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

Roddy Buchanan: Histrionics

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If your route to GOMA happens to take you along Buchanan Street, you’ll pass the Glasgow branch of a high street fashion chain. Its window display consists of some vaguely retro, outsized coloured lam­p­shades, arranged al­ter­n­ately in orange and blue. Is the display a cheeky de­clar­a­tion of af­fil­i­a­tion by the window dresser, a na­tion­wide promotion foisted on the store by an unknowing head office, or entirely innocent? Whichever, the fact that a colour com­bin­a­tion can prompt such a train of thought, and might, on a drunken Saturday night, move one passer-by to hum a tune and another to fleck the shop’s glassy frontage with spittle, is a fitting ac­ci­dent­al in­tro­duc­tion to His­tri­on­ics.

This is because Roddy Buchanan tackles his subject, the sectarian divide in Glasgow, with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, always taking a personal approach that, while it makes his feelings on the ab­surdit­ies of this fissure in the city’s make-up pretty clear, never offers pat solutions or con­dem­n­a­tions.

The in­stal­l­a­tion as a whole is the first sign that Buchanan isn’t afraid to approach his subject with wit. His­tri­on­ics takes the form of a huge wedge that doubles as a series of display walls and a screening room. On the one hand, it’s a nod to the elephant in the room in many a dis­cus­sion on Scottish identity, on the other, its awkward placement forces visitors to walk - a loaded word in this context - as they look.

The first side of the wedge is covered in pho­to­graphs of football players, of various eth­n­i­cit­ies and na­tion­al­it­ies, taken on the day of their signing to Celtic or Rangers. Like the anti-sectarian posters dis­trib­uted to Mer­sey­side school­chil­dren in the 1980s bearing a pho­to­graph showing Everton and Liverpool players side-by-side, the point is an eloquent one, simply expressed; a reminder that the days when religious belief de­ter­m­ined the club a player might play for are long gone.

On the right-hand wall, Buchanan goes further with a work title Glasgow’s Glasgow, and turns his ex­am­in­a­tion of the sectarian divide on himself and his family. The wall is dominated by a portrait of Buchanan and his wife Jaqueline Donachie, grinning, and wearing t-shirts em­blazoned with the legend ‘Mixed Marriage’. A set of graphs and charts surround the couple, showing just how mixed it is. Family trees of Buchanan and Donachie reveal the birth­places of their an­te­cedents, both a similar mix of Irish im­mi­g­ra­tion and movement from towns sur­roun­d­ing Glasgow to the city. Bar charts plot the oc­cu­pa­tion of past family members, and again it is the sim­il­ar­it­ies that leap out - on both sides, economic factors drew people to Glasgow. Last but not least, two per­cent­ages: 13% Pro­t­est­ant, 21% Catholic reveal the mixed past leading to a mixed present.

Buchanan is not looking forward to a happy-clappy rainbow future, though; he is keenly aware of, and cel­e­b­rates, loyalty to tradition. Faith­ful­ness And Loyalty is a layered homage to homemade football flags. One bears the legend ‘King Sobhuza Rangers Sup­port­ers Club’, the other ‘Mangal Pandey 1857 Celtic Sup­port­ers Club’. Buchanan is gathering moments in colonial history here - Sobhuza sought British pro­tec­tion from the Boer Republic, Pandey protested against the use of gun cart­ridges soaked in animal fat in the Indian Army - to subtly muse on loyalties to a cause, and tie Glasgow’s past tra­di­tions to its mul­t­i­c­ul­tur­al present. Another work, Thomas Muir Helpdesk, takes a similar tack - the ongoing project presents Buchanan’s research into the life of the 18th Century reformer, po­s­i­tion­ing him as a subject who can be claimed by both sides, or neither, a his­t­or­ic­al figure who tran­s­cends af­fil­i­a­tion.

The beating heart of the in­stal­l­a­tion is I Am Here, a split screen film showing Parkhead Re­pub­lic­an Flute Band and The Black Skull Corps of Fife and Drum. The present­a­tion is scru­pu­lously even-handed, with the two bands taking turns to play on their separate screens. The ultimate effect is of a call-and-response col­l­ab­or­a­tion. As in Glasgow’s Glasgow, the emphasis is on sameness, not di­f­fer­ence - the military music, for all the resonance of the tunes played, is at root the same. There is also, of course, a darker edge to the pairing - the call-and-response might well be seen as a stand-off, not a col­l­ab­or­a­tion, and state­ments from the two bands on the room’s walls make it more than clear which side they are on. Im­port­antly, though, Buchanan does not judge, choosing instead to simply present and engage.

His­tri­on­ics is, then, a fas­cin­at­ing exhibit, one that, thanks to Buchanan’s often deeply personal, con­sider­ed and always ques­tion­ing response to the issue at hand, rarely strikes a wrong note - a re­mark­able acheive­ment, given the subject matter.

This review was first published in The Herald on April 9th, 2007.