GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland

Scottish National Gallery & Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 28 June – 25 January

By James Clegg

Ross Sinclair, Real Life, Rocky Mountain, 1996. Courtesy the artist

GENERATION, for those of you who missed the extensive publicity campaign that accompanied it, is a nationwide programme of exhibitions looking back at 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland. Organised by the National Galleries of Scotland and Glasgow Life, the umbrella under which the city’s cultural activities are funded and coordinated, it was timed to open during the Commonwealth Games, while inevitably forming an equivocal cultural prelude to Scotland’s September vote on independence. GENERATION (and it’s always written like that – in capital letters – so that it’s the main thing you see when you look at a page) runs across over 60 venues throughout the country and features work by over 100 artists.

For those unfamiliar with the Scottish contemporary art scene, the headline quality of GENERATION must be something of a gift – an exhibition-based index of the work of Scotland’s most recognised artists. But for those who, on a daily basis, contribute their creative labour to this scene, the precursory sense of editorial truncation has long been troubling. The retrospective tenor of the project has fostered exhibitions that focus on a canonical selection of established artists with a predictable bias towards those emerging from Glasgow during the early 1990s. The Guardian’s art blogger Jonathan Jones’s comment that ‘for the purposes of such a behemoth event… all Scotland is Glasgow’ indicates in geographic terms what is in fact a broader conceptual curtailment implicit within the project from its inception. Rather than reflect the subversive, uncertain, open, interdisciplinary, social, transformative energy that has been a hallmark of the best creative work from this period by rethinking the breadth, scope and nature of creative practice, the project seems beholden to what can best be described as ‘stable assets’.

With over 60 venues taking part in GENERATION, that last statement will naturally prove to be a generalisation; there are participating galleries and organisations that are pushing new commissions and live arts. However, focusing specifically on the National Galleries of Scotland exhibitions, it does largely stick. You’ll probably recognise a good portion of the work at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art (where each artist is given his or her own gallery space), because you will either have seen it very recently somewhere else or it’ll be one of those neoconceptual works you know from the mythology of the ‘Scotia Nostra’. Either way, it’s weary. The latter includes Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which is installed in the central hall. I don’t contend its status as a seminal piece of work, but it is surely important to understand what its creative impact has been in Scotland. Where are the young artists who have responded to and been influenced by Gordon’s practice? Ross Sinclair’s Real Life, Rocky Mountain, from 1996, a kitsch, stagelike hillock covered with stuffed animals and fake grass, a work about reenacting cultural identities to the point of losing the sense of their reality (or fiction), seems haunted by the limbo of GENERATION itself. What other account of the last 25 years could there be when this one can be restaged so well?

There are some parts of the exhibitions that break this limbo. Lucy McKenzie’s room stands out because of the work’s incredible dexterity in bringing together different modes of visual representation, while referencing McKenzie’s collaborative Atelier E.B. design agency, run since 2007, which opens out into such a refreshing terrain of fashion, interior architecture and local industry. Torsten Lauschmann’s At the Heart of Everything a Row of Holes (2011) has great vitality. His orchestration of new and old technologies within single installations – falling between automata and theatre – are elusive, whimsical and humorous in equal measure. The recreation of Steven Campbell’s Form and Fiction exhibition from 1990 is worthwhile too. Most people under forty will have only seen photographs of it, at best; in the flesh it’s as idiosyncratic as you’d hope. Campbell’s narrative elements and figures seem to be in commune with modes of art that seem arcane and mysterious within this select context.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue