Art review: Generation SXSW 25, Kilmarnock

The weather had finally turned to summer when I visited Rozelle Park in Ayr. The rhododendrons were ablaze and Rozelle House, a fine 18th-century Adam mansion, looked gorgeous.
A gallery shot of Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen  Christine BorlandA gallery shot of Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen  Christine Borland
A gallery shot of Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen  Christine Borland

Christine Borland, Dalziel + Scullion, Graham Fagen: GENERATION SXSW 25

Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ayr, The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock and Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries

Rating * * * *

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That this very gorgeousness, these days in the hands of South Ayrshire Council, was built on Robert Hamilton’s sugar and tobacco fortune will have come as no surprise to one of the artists showing in the Maclaurin Art Gallery housed in Rozelle’s stables. The place belonged to the Hamilton family whose fortune rested on three Jamaican estates, Pemberton Valley, Rozelle, and Carcluie, and their family archives show not just their reliance on slave labour to work their plantations, but their active investment in the transatlantic shipping of human cargo.

Graham Fagen, who next year will show at the Venice Biennale under the Scotland + Venice project, has long made the connection between his upbringing in Ayrshire and Scotland’s involvement in slavery a key plank of a body of work that explores how we are shaped by our circumstances. For Fagen, growing up in Castlepark, Irvine, a teenage love of punk and Jamaican reggae was underpinned by a growing, and at times confusing, knowledge that Robert Burns, the local hero whom every Ayrshire child understood as a champion of liberty, once intended to head off and make his fortune as a supervisor (or slave driver) in the West Indies. History, in the form of the success of the “Kilmarnock Edition” of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was to intervene. Later Burns made some amends with his extraordinary poem “The Slave’s Lament”, whose narrator is a slave on a Virginia plantation.

A whole room at Rozelle is dedicated to works by Fagen from the last decade which touch on these themes, including his prints of the boats that Burns might have travelled on, his small painting The Liberty Tree and best of all Auld Land Syne c/w The Slave’s Lament, the video he made in 2005 featuring the Jamaican dub musician Ghetto Priest and the extraordinary musicians and production team of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound record label. To hear Ghetto Priest sing about slavery in a place where every brick was built upon it is quite something.

Fagen’s work at Rozelle is only one tiny element of the SXSW 25 programme that brings Fagen, Christine Borland and Matthew Dalziel & Louise Scullion together in three shows under the umbrella of the Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary art in Scotland project. The other two venues are the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock and Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries.

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Each artist has a strong connection with the area, Borland is from Darvel, Matthew Dalziel is Ayrshire-born and Dalziel+ Scullion have undertaken much work in Dumfries in recent years. If this all sounds a bit cosy and local it is to misunderstand the way in which these artists have drawn on their experience in careers that have been built on international significance and scale. Now in their forties and fifties, their careers were forged in an era of heightened awareness of the way we are shaped by contingency and life experience and at a time when visual culture in particular emphasised lived experience and a rigorous approach to social and institutional context.

At Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute, for example, Fagen and Borland’s displays evoke museum displays to deal with thorny issues of conflict, medicine, forensics and politics. The gallery is showing Theatre, Fagen’s video made in 2000 for the Imperial War Museum, who commissioned him to travel to Kosovo. Its emphasis on the folly of intransigence and dangers of identity politics is filtered through historical drama. Fagen’s preparatory reading for the project was Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth and Henry V. The refusal to take sides or to wallow in emotion distinguishes Fagen’s work from that of many of his war artist predecessors.

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If there is a shared strength to all three shows it is in the intellectual distance that these artists can bring to their tasks. Christine Borland’s The Treasury of Human Inheritance, on show at the Maclaurin, draws on 19th-century Danish and British research into the genetic inheritance of medical conditions. A series of gorgeous agate mobiles turn out to be elegant representations of family trees and indicators of family illness. If such information is these days considered life-saving, Borland doesn’t shirk from showing the more sinister eugenic tone of much historical research in the field. The mobiles are accompanied by the case histories that inspired them.

The shows are not strictly thematic but in Dumfries we see an emphasis on how each artist uses the natural world as subject matter, context or metaphor. Dalziel + Scullion’s Wolf sees the duo explore the story of the last wolf to be killed in Sutherland and the subsequent transformation of the landscape by clearance and cultivation. The script by Robin Lloyd-Jones is at times too overwrought with poetic emphasis. For me the duo’s best works are their clipped and incongruous short films like the fantastic Raptor, which sees a powerful bird of prey let loose in the grey plastic world of a modern office, or Scratch, in which a lean wolf prowls the corridors of Glasgow School of Art. Their 2001 work Water Falls Down, on show in Ayr, casually brings together snow falling on a tree bough, water pouring across a boulder and extraordinary footage of sea baptisms of adult men in rural Aberdeenshire. It gains power from its sheer understatedness.

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If there is one of these shows that is most effective it is the Dick Institute’s, where the main gallery dedicated to Borland and Fagen’s work plays with museological displays and accommodates work on both vast and tiny scales. It is lovely to see, almost 20 years after she first made it, Borland’s 1996 work Small Objects that Save Lives, a sequence of mounted photographs of ephemera chosen by friends. Amongst the things that might save us are specs, keys and chilli paste. Nearby are works that evoke Borland’s signature themes: labour, (both work and child-bearing) and mortality. On the floor, lined up, are simple wooden blocks that have their origins in the dissection pillows that support a cadaver’s head.

Above, strung gloriously from the ceiling, are suspended sheets of punch cards used to operate jacquard looms. The work was devised with US artist Brody Conlon and last seen in a historic graveyard watchtower during the Edinburgh Art Festival last year. There, it told the story of the lives supported by a charity for women impoverished by the premature death of their “tradesmen” fathers: their stories are encoded in the punch cards. Here it evokes another death, that of Ayrshire’s textile mills, which used this technology. Each show is rich in such references in ways too numerous to fully get to grips with here. But to begin to get to grips with the practice of these compelling artists, and the careers they have forged over more than two decades, I strongly suggest a visit to all three.

• Generation SXSW 25 is at the Maclaurin Gallery until 13 July, the Dick Institute until 16 August and Gracefield Arts Centre until 5 July