sets up a direct conversation between viewer and artist that verges on the performative, as if Evans might pop into the gallery at any moment to reconfigure his work. Not that they appear unfinished. For all their physical, intuitive, form-led making, if Evans knows one thing, it is when to stop.

He also has a way with a title. His last solo show in Glasgow, was called Some Newer Formalisms, and a pair of works shown there were dubbed Pieces Of The Dialectical Terror Machine, displaying Evans’ ambiguous relationship with critical theory, and, by extension, with art history, demanding that the viewer engage with his work not simply as sculpture, but as a critique of sculpture. This time, though, we are faced with the gnomic show title Rational Slab, the glibly descriptive Worm, and the anthropomorphising heraldry of King and Queen. The works that make up Rational Slab continue Evans’ investigation into a way of working that adopts and combines contrary influences - there is a whiff of Futurism about the metallic sheen of King and Queen, immediately countered by their primitive, totem-like form - in an almost aggressive attempt to engage with art-historical influences. But that aggression is tempered by the simple, suggestive titles granted to these new works, in place of the declamatory naming Evans has plumped for in the past.

This might seem to be a small shift in practice, but it brings Evans the sculptor, as opposed to Evans the thinker, to the fore. The result is a conversation, rather than a lecture, and a three-way conversation at that. Evans makes work by entering into a dialogue with his materials, each sculptural action leading to the next, and then passes that dialogue on to the viewer, thanks to that temptingly tactile aspect to King, Queen and Worm. This is not to say that Evans has abandoned the injection of dense layers of possible meaning into his work, or given up on his tendency to question the accepted tenets of critical analysis. Instead, it is as if Evans has withdrawn just enough to allow his sculptures to truly breath, becoming things to spend time with, as well as things to be thought about.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 16th, 2007.