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Bruce McLean - A Lawnmower in the Loft and Trying for A Sculpture

Bruce McLean doesn't like the idea of being called a performance artist. Nor has the Glasgow-born sculptor ever been the food critic for the Herald or any other newspaper. Both possibilities, however are mooted in A Lawnmower in the Loft, the hilarious new book published this month by the now seventy-something auteur. A series of auto-biographical anecdotes, the title of each in A Lawnmower in the Loft is arranged in numerical and order. As the reader moves from the opening 3 Bandy Legged Scottish Artists from Fig Street, to the final piece, Yorkie Bar Ad, McLean's adventures in the art world over the last fifty years criss-cross between decades and places. The result is a delicious series of thumb-nail sketches that are barely a page long or less to complete a jigsaw of a very funny but still serious man.

Much of the fun comes from the fact that pretty much all the yarns McLean spins on the page as if scripting a series of after-dinner yarns revolve in various ways around food and drink, often taken to excess. In this way they resemble a series of miniature music hall turns captured for posterity to entertain audiences who couldn't get a ticket for McLean's life-long series of Beckettian entertainments. The serious side comes from a healthy scepticism about the art world McLean is part of, while keeping a healthy distance from what he sees as some of its more ridiculous pretences.

“I don't like that at all,” he says of the performance artist tag. “That was a label invented by the arts council for people who didn't behave themselves. I like doing it, but I don't like it being called performance art. People walking round in a circle for two and a half hours and taking their clothes off while carrying a boiled egg, I can't be doing with any of that.”

McLean launches A Lawnmower in the Loft this Friday night, when he appears at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, where he will possibly be in conversation with Paul Robertson, curator of the Lust & the Apple artspace. If not, in this event co-presented by Lust & the Apple alongside Heart Fine Art, Pecha Kucha Edinburgh and New Media Scotland, McLean may appear alongside his son, Will. He took part in the London launch with his father sat at a table littered with objects that inevitably became part of the show. Robertson originally asked McLean to interview himself, as he'd seen him do before.

“I said no,” says McLean. “I haven't made my mind up what I'm going to do yet. That keeps it fresh.”

Whatever happens, the next day, McLean will travel out to Temple in Midlothian, where the former school that is Lust & the Apple is hosting Trying for A Sculpture, an exhibition of three films by McLean that will run alongside artists Natalie Doyle, Abi Lewis and David Bellingham. Two of the films are performance-based, and hark back to McLean's early ambitions.

“When I was twenty-one, I tried to join Ballet Rambert,” he says, “but they told me I was too old to become a classical dancer.”

A Lawnmower in the Loft is full of this sort of thing, and forms a kind of taking stock of McLean's back pages in a way that new technology allows.

“I'm getting on a bit,” he says, “and I started thinking about all the different experiences I've had. Because I'd got a computer and a printer, I could write stuff and print it immediately in a way you could never do before. I just started writing all this stuff down, and one thing leads to another. It's like when you're telling a joke, and while you're telling it you think of something else. When I read the book, I thought maybe this is what I should've been doing all along. It's certainly the most concrete thing I've done in a while.”

Humour has always been at the heart of everything McLean has done, ever since he left Scotland in 1963 following two years at Glasgow School of Art to study sculpture at St Martin's in London before embarking on a series of actions that stretched the notion of what sculpture could be. n 1971, McLean formed Nice Style as the ultimate 'pose band', who, in reflections of pop culture past, present and future, studiedly looked the part of the quasi-glam rock troupe, but played no music. They supported the Kinks in London anyway. In 1972, King for a Day was a one day retrospective of McLean's work at the Tate. Towards the end of the decade, he produced a series of books in collaboration with Mel Gooding.

In the early 1980s, McLean was a regular guest on Walters' Weekly, BBC Radio 1's unlikely Saturday afternoon arts strand hosted by John Peel's producer, the late John Walters. Earlier this year, McLean's work was seen in Shanghai alongside that of Ross Sinclair, another GSA graduate with roots in performance.

“What I find is that if you don't laugh,you don't learn,” he says. “If you look at the political situation just now, you won't see a lot of people laughing at themselves, and that's a sign of a lack of intelligence.

“My father used to go to Glasgow Empire, and he'd tell me all these stories about the music hall acts like Max Wall, filling my head full of nonsense. I always like a mix of what's called high culture and low culture, although there's really no difference. I like the idea of Liberace and Barnett Newman, the painter, doing something together.”

As documented in A Lawnmower in the Loft, McLean's fleeting masquerade as what was then the Glasgow Herald's food critic came about after the claim was made by his cousin following poor service in a city restaurant.

“I couldn't have imagined she'd say that,” says McLean, “but we got a bottle of wine out of it, so it all worked out well.”

For all the fun in McLean's work, there is a serious side to things, like his thwarted attempt to transform Argyle Street in Glasgow's main shopping thoroughfare into a 600 metre street “for performing and posing in. Then there was his attempt to create an experimental primary school in Dalry in North Ayrshire. Both of these were attempting to change the landscape, sculpturally, architecturally, and, ultimately, socially and politically.

“I want to do something like that again,”he says. “Something meaty. It might be a building for a new type of parliament, or it might be a law. I don't know what it is yet,but it needs to be something meaty. I'm quite concerned about the housing situation. People are living in dire straits, and we should be building proper housing for rent that people can afford.”

This may seem a long way from the levity of A Lawnmower in the Loft, but as McLean again points out, “You've got to laugh at yourself. Some people think I'm just pissing around doing the book, but I'm not. I think it's one of the best things I've done. All the stories are what I'm about, and it's become a work rather than a book. It's not just silly stories It's a comment about the times I've lived through.”

As for a follow-up, McLean's approach looks set to remain sceptical.

“The next book will be more art-based,” he says, “but I have to be careful about naming names, or I might get myself into trouble.”

Bruce McLean will launch A Lawnmower in the Loft at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Friday December 15, 7.30pm. Trying for Sculpture opens at Lust and the Apple, Temple, Midlothian, December 16 and runs until February 16 2018.
www.lustandtheapple.com

The Herald, December 14th 2017

ends

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