Art review: Calum Colvin: Museography

Each of Colvins interventions offers a new perspective on works in the gallery space, using symbolism and metaphor, replica and similitude; where an artists studio becomes a space inhabited by Bonnie Prince Charlie
Each of Colvins interventions offers a new perspective on works in the gallery space, using symbolism and metaphor, replica and similitude; where an artists studio becomes a space inhabited by Bonnie Prince Charlie
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The new V&A, looking like a stranded ship on the shorefront in Dundee, follows the success of DCA. The city has invested hope and resources in both. But the deeper motivation of such projects is usually not art but economics: the hope that art will bring people and people will bring money.

The McManus, Dundee ****

One hundred and fifty years ago, the McManus, the city’s historic gallery and museum, was founded according to a different equation. Then art was not tourist bait, but good in itself, the flower of the plant that was a city’s culture, a vehicle of education and promoting a higher vision.

Too often now the legacy of those ideals loses out in collision with economic demands, but to show that Dundee’s investment in the arts is not only brute economics, the city has also invested in improving the McManus.

The result is impressive. Where before it was cramped and crowded, the revamped Victorian building is now light and spacious.

Calum Colvin has also been invited to mark the McManus’s sesquicentenary, not with an exhibition exactly, but with a series of works distributed throughout the displays.

Artists’ “interventions”, or “responses” of this kind are generally lamentable; their work appears puny and self-absorbed beside real objects imbued with history.

But Colvin is different. His work is complex, thoughtful and witty. It is also by its nature allusive and so admirably suited to the role it is given here, not competing discordantly with the museum’s displays, but joining in, broadening the dialogue beyond bald information towards reflection and even poetry.

It is difficult to find a label to describe Colvin’s hybrid way of working. Ultimately he makes photographs, but before he does so, he paints, constructs and assembles objects of all sorts into a scene in which juxtapositions, interactions and overlays all join to create a rich and complex whole finally unified as a photograph. Here different themes are interwoven with various links to the displays, to photography and to the city’s own history and the people who made it. His overall theme however is perhaps memory: how the grand and the trivial are incorporated into history without discrimination and thence into the myths by which we identify ourselves in our daily lives.

For this reason, perhaps, however far-flung the links, his images tend to be set in very ordinary domestic interiors. Robert Burns, for instance, has become, not just part of our self-awareness as Scots, but even part of the fabric of our lives and so in Colvin’s portrait he floats ghostlike in someone’s sitting-room. The walls are hung with souvenir plates and portraits of Harry Lauder. A chair is piled with editions of Burns’s verse, but the portrait itself is circular and is surrounded in turn with plates adorned with the poet’s portrait, several designed by Colvin himself. Thus our national poet has become part of our material culture. It is a nice point to make in a museum where too rarely we make just that link, though in reverse, to recognise how material objects feed the intangible ideas from which we construct our identity.

Colvin also brings that thought to bear directly on Dundee’s own history. There is a portrait of William McGonagall, the city’s famous bad poet. But Colvin again asks us to look beyond the myth. The portrait is a stereoscopic image, red and green glasses provided. You see McGonagall, quite literally, not in the two-dimensions of the popular image, but in three, in the round in fact and with aspects of his real persona as a travelling showman incorporated into the image.

The Polar explorer Robert Robert Falcon Scott’s association with the city is there in his ship, Discovery, built in Dundee and moored alongside the evolving V&A. Both Scott and his nemesis, Ronald Amundsen, are present here in characteristically allusive portraits.

One of the most telling images offers a commentary on John Pettie’s painting, Disbanded, of a Highland soldier returning home in a wintry landscape. Colvin’s Highlander, however, is a domestic ghost striding through someone’s living room with his foot a sketch on the telly. On the wall is a collection of tourist-style images of other indigenous peoples exploited in the name of Empire while two fat Toby jug imperialists enjoy a casual cup of tea.

In Cruthni, Colvin returns to the theme of indigenous people. The Cruithni were apparently one such Scottish tribe, and he invokes them in a picture hanging behind the museum’s Pictish stones. His image is a battered standing stone in a desolate rocky landscape. It carries neither carving nor inscription, but a huge thumb print, the telltale trace, not just of human presence in general, but of an individual presence, a reminder that the people who inhabited Scara Brae, present in a curling photo, were individuals just like us.

Some of Colvin’s Jacobite images hang among the museum’s Jacobite collection. Unidentified Aircraft is a cloudy homage to Edward Baird’s painting of the same name of a Nazi bombing raid on Montrose. Colvin’s commentaries on photography itself are intriguing too. Most striking is A Caucus Race, an image from Alice in Wonderland, but where Alice meets a dodo, and the dodo it seems is a metaphor for the passing of analogue photography supplanted by digital. It is nevertheless still an object of wonder.

DUNCAN MACMILLAN

Until 29 October