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Scots contemporary artists scale the heights: Mega-show reveals how nation has sustained its fizz for a quarter of a century

June 27, 2014

Jonathan Jones

What kind of administration might an independent Scotland have? Perhaps it would be the Parliament of Funk, the Psychedelic Utopia, or the Rockabilly Empire.

That's what I found myself thinking as I paced the kaleidoscopic disco floor that is Jim Lambie's Zobop. This 1999 classic of contemporary Scottish art is made of lines of coloured tape that completely fill a room. Installed at Edinburgh'sFruitmarket Gallery as part of the mega-exhibition Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland, which can be seen at venues all over Scotland this summer, it is ecstatic, hallucinatory - the ultimate legal high. Lambie is a rock'n'roll Matisse. His chromatic cocktails set the mind free.

Lambie's work exemplifies two things typical of contemporary Scottish art. First, it's obsessed with music, and I don't mean Highland pipers. His art fizzes with pop history: his works at the Fruitmarket include an Earth, Wind & Fire album cover and a polychrome LP collection. Second, so much of this art has a socially aware, even civic dimension. Just as Joseph Beuys tried to change the world with felt, Lambie tries to with funky colour.

An art movement is not something you can fake. Liverpool has its biennial and Gateshead its Baltic, but neither has a serious international art scene. Scotland does. In the late 1980s, London produced a generation of young British artists who were quickly feted by the international art world. Glasgow was becoming an equally creative art scene at the same time but, where England's YBAs are rich celebrities now and London's art scene is profoundly commercialised, Glasgow art has managed to stay young. As the artist and teacher at Glasgow School of Art Ross Sinclair told me at his terrific exhibition atop Edinburgh'sCalton Hill, where he plans to help young people form rock bands and is giving away electric guitars, there's still not much money changing hands for art in Glasgow. Maybe that's why it still has the raw edge and sense of shared fun that make for a true avant-garde environment.

For the purposes of such a behemoth event - a sort of nationalist biennale - all Scotland is Glasgow. The creativity emanating from that city is invading galleries from Dumfries to Orkney. Crossing the Tay Bridge into Dundee, I found three artists recreating a pop-up Glasgow art bar they first made in 2010 called le Drapeau Noir (the Black Flag), decorated with their own works and set alight by readings from the likes of Glasgow novelist Alasdair Gray and, inevitably, artists' indie bands. At Dundee Contemporary Art, the bar's founders, Rob Churm, Raydale Dower and Tony Swain, are exhibiting around a live stage decorated with their Black Flag-in-punk homage to the utopian art of the Russian revolution.

What is a Scottish contemporary artist? Well, you don't have to be Scottish for one thing. Churm, who makes swirling, enigmatic drawings, comes from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. After studying at Glasgow School of Art he stayed on.

Yet it may not be a coincidence that the Generation exhibition is taking place in the year that Scotland decides if it will remain in Britain. It certainly appears as if the Scottish cultural and political establishment is investing in art as a major asset and tourist attraction.

In the grand and beautiful National Gallery exhibition rooms on Edinburgh's Mound, a work of art refers to something beyond its immediate subculture. Christine Borland collected eyewitness descriptions of the Nazi "scientist" Josef Mengele from Holocaust survivors. She sent these descriptions of his reputedly handsome outward appearance to six sculptors, who made six heads of Mengele (one pictured left). They are, of course, each different. The installation meditates darkly on the nature of memory and the banality of evil.

Borland's seriousness and interest in moral darkness has put her in the great tradition of Scottish writers such as James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson. They also ally her with Douglas Gordon, who, 18 years after he "broke the ice" (as De Kooning said of Pollock) in 1996 for modern Scottish art by winning the Turner prize, has an awe-inspiring exhibit at Glasgow's GoMA.

It's fitting that you have to go not to pretty Edinburgh but to severe and acrid Glasgow to see the best of Generation. It's in Glasgow you can see a glass installation by Richard Wright at the Modern Institute that is so beautiful it seems to be some kind of angelic intervention in the surrounding urban grime. And it's there you can be floored by the dark genius of Douglas Gordon.

Gordon's art is all about the classic themes of doubles and duality that haunt Scottish gothic literature, from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner - two tales that merge in one of Gordon's most haunting videos. His installation in Glasgow screens all his videos on old TV monitors in a mesmerising constellation of uneasy images. On one screen, a shell-shocked soldier repeats the same action again and again; on another, a snake charmer in North Africa plays with cobras. And in what might be his most disturbing video to date, a water garden that looks like Monet's turns out to have not lilies floating in it but skulls.

This flow of juxtaposed nightmares is a magnificently troubling window on the mind of Scotland's, and Britain's, most imaginative contemporary artist.

Scotland is obviously an enjoyable place to be an artist. You can play in three bands, teach at Glasgow School of Art and show your prints in a pub. Maybe that is, to quote the tattoo Ross Sinclair showed me on his back, "Real Life". But real art happens when the pubs have closed and someone with the serious mind of a Christine Borland or a Douglas Gordon looks into the bottom of a glass stained with terrible thoughts.


Clockwise from above: fellow-exhibitors at Steven Campbell's Of Form and Fiction, Jim Lambie's Zobop and a section of Ross Sinclair's Real Life Rocky Mountain Main photo: Chris Watt

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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