Rediscovered, Remembered and Reclaimed

In 2011 Market Gallery commissioned Kate V Robertson’s Tomorrow’s Another Day II for Vault Art Fair, at The Briggait in Glasgow. This work was a huge sculptural rock suspended across the building’s 1873 Hall balcony which acted as a constant threat throughout the duration of the fair. It encapsulated both the gallery and artist’s desire to present a true representation of their practice within the commercial setting of an art fair by humorously acknowledging the commonly held notion that commerciality within one’s arts practice can obliterate one’s artistic integrity. Kate’s way of dealing with this? Crush the fair with your art!

Despite its popularity Tomorrow’s Another Day II did not sell. In anticipation of this Kate and Michelle Emery-Barker, now curator of Wasps Studios, engaged in a number of conversations throughout the weekend about what happens to a sculpture after the end of an exhibition. Kate had already started a secret ‘sculpture graveyard’ of her own at an undisclosed location in Glasgow’s West End where many of her works had gone to die due to a lack of money and space to store them.

The conversation about what happens to sculpture post-exhibition and the practical concerns in maintaining a sculptural practice continued to prey on their minds and they returned to this discussion many times over the next year. In tandem with Michelle’s growing curatorial ambitions at Wasps, this conversation eventually formalised itself into an exhibition for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2014 – Reclaimed: the Second Life of Sculpture.

To put the exhibition into context within the host organization, Wasps Studios were established in 1977 and have since grown into Scotland’s largest studio provider, supporting 850 artists within 18 studio buildings from the Scottish Borders to the Shetland Isles. In recent years Wasps’ artists have come to expect more than just the provision of workspace.

Wasps’ nine exhibition spaces provide space to showcase the work of tenant artists as well as to show work from UK based and international artists to stimulate and inspire the tenant community, the public and the wider arts community in Scotland. Just as one of Wasps’ primary concerns is contributing to the financial security of Scotland’s artists through the provision of good quality, affordable studio space, one of Michelle’s aims as curator is to programme exhibitions and events that highlight concerns for artists and attempt to produce tangible outcomes.

Reclaimed was a flagship exhibition for Wasps. It was an ambitious exhibition and one of the first shows to use the full breath and height of the grand Briggait Hall. It was also ambitious in its historical span and in its explicit address of a practical problem, something which contemporary art can often be accused of avoiding.

With Martin Craig, a curator from Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art on board, the curatorial team had a unique balance of public/curator/artist, which also reflected our intentions to consider the problem of sculpture from multiple angles. We had a varying approach to selecting the artworks including asking for suggestions from a circle of well-connected mentors, approaching artists we know and love, and also seeking the advice of specialists from local museums and galleries. 

From there, we sought to put together a potted history of recent sculptural practices, whilst also representing a length and breadth of local artistic style. We were sometimes subjective, but we also bent our own rules to accommodate works we especially liked. We found that often works didn’t have to be particularly old to meet our criteria, highlighting that a work can become out of date almost as soon as it is exhibited.

Reclaimed showcased a number of works that had not been seen by the public in 20 years. Artists are productive people often making lots of work, year in, year out for decades. Artists’ spare bedrooms, garages and garden sheds are often crammed full of works that have only been seen by the public once or twice, or works that toured regularly in their hey-day but have fallen out of fashion. These issues are not only confined to contemporary practice, museum stores are often filled row upon row with busts of 19th Century heroes that very few people today know or care about.

It’s a dilemma for museums and artists alike. Often there is little demand to relocate or re-present works, but little point in storing them out of sight. Artworks can’t, nor should be destroyed when in public hands. Likewise artists can’t have a retrospective exhibition if they have destroyed all their past works.

This is a sensitive issue, both with the public collections, private galleries and artists themselves, nobody wants to admit that an artwork is unwanted and we risked shining a light on the shortcomings of organizations, who perhaps should have promoted, toured, made these items accessible. 

What quickly became apparent when looking for works was the prevalence of anecdotes surrounding works, some heartbreaking, some funny. One work had been commissioned by Tate and had been stored in a shipping container. The owner of the shipping container had subsequently died and no one now knew where container or work was located. We found out that it is surprisingly easy to lose a sculpture! Another had been made for a sculpture courtyard in Europe, when upon arrival, the artists realised it was too large to fit through the gate and it had to be displayed in the car park away from all of the other commissioned works.

We were delighted to discover that Neil Livingstone’s Concept of Kentigern, a familiar landmark from childhood since removed from public display, had not been destroyed and was stored in a builder’s yard. This large ‘whale’s tail’ once stood proudly in one of Glasgow’s main shopping streets. Its creator had intended it to represent the spirit of Glasgow and hopes for its future. Languishing in a field it now had greater resonance for us, removed from its plinth, stranded on its side it embodied the destiny of numerous sculptural works neglected, forgotten, unloved and unfashionable. This piece would provide the keystone to our exhibition, and the issue of taste was irrelevant to us. We liked it, because it was still here and its purgatory exemplified our curatorial concerns.

Far from wanting to make a ‘bad art’ show, we wanted to celebrate these wonderful objects, and give them new purpose. We wanted to relish in the physicality of three dimensions, and shake off the burden of bulk.

Glasgow is a town buzzing with creativity and productivity but with a limited commercial market for contemporary art or real culture of collecting art. The way that art is made is often un-economical and un-ecological. Weeks can be spent creating artwork for a temporary exhibition, and works are often destroyed just afterwards or hard-up artists shell out for expensive storage, because there are some works they just can’t part with.

There is a cult of the new around and it seems to prevail. Galleries want to showcase the latest offering, and artists themselves are desperate for any opportunity to realise their most recent ambition. These are the burdens of the creators and producers of art, not the audiences. An audience can be new no matter how old the artwork and some works just keep on giving. Others, like Concept of Kentigern can continue to divide opinion, but raise really interesting discussions around place, memory, regeneration and value. We certainly hope that the unprecedented visitor numbers to Reclaimed (approaching 5000 in 3 weeks) have enjoyed or somehow benefited from the chance to enjoy so many fine examples of sculpture, past and present.

Reclaimed- The Second Life of Sculpture was at the Briggait 5th April- 2nd May as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2014

Main imageReclaimed the Second Life of Sculpture, Briggait Hall, Glasgow (photo: courtesy of Dapple Photography)

Aurora Corio