Art, Context & REAL LIFE
Art – and all art when it is first made is contemporary – often talks about the issues of the day and challenges the views of the time. What we now revere as examples of great art were time and again seen as controversial. For instance, Constable’s energetic depictions of storms or Monet’s studies of light were initially shocking and people asked, ‘Is this art?’
Look at Glasgow Museums’ very own Salvador Dalí painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross, which made a tabloid splash when it was bought in 1952. Thousands of Glaswegians queued up to see it. With opinions split, most people embraced the painting. There were healthy debates and conversations surrounding it, until in 1961 one member of the public violently attacked it, nearly destroying what is now considered Glasgow‘s favourite painting. This may not be new information to some readers but context is important, as it can sometimes be missing when an artwork provokes a strong negative reaction and context is what this blog is all about.
Ross Sinclair’s neon installation We Love Real Life Scotland currently adorns the front of GoMA as part of the exhibition Devils in the Making. As happened with Dalí, Sinclair’s work has fragmented opinion. There’s been high praise both from the art world and the public alike. In this ‘selfie society’ it has been giving joy to thousands of local and international visitors, as demonstrated by all the images on social media. However, not everyone likes it, which is to be expected and embraced. The best art actively instigates debate and discussion. The problem is when that discussion becomes one-sided due to lack of information or because an artwork has been taken out of context, and I believe this is what has happened with Sinclair’s work.
We Love Real Life Scotland was originally made in 2005 as part of the Radiance Festival. It sat on the back of Glasgow City Chambers. The central neon sign, inspired by two of Glasgow’s visual icons – the Barrowland Ballroom sign and the old Irn-Bru sign on Argyle St – flashes We ‘Heart’ Real Life Scotland. Surrounding it are 12 smaller neon signs making various statements with the prefix ‘We “heart” …’ They vary from We ‘Heart’ Robert Burns to We ‘Heart’ Parsimony. Each sign references an element of Scottish cultural identity, which Sinclair explains below:
Over the past 300 years the national image and identity of Scotland has been articulated, defined and invented by writers, poets and artists. This dates back at least a far as 1761 and James Macpherson’s invention of his epic Ossian/Fingal poetic ruse and is woven through the incredible life and poetical works of Robert Burns, our ‘national bard’. Just a few years after Burns’ death Walter Scott invented historical fiction (for the first time featuring ‘Real’ characters and historical events from Scottish history, manipulated to the author’s own narrative ends).
The neon signs are red and garish and the use of the heart emulates the tacky tourist T-shirts and shopping bags so utilised by New York with its ‘I “heart” NY’ slogan. The heart asks the viewer to consider the frivolity of these statements.
These signs are challenging, and rightly so. When We Love Real Life Scotland was first shown 10 years ago it was the sign We ‘Heart’ Alcohol that was deemed offensive, with one councillor demanding that it be taken down. At that time NVA, the organisers of the Radiance Festival, stood their ground and said no artwork would be censored as a matter of principle and if We ‘Heart’ Alcohol did not go up then none of the other signs would either. Ultimately both We Love Real Life Scotland and the Radiance Festival as a whole met with overwhelming praise. Flash forward to today and now We ‘Heart’ Alcohol has generated no complaints but We ‘Heart’ the Highland Clearances and to a lesser extent We ‘Heart’ Culloden have caused outrage for a few.
Why has there been this shift? Again, we look at context. Back in 2005 Glasgow was trying to change its public perception. The city had, and still does have, a very serious problem with poor health relating to alcohol abuse, and work was happening at the time to both address this in a practical way but also rebrand Glasgow’s image. As a result, in 2015 the city now presents itself as an international and cosmopolitan destination.
Another notable shift in the Scottish political landscape over the past decade is the growth of nationalism. Are these the reasons for the shift in focus by the public? Who knows, but it is interesting to see how historical context can change the reading of an artwork.
No matter when it is displayed, We Love Real Life Scotland should be viewed and considered in its entirety. No one part should be taken out of context, as the signs should all be read together. Taken on its own, We ‘Heart’ the Highland Clearances could be deemed offensive but it is not on its own. It sits alongside 12 other neon signs and has the added context of sitting – literally – on an art gallery. We Love Real Life Scotland has to be read as a whole, as this is how the artist has presented his work.
For example, we can look at We ‘Heart’ Parsimony (which at first appears more light-hearted) with the same rigour as the perceived ‘more serious’ signs. We Scots have long had a reputation for being a bit tight. We play up to it mainly through comedy, via characters like Tam from Still Game. Tam is a lovable penny-pincher, but do we all want to be represented in this way? Would you like to be described as tight? As a nation, do we not want to be charitable and willing to help others less fortunate than us? In these austere times, are we saying that to love parsimony is good? Suddenly a small statement is very political. We have created a cultural myth that becomes so ingrained that it can’t be shaken off easily.
