1990: When three Scottish sculptors took over the Venice Biennale

It’s 30 years since Scotland first featured in the Venice Biennale. Curator Clare Henry recalls how hope and hard work helped pull off an art world coup

Kate Whiteford, David Mach and Arthur Watson in Venice in 1990

In June 1990, as the great and good of the art world gathered for the opening of the Venice Biennale, an unfamiliar sound could be heard above the hubbub of the crowd – the sound of bagpipes. Heads turned as piper Ruaridh MacDonald processed through the Giardini, the venue at the heart of the world’s biggest art festival, heralding the arrival of a new kid on the block: Scotland.

Three Scottish sculptors had installed their work in an outdoor space at the heart of the gardens, shoulder to shoulder with the national pavillions of major players. Over the next six months, the work of David Mach, Kate Whiteford and Arthur Watson would be seen by thousands of people from around the world, and Biennale director Giovanni Carendente would write that he considered the show “one among the most important events of the 44th International exhibition of art”.

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Many people assume that Scotland’s involvement in the Venice Biennale began in 2003 when Creative Scotland and partner organisations founded Scotland + Venice and committed to regular presentations as a “collateral” participant (outside the “official” show). Few remember that Scotland first took part 13 years earlier when – for the only time in its history – the country occupied a place at the heart of the official Biennale.

Arthur Watson and curator Clare Henry beside Watson's piece, Across the Sea

The curator of the 1990 show, Clare Henry, believes it’s important to mark the achievement on the 30th anniversary. Building an ambitious show on a shoestring budget, they nonetheless managed to take centre stage at the art world’s biggest jamboree. She says: “I think a lot of people don’t know or don’t remember, but it was terrific and needs to be celebrated.”

She looks back on it with pride but with a certain amout of incredulity too. “It was pretty well a miracle. In those days all we had was a telephone, a fax machine, an envelope and a stamp. In hindsight, I don’t know how we did it. I think we must all have been crazy, I don’t think we realised at the time what we were in for, but I guess we were all young enough to take it on.”

It was Scottish gallerist Richard Demarco who suggested, in 1988, that Scotland should claim its place at the art world’s biggest table. The Vigorous Imagination exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival of 1987 had been an important landmark, featuring 17 Scottish artists in their twenties including the New Glasgow Boys, Howson, Campbell, Currie and Wiszniewski. Glasgow had been named as European City of Culture 1990.

It was then left to three strong women to take the idea forward: Clare Henry, art critic and curator, Barbara Grigor, filmmaker and chairman of Scottish Sculpture Trust and arts producer Angela Wrapson. Grigor died in 1994 and Wrapson last year, leaving Henry with what she describes as “a certain responsibility” to celebrate what they achieved.

Late in 1988, Henry visited Venice to try to secure a venue for the show, trekking between palazzos, warehouses and deconsecrated churches with the Venetian writer Tudy Sammartini. Finding nothing suitable at the right price, she sought a meeting with Biennale director Giovanni Carendente. Here, she struck gold: Carendente was a curator with an interest in outdoor site-specific sculpture. He wondered whether a home could be found for the Scottish project within the Giardini.

Meanwhile, a selection process at the Scottish Sculpture Trust whittled down 30 nominations to 15 then to four (the original line-up also included Bruce Mclean, who later withdrew). A marathon fundraising effort succeeded in securing £10,000 from the British Council and £20,000 from the Henry Moore Foundation (three applications for Scottish Arts Council funding were rejected). The total budget for the project was £46,000, a tiny amount for a Venice show and a fraction of the budget spent by Scotland + Venice on a single Biennale today.

Then the call came through. Carendente offered the group the Esedra, a 2.5 acre open-air site at the heart of the Giardini with a raised platform at one end. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” Henry says. “I thought he was joking. Needless to say we said ‘yes’ very fast!” In December 1989, she was back in Venice with Whiteford and Watson, walking the length of the Esedra in the closed-up wintry Giardini. Now, the clock was ticking. The group had to create a site-specific show in under six months.

All three artists had already demonstrated their ambition and ability. Mach was busy working internationally and was about to create his Parthenon-like pillars of newspaper for Tramway as part of Glasgow’s Year of Culture. Whiteford had made an iconic land sculpture on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill in 1987 and was designing sets for Ballet Rambert. Watson was running Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen and managing his own sculpture projects.

All three proposed ambitious works for Venice which took them out of their comfort zones. Whiteford would make Sitelines, a 10m x 20m land sculpture in which she used poured concrete for the first time. Mach would make monumental bonsai trees (the tallest was 18ft) out of laser-cut steel. Watson would create a “sunburst sail pyramid” made of fishermen’s smocks. All were working in materials they hadn’t used before.

None of these works would be easy to build in any circumstances, but Venice presented particular challenges, not least because everything had to be brought to the site by boat. Mach’s trees – the largest of which, a Scot’s pine, would be installed at the entrance to the Biennale – were huge and very heavy. Whiteford, who brought her cement mixer in a van from Scotland, was not allowed to cut into the ground in Venice so had to create her sculpture as a relief, pouring the concrete into a metal frame. Watson’s work was delayed for several days by customs at Bergamo.

The installation was a race against the clock. “Every pair of hands on site was put to use, along with the Biennale crane, pickaxes, ladders, the lot,” Henry remembers. “Even my 80-year-old mother, a sculptor herself, worked on the installation. The crane operator was terrific.” One of the last jobs to be done was the hanging of the banner announcing the show across the entrance to the Esedra, done by Murray and Barbara Grigor on a pair of step ladders. The show was ready.

On opening night, piper Ruaridh MacDonald marched down the long avenue from the British Pavillion (showing the work for Anish Kapoor) to the Esedra, leading the now triumphant members of the Scottish team. Carandente held his opening press conference in the space, which helped attract the attention of journalists from around the world.

Henry says: “It was a huge success. It was in the centre of everything, you couldn’t miss it, it got us a lot of attention with international press. If you get a chance at Venice, it’s like winning Wimbledon. From the moment Carendente suggested the Esedra, we manage to pull it off. It was a very cohesive show.

“It was a triumph on a shoestring with three very good Scottish artists, all of whom pulled rabbits out of hats and did something new and risky and remarkable. We hoped and expected it would be followed up, that Scotland had got its foot in the door.”But it would be another 13 years before Scotland would once again celebrate its excellence in contemporary art at the biggest art festival in the world.

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