BY Francis McKee in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Ross Sinclair

BY Francis McKee in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

Ross Sinclair has described this installation Real Life Rocky Mountain as a 'sandpit of the imagination', evoking memories of Brian Wilson's dark retreat. It's easy to see why he chose that analogy.
A series of T-shirts hanging at the entrance to the work proclaim 'Culloden is Lost', 'Robert Burns is Dead', 'Sing History Changed' and 'The Highland Clearances in Reverse'. Defeat, and its lingering traumas, shape the work to a considerable extent.

Courtesy of the CCA and B&Q's hardware department, Sinclair has constructed his own 'rocky mountain' within the gallery. Topped by a wooden hut, its grassy surface is populated by an impressive variety of stuffed Scottish wildlife - crows, mountain goats, hares and a slightly moth-eaten wildcat. A stream and waterfall splash through the trees and bushes and, if you crouch down, you can see pipes recycling the water amid the plywood struts and electrical cables. A video monitor provides a programme of songs - The Dark Isle, Scots wha hae, The Skye Boat Song and a selection of more recent Teenage Fanclub numbers. All of the songs are performed by Sinclair in a variety of highland locations. Each day, the artist emerges from his mountain retreat for several hours. Dressed in chequered shorts, he selects an instrument from a rack of electric and acoustic guitars - just above the ferret - and plays live. As he faces away from the audience, it is possible to see the large tattoo across his back that reads 'REAL LIFE'.

This is a tartan wonderland, offering the visitor a free pass to explore all the mythic elements that make up Scottish popular culture. Within its gates, historical events such as the Highland Clearances replace Space Mountain and the other rides. Given Sinclair's desired aim of repopulating his territory with papier mâché people, this is probably more fun. And if it is a minor act of rebellion, then Sinclair is still aware that the battle's being fought in the gift shop.

Beneath the kitsch exterior of the installation, however, Sinclair is making a serious point about the peculiar malleability of Scottish folklore. The random weave of the elements suggests that, having bypassed the status of 'nation' over the past 300 years, Scotland has had no definitive focus for its myths. As a result, the country has been able to constantly reconfigure its self-image when necessary, and when larger, more powerful cultures impinge, the Scots have managed to retain a distinct identity.

In a recent essay, Sinclair has taken this further, imagining a semi-fictitious Scotland of the future in which the people have voted for independent theme-park status. Within the boundaries of this new land (named Scotia - The Living History of a Small Nation), it becomes impossible for the inhabitants to distinguish between historical role-playing and 'real life'.

In ...Rocky Mountain Sinclair manages to exploit this tension between reality and artifice to create an infinitely rich hall of mirrors for the viewer. Moreover, his humour saves the piece from the hackneyed clichés of 'hyperreality' and 'simulacra'. There is also a sincerity in the work that seems to assert itself almost despite the Brigadoon landscape. Sinclair's singing is quite affecting, the animals are a quiet triumph for taxidermy, and the fake waterfall creates a genuinely meditative atmosphere. It all raises the suspicion that there may be something 'essentially' Scottish underneath the tartan flummery - even if that is a philosophical heresy.

Perhaps the reason for ...Rocky Mountain's success lies not so much in its historical references as in its geographical implications. The myths upon which Sinclair draws are shaped ultimately by the country's harsh terrain, and the character of the people is defined by the resistance of the landscape. No matter how Disneyfied the people choose to become, the dumb, intractable presence of granite and rain will defy them.

The geographical dimension of this work will also prove interesting if it is reassembled outside the country. In America or Japan, the installation would be automatically recast as each nation brought its own mythic constructions to bear on it and ...Rocky Mountain could potentially speak for the cultural defeat of others, beyond Scotland.

Its positive celebration of the transformative power of myths might also prove a valuable lesson. The mountain, poised on its wooden struts, resembles a schoolkid's project - an amateur archaeology of one man's cultural history. It's the playfulness of the myths around it that finally make us take it seriously.

When Joseph Beuys talked to a coyote in New York in 1974, he claimed to have 'made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States' energy constellation'. Similarly, Ross Sinclair touches on contemporary traumas with ...Rocky Mountain, though in his case he has undertaken the journey only to be confronted with Landseer's Monarch of the Glen.