Although more extreme, the highland clearances had the same dual dynamic and one we have perpetuated, as Sinclair argues here:
Of course no one really ‘loves’ the Highland Clearances, for example, but lasting images/national treasures held in National Collections by artists such as Landseer, the more gritty realism of Thomas Faed’s ‘Last of the Clan’ or the depopulated grandeur of the highlands celebrated in Horatio McCulloch might suggest otherwise. This raises questions to which there are no easy answers. Are these images now so ingrained that they are part of us, or are we part of them?
In Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum there is an entire gallery called Scottish Identity in Art. Here you can see The Last of the Clans (1865) by Thomas Faed and Glencoe (1864) by Horatio McCulloch. In the same gallery there’s also a large staged photograph by Ron O’Donnell called The Scotsman, which ‘depicts’ a Scottish man in his home. To some it’s a tongue in cheek depiction, but to others it is still negative, featuring as it does cans of lager and a football for a head. Would your opinion of the work change if you knew that it was made in 1987?
On the opposite wall of the gallery, made 13 years later in 2000, there is a painting by the Singh Sisters, Mr Singh’s India, which offers a vision of Glasgow that we would recognise today. Multicultural, historical but also modern, embracing everyone. The Singh Sisters’ depiction of Glasgow may offer a more favourable representation of Scottish society but both theirs and O’Donnell’s interpretations are still valid. These works are challenging in some way, but all are historically and culturally important. Ross Sinclair’s work would fit perfectly in this gallery, as it continues this ongoing conversation around national identity.
As we have seen, context is key to We Love Real Life Scotland. Each statement is a challenge, depending on the viewers’ opinions and knowledge. For me, the central neon ‘We heart REAL LIFE Scotland’ is where the true heart of the work lies. As Sinclair discusses below, how does Scotland REALLY want to be represented as a nation in the future?
The artwork We Love Real Life Scotland enters into this conversation. It’s a celebration, a commiseration, a joy, a cringe and all at the same time. …
If there is a message to this work it is that we should embrace and even celebrate the fact that Scotland is essentially a fiction, based on something that never existed in the first place. Once you get over that you realise this means Scotland can be anything we want it to be, and anyone can become part of that journey, anyone can become Scottish if they simply come and join in, to imagine the future together, the more the merrier. It’s not Lochs and Highlands, it’s a state of mind.
As happened to Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Sinclair’s work has recently been physically attacked. The discussion of the right and wrong of this – a criminal act – could be a whole new blog completely, so let’s stay on track with the original point – art is subjective and good art should instigate discussion but taken out of context this discussion can get skewed. The criticism levelled at We Love Real Life Scotland is that a statement like We ‘heart’ the Highland Clearances is offensive to some. And that we understand, as Sinclair has said:
Of course no one really ‘loves’ the Highland Clearances …
None of these neon signs was ever intended to be read on its own. When seen as a whole they form a challenge to the viewer and Scotland as a nation, not a literal interpretation. Can anyone deny that Scotland has embraced such tragedies as the highland clearances or Culloden into its culture whilst often romanticising them, maximising their political capital or using them for financial gain through tourism? Why is it bad to love Culloden but okay to love Bannockburn? Because we won? Is any war not a tragedy? Every culture has tragic events in its history. The important thing is to remember, teach and discuss the different sides of the events. This is also true of the cultural myths we build up around us as a nation. Yes, we can have the bravado of ‘liking a dram’ but with it we have to take the ugly side of glamorising drunkenness and the ill-health that brings.
As a Scottish gallery with thousands of visitors each week, GoMA has a duty to promote discussion through contemporary art. During this exhibition some visitors have presumed that Sinclair has used examples such as the highland clearances with little knowledge or regard to the history of events. But the artist takes his duty to prompt discussion through art seriously and has studied these events closely before using them in this context. As a result, you can see he understands the emotions connected to the history, their key figures and cultural stereotypes. We Love Real Life Scotland is there to open up just such conversations. By taking a section of the work out of context and holding it up as a literal statement it’s not giving the complete picture for everyone to engage with. It may even be said that by doing this we could repeat the actions of Faed or McCulloch in painting a one-sided picture.
By trying to close down the conversation by physically obscuring a section of the work you can argue that the statement is being blacked out, or even erased, and that one individual is deciding for others what they can see or cannot see, enjoy and discuss.
This brings us back to the simple fact that contemporary art, like any other artistic medium, is subjective. People may appreciate We Love Real Life Scotland because of the way it looks and not care what message lies behind it. Others may hate its ‘tacky’ neon buzz. Some visitors may engage with the work because of its content, whilst others may not agree with the artist’s intent even after reading what the work is about.
In the end all we wish is that the work be judged as a whole and is respected so that each visitor can have their own conversations and come to their own conclusions.
You can read Ross Sinclair’s full statement on the work by downloading this PDF: We Love Real Life Scotland_Ross Sinclair.
Curator, Devils in the Making