Graham Fagen appears to be making gold when Scottish Art News comes calling at the Glasgow-based artist's home studio. Alchemy of one kind of another is certainly on Fagen's agenda as he fires up lumps of clay in the kiln in his garden shed. These rough-hewn cubes will form part of a set of works that make up Fagen's solo show which, under the auspices of Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, will represent Scotland at this year's Venice Biennale.
Upstairs, the floor is lined with small bronze trees, on the branches of which will eventually hang some of the cubes currently being fired. For Venice, Fagen is planning to mount a large-scale bronze tree, which as he explains, he's “trying to take the life out of it, so it's some kind of cross between nature, architecture and function.”
Fagen has previously shown in Venice in 2003 as part of Scotland's first year at the Bienale in the group show, Zenomap, as well as non-country based group shows in 2001 and 2005. This year,'s solo show sees Scotland's Venice programme move into new premises, with Fagen's work being seen across four rooms in the Palazzo Fontana, a sixteenth century palace knee-deep in faded grandeur overlooking the city's Grand Canal.
At the entrance area above the door, audiences will be greeted by an Italian version of 'Come into the garden and forget about the war', a neon installation originated during a project for the Talbot House Museum in Poperinge, Belgium, a former World War I rest house run by Australian clergyman Philip 'Tubby' Clayton, who put tongue in cheek signs regarding the centre's house rules around the building. With the signs recreated when the house became the museum, as the Imperial War museum's former Official War artist in Kosovo, Fagen recognised the potential power such signs might have if seen in countries with very different but still deep-set experiences of war.
“It set up an idea that opened up a lot of possibilities depending on what context you see it in terms of language and place” Fagen says. “Depending on where you see it, war's going to be pertinent to the collective psychology of that country at that time. It was interesting when I first made it in German, because things like Iraq and stuff like that were the conversation we were having, but then inevitably, being in Berlin you're going to talk about the Wall and things like that.
“Then in France, I did it in Marseilles, and that brought up a lot of discussion about the islands around Marseilles which were captured by the Germans. So it opened up a lot of conversations, but it also sets up a lot of conceptual ideas about a garden, and if that is a place where you can get away from war.”
One of the rooms in Venice looks set to be dominated by drawings of heads based on Fagen feeling each of his teeth with his tongue. He would then mark each drawing with Indian ink based on the perceptions of the spaces in his mouth.
“The first stage was quite pragmatic,” Fagen explains, “then the stage with the Indian ink was really freeing. I did lots of these drawings, and after a while thought I'd better have a look and see what I'd been doing. I realised that what I've been trying to do in some way is to draw consciousness and try and represent the self, and there was a difference between ones I'd done on a Monday morning, which were really dark, and ones I'd done on a Saturday, where the colours were really bright.”
Much of Fagen's work for Venice echoes previous pieces, with earlier incarnations of the bronze trees and teeth drawings seen in Cabbages in an Orchard, Fagen's contribution to the year-long Generation showcase of contemporary art in Scotland over the last twenty-five years, and which was seen at Glasgow School of Art in 2014.
The centrepiece of Fagen's Venice show will be an audio-visual installation which continues his ongoing fusion of the work of Robert Burns with dub reggae in what he describes as “a remake of a remake” of his version of Burns' The Slave's Lament, as performed by reggae singer Ghetto Priest with dub producer Adrian Sherwood at the controls. Added to the mix here are composer Sally Beamish and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. Such a multi-faceted collaboration was inspired by Estonian composer Arvo Part after Fagen heard his setting of Burns' My Heart's in the Highlands .
“It's a ridiculously fantastic version,” says Fagen. “Before I heard it I thought there's a classic cliché of how Burns gets dressed up by a particular culture with a song like that, but Part's version is so haunting, and the sonic spaces he sets up allows the lyrics to get into our heads and invest them with a completely different meaning to how I first read them.”
Like Burns, Fagen is Ayrshire-born, although, weaned on a musical diet of punk and reggae, it was only later he started to connect with words and music from a heritage altogether closer to home. The connections Fagen eventually made were compounded by the discovery that, blighted by poverty, Burns almost travelled to Jamaica to take a job overseeing slaves as a plantation book-keeper.
Fagen's melding of Burns and dub reggae dates right back to 2005, when he first collaborated with Sherwood and Ghetto Priest on the audio-visual installation, Clean Hands Pure Heart, which married Auld Lang Syne and The Slave's Lament to a reggae beat at Tramway in Glasgow. This was followed in 2009 with a live rendering of four Burns songs by Ghetto Priest, Sherwood, Tackhead guitarist and long-term Sherwood collaborator Skip MacDonald, percussionist Pete Lockett and English folk guitarist Ian King.
The songs – A Man's A Man For A' That, A Red Red Rose, The Tree of Liberty and I Murder Hate – were recorded for a CD that was given away at the live gig at the Stirling-based Changing Room Gallery where the concert took place alongside Fagen's show, somebodyelse. Another CD, featuring War and I Murder Hate, was given away as part of a show by Fagen at The Empire Cafe in Glasgow to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I.
In this respect, Fagen's roots are easy to spot in this new work, which forms part of a continuum which Fagen is happy to acknowledge, grateful to begin a show with experience than from a completely blank slate.
“The hardest part is to find out what you want to do,” he says. “Once you've worked that out you can start to work towards it. It's like Lee says,” Fagen grins in a nod to pioneering dub reggae icon Lee 'Scratch' Perry. “Everything starts from Scratch.”
Scottish Art News, May 2015.