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Exploring Modern Scottish Sculpture

Marchmont House, Greenlaw, Berwickshire, September 21st 2019

 “I’m not here to talk about Scottish sculpture,” Richard Demarco declared towards the end of a symposium designed to talk about exactly that, “because it doesn’t exist. I’m a European,” the now 89-year-old cultural whirlwind added as he beetled about the music room of Marchmont House, the eighteenth century country pile set in the heart of the Scottish Borders that hosted the event.

It’s a house Demarco knows well from his time spent there in the company of musician, artist and former resident, Rory McEwan, whose work he showcased in several exhibitions at his Edinburgh gallery during the late 1960s and 1970s. The heartfelt address that followed was delivered by Demarco without recourse to any kind of slide-show presentation like most of the day’s other speakers. In essence, this gave him the air of a living sculpture in constant motion.

Demarco wasn’t just asking for McEwan’s work to be shown at Marchmont House alongside pieces by the likes of Eduardo Paolozzi and Antony Gormley already in place in the 390 acre grounds close to the house now styled by its current resident and driving force behind its reinvention Hugo Burge as ‘a home for makers and creators’. The presence of work by the late Tim Stead inside the House, with large-scale outdoor works by local artists, including Charlie Poulsen, Frippy Jameson and Keith McCarter, all of whom spoke at the symposium, bears out its refreshed status.

Despite this, Demarco’s emotional plea was for sculpture to be allowed to thrive today in the face of he sees as its ongoing intellectual and artistic denigration. This may be a familiar refrain for long-term Demarco watchers, but, given the context of this day-long event sponsored by the London-based Pangolin Gallery – one of few in the UK devoted solely to sculpture – and Edinburgh-based international auction house, Lyon and Turnbull, it had an extra resonance.

There were plenty of other rhetorical flourishes during the course of the day’s packed programme, ushered in by Burge, who somewhat magnificently described sculptor William Turnbull as “the Billy Elliot of the sculpture world.” Art historian and Scottish Art News contributor Bill Hare’s fascinating preview of his forthcoming book on the parallel lives of Turnbull and Eduardo Paolozzi - Two Giants of Scottish Sculpture as they were presented here – gave weight and depth to both artists.

Andrew Patrizio of Edinburgh College of Art introduced the day with a provocative primer in contemporary Scottish sculpture from the end of the Second World War to today. Drawn in part from his now twenty-year-old book, Contemporary Sculpture in Scotland, Patrizio’s updated tour began with images of the ticketed and rarefied Sculpture in the Open Air exhibition at Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow in 1949, took cross-country diversions that included David Harding’s key work as Glenrothes town artist in the 1970s and John Latham’s similarly visionary environmental work.

The 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival, the Kelpies and the utopia of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta sculpture garden were all there. As was Martin Creed’s marble reimagining of Edinburgh’s Scotsman Steps in Work No 1059, before Patrizio alighted back at the seemingly more open Kelvingrove of today.

In a session on collecting Scottish sculpture for both public and private collections, curator of Jupiter Artland Claire Feeley spoke about how private individuals are stepping into the breach as public funding dissipates. Curator and ‘creative broker’, Matthew Jarratt, whose adventures in public art have included major public art projects from Newcastle to China, talked about trying to persuade property developers to take risks. Burge spoke about the ongoing transformation of Marchmont House over the last couple of years in terms of its sculpture, and his ambitions for its future.

What is Contemporary Scottish Sculpture Today? was the fifty-million-dollar question posed by the Pangolin’s gallery director Polly Bielecka in a post-lunch session in which living proof was provided by a panel of artists David Mach, Kenny Hunter and Sandy Stoddart alongside senior curator of the National Galleries of Scotland, Alice Strang.

Strang showed off the fantastical possibilities of sculpture by way of images from Monster Chetwynd’s recent show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh that saw all manner of creatures burst through the frame, barely contained by the gallery walls.

Stoddart lobbed a semantic grenade into the mix by gleefully suggesting that the word ‘contemporary’ was a stupid one, fostered by a leftist plot. He preferred the word, ‘contra-temporary’, and, inbetween references to Schopenhauer and Moses, pointed out how “being a sculptor is being on the edge of catastrophe every single month, week, day.”

In a session on supporting Scottish sculpture, CEO of Wasps artists’ studios Audrey Carlin stressed the necessity for affordable studio spaces in the social enterprise initiative’s nineteen buildings. This was echoed by Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop director Laura Simpson, who highlighted how ESW, Wasps, formed part of a much bigger network. Writer and trustee of the Tim Stead Trust Giles Sutherland highlighted a need for more outlets for critique in a world where print media was shrinking.

Wrapping up the day, while Burge stressed the importance of a broader creative spirit, Demarco quoted a conversation he had with Joseph Beuys not long before the German icon of social sculpture died. Beuys told Demarco he not only wanted to come back to Scotland again, but that, rather than simply making a work, he wanted to transform the entire country into a sculpture. If Burge and other fellow travellers gathered in Marchmont House have their way, it may happen yet.

Scottish Art News - November / Autumn 2019


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