I ENTER the building side by side with an eagle. It's a matter of weeks before Dundee's McManus Galleries and Museum will reopen to the public after an £11.4 million refurbishment, and when I arrive at the venue to meet the artist David Batchelor, a whole flock of winged creatures are being returned from storage to new perches within.
The McManus itself seems to have taken flight too, in a project funded largely by Dundee city council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The best of its historic interior – it was opened in 1867 – has been restored.
The splendid Victorian picture gallery has been rejuvenated, the collection rehung and the whole institution wears its heritage with a flourish. But now it is also more airy and accessible, from the light-filled new entrance and inevitable caf to the "central circulation space" a top-lit staircase that will draw visitors through the building.
It's in the new stairwell – a conscious echo of the historic round staircase at the other end of the building – that I find Batchelor, somewhat enmeshed in electrical flex. He has a historic connection with Dundee – now in his mid-fifties, he spent the first nine months of his life in Broughty Ferry – but what brings him back to the city from his London home is something resolutely contemporary.
The artist has been commissioned by the gallery to create one of his characteristic light pieces, a festoon of illuminated colour that fills the new stairwell through its three storeys, and a ten-metre drop.
What distinguishes Batchelor's art is not just his keen colour sense but his materials. The work, Walldela Dundee, funded by grants including 27,740 from the independent charity The Art Fund, is not made from hand-blown glass, or hi-tech resin. Instead it is 100 metres of electrical cable, light bulbs and 200 coloured plastic containers that you could easily find in an ordinary supermarket.
"For the first few days the work will smell," Batchelor jokes, then insists, as I grimace, that "it will smell rather clean". Many years of patient research have established that the brightest colours and the best effects come from bottles of cleaning chemicals, fizzy drinks and, often, hair products.
Batchelor is a well-established international artist; his illuminated tower of steel and perspex was a huge success when placed in the Tate's vast Duveen Galleries in 2003. Scottish visitors may recall his Talbot Rice Gallery exhibition and a stunning light installation in the Palm House of the Royal Botanic Garden during the Edinburgh Art Festival.
He's about to have a major mid-career survey in Rio (there's a strong interest in his work in Latin America and the love affair is mutual). Yet this work is only the third permanent piece in his career. "I'm weirdly happier indoors than outdoors," he says. "You can use less robust materials, light, glass or plastic in my case. You can preserve a feel of the fragility of the world."
That sense of fragility is important. Batchelor jokes about a material like bronze, that "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole!" Plastic may seem a bit of fun, but Batchelor's approach is highly considered. He teaches theory at the Royal College of Art in London and is the author of a brilliant and highly regarded book, Chromophobia, which charts the history of colour and, in particular, western culture's deep suspicion of the colourful.
But theory, he says, does not drive his work. "You don't have a theory and then execute it, you stumble across something in the studio and then you make something and that takes you to a new place."
It's almost 15 years since he made that crucial stumble in his own work.
"I became increasingly interested in where you find intensive colour in the modern city. A great deal of it is petrochemical and electrical: I was looking at lightboxes, advertising signs. The biggest change in our experience of colour in the last 100 years is the advent of plastics and I began by using sheets of Plexiglas and so on.
"I was quite literally going round the city in search of the places where you find colour and one of those places was the supermarket."
The idea of beauty is probably where both theory and practice do come in. Educated at the high water mark of British conceptual art and in an era that was both practically and intellectually "a time of outstanding austerity", Batchelor absorbed much of the rigour and critical thinking of the period, but couldn't adopt all of its values. "Beauty has had a bad press over most of my adult life," he explains, "and yet I think we are hardwired to respond to things that are beautiful and they remain powerful forces in my life. When you combine colour and light, they do seem to invoke a powerful response.
"I was taught that art should, at all costs, avoid the beautiful, the vibrant, the sensuous and the rich and, at a certain point, having made kind of anorexic works, I thought I would turn it all on its head."
In doing so, Batchelor's art touched a nerve. Walldela Dundee is instantly appealing, but underpinned by a toughness and intent that matches the charm. He has no qualms about bringing a bit of streetwise beauty into the more refined surrounding of a gallery and museum.
"As an artist, I spend all my time in museums," he says. "They're quite ordinary places. I know they might be remote or exclusive places to some people but for me they are everyday life. Some of these Victorian museums can be intimidating, but working in the McManus, it's clear it's not and the refurbishment has really opened the place up." v
The McManus Galleries and Museum reopens to the public on 28 February. www.mcmanus.co.uk
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, February 14, 2010.
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