BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 05 NOV 92
Featured in
Issue 7

Guilt By Association

BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 05 NOV 92

Developments in the visual arts in Scotland are proceeding apace and at some distance now from the Edinburgh Review and writers such as James Kelman,Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray. Certainly the work of these writers might be said to have implied that of Ken Currie (though it implies a lot else too), and they would possibly be stumped by some of the work in Guilt By Association. In the cat-alogue to Walk On (which included three of the artists present), Murdo MacDonald made a game attempt to show the connections here between the Scottish philosophical tradition of questioning from first principles and the work of younger artists, but did not argue the case in detail. It is not that this would be impossible, rather that the clashes of interest and the shared ground between the visual and written cultures of Scotland have not been spelt out-to do so would be instructive, because the idea of a common forum for ideas (which has seemed a possibility) has ramifications beyond the National question.

If there is something Scottish about this exhibi-tion, it lies in the association between the artists and the desirability of a mode of public address -combined winningly and wittily with dramatic incursions of the domestic and the subjective. Roderick Buchanan's plaque, tucked away off the vast corridor, spells out WHEN BAD MEN CON-SPIRE, GOOD MEN SHOULD ASSOCIATE. And thereby become guilty again - in the immediate instance, of committing works of art in a public place. Buchanan also exhibits photographs of the group's planning meetings, and exceptionally sub-tle text pieces in the corridor. Once our communi-cation lines were broken we held the position for another day, however unable to effect any real change, we agreed to the surrender. Assembling downstairs we laid our arms and equipment down while our ambulance corps were ordered to remove their red crosses. Buchanan is vexed by the history of the Royal Hospital and its inherent ambiguity as a national monument, but his works are expressly concerned with the present. If artists are to work as though they are in 'the early days of a better nation' they must surrender badges marking them out as healers, and name the harm: which is their division from the public.

What can an exhibition do about this? To begin with, it can give you some free and useful informa-tion about itself: always a strategy to be taken very seriously. Then, it can make you laugh. Craig Richardson describes Douglas Gordon's first room as a 'defrosting chamber'. One of the texts on the wall reads THOSE! WOULD NOT LIKE TO KNOW. The room offers other categories of persons (in pompous Roman type) and one feels invited to supply some names. We can all think of some. Your status as spectator is validated also by the large tri-angle of corks pointing straight back at you as you enter the corridor; though being pointed at is also rather rude and confrontational, not something the exhibition is shy of. It is a piece by Kevin Henderson, the painter in this exhibition, and it even has an evocative title (that you should only read in context).
Henderson's paintings are positioned in the entrances to the side galleries and in private nich-es. Still life paintings of flowers, even dead roses, might seem to be throwing the public's expecta-tions back in its face too obligingly. But these are not mere ciphers of the desire for paintings, but the real thing, made from precise observation and pared down means. The optimum viewing distance is about twelve feet: huge for this domestic genre, and about the distance from which they were painted; you edge uneasily out into the corridor to look at them. The collective title is Rotating Bodies Subject to Violence - the vase was turned methodi-cally by 45 degrees - and the individual encounters are rewarding. In the catalogue, unexplained, are photographs of similar paintings vandalised.

Craig Richardson's Misinformation you on your guard. Two conflicting scales of measurement in black and red are painted on the wall. The only way to find out which represents the true height is to stand next to them, putting yourself nervily in an imagined firing line. Christine Borland's five pieces for the corridor reverse this: you imagine yourself as the path of a bullet. With the help of the gardai, five guns were trained on domestic white crockery. The specifications of the weaponry are given on the walls, and the crockery and dust is reassem-bled as if by a forensic scientist, together with the broken bullets; but also with an eye to the aesthet-ic possibilities of grading by size. The collective title is Weakness, Disaster, Old Age and Other Misfortunes, taken from the charter of the hospital (which was for retired soldiers, not the sick). It's the kind of oblique link to the place and its history that insists on the spectator's place in the present, rather than moralising our relationship to the past. Borland's Small Objects That Save Lives is a collec-tion of objects lent in response to written requests, displayed on three trestle tables. Objects chosen to stop a bullet, or metaphorically save a life, display us as sentimental as well as fragile. Real, present lives trespass the gallery and are valorised by it - though of course you need an artist to organise this process.

Richardson's superb text works in the courtyard, effect a rapprochement with the place and resonate with the idea of benevolent care. In a friendly typeface, and the colours of tin railway signs, you read Measure your children; Stand in lines; Quiet attention; Make still; Put to sleep; Sign over the remains. Like many in the exhibition, these pieces slow down your response; and are rare examples of an unmoralising public art that never-theless is not too oblique for its public. Ambiguities and moral dilemmas are implicit in the instructions (Put to sleep), but some sort of pragmatism clears- space for the present: sign over the remains, as one might sign an agreement of wardship or a deed. Craig hoped to work in the nearby Kilmainham Gaol, which is essential for any first visit to Dublin, but writes in the catalogue that 'the transition from hospital to museum is more inter-esting as a sign of the times.'

The same artist has also made the most diffi-cult work in the exhibition, two shelves of objects entitled Distant Relatives. Truncheons improvised from broom handles and crutch supports, painted odd colours; a garrote made from a shortened skipping rope; trip wires; eccentric, private piles of cut newspaper, cut and bound coathanger pieces, flex, and inexplicable workshop debris. It represents a dramatic incursion of a subjective way of making and arranging, unlike Christine Borland's orderly arrangement of other people's lives. The motives of the work remain truculently inexplicit, despite its apparent desire to give us tools or to dispel taboo (which would be motives in common with Douglas Gordon's cheeky multiple of 'keys to the museum', sold with blanks to make more copies).

It is a reminder at the heart of an exhibition successfully nurturing an idea of active spectator-ship, that it is too early to abandon the harmful specialisation that makes some of us lookers and others makers. As the Greenock man W.S.Graham has it in a poem from Malcolm Mooney's Land, 'This is a public place/Achieved against subjective odds and then/ Mainly an obstacle to what I mean.' Where better to locate these stirrings of Scottish democracy than Kilmainham, where one is forever walking down corridors smiling and gesturing at people at the other end whom one cannot yet hear, they are so impossibly far away.