Graham Fagen on challenging norms in Venice

AS Graham Fagen prepares to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, he talks to Moira Jeffrey about his efforts to challenge social, cultural and political conventions

Graham Fagen at this summers Glasgow School of Art exhibition Cabbages in an Orchard. Picture: John Devlin

In the attic room of his home on Glasgow’s Southside that the artist Graham Fagen uses as an office and “thinking space,” a piece of blank manuscript paper is pinned to the wall. The basic musical structure is there, but the notes have not yet been filled in.

It seems an apt symbol of Fagen’s working life at the moment. On 9 May, the 48 year-old artist will open a solo show in Venice, representing Scotland at the Biennale, but for the moment the final notes have yet to be put in place.

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There are clues to Fagen’s current thinking: on the floor lies a thick rope woven from coconut fibre. Venice is a port city and on recent visits the artist became aware of how much the architecture reflected the city’s history. He collected images of the rope-shaped details and decorations on building façades, and of crude African figures on door brasses that have been a feature of Venetian decorative arts since the 17th century. “Visiting Venice it is the history of trade and slavery that comes to the forefront of my thinking,” he explains. “As I was touring all these venues I became aware of all the ‘blackamoor’ imagery.”

In a project funded by Creative Scotland and curated by Hospitalfield Arts in Arbroath, Fagen will show his work in the Palazzo Fontana, a delightfully rich and slightly faded building on the Grand Canal in the Cannaregio district of the city. This is the first time the 16th-century palazzo, the birthplace of Pope Clemens XIII, has been used for an exhibition.

It is the palazzo itself, with its terrazzo flooring, pronounced slope and murano glass, rather than the razzamatazz of the vast international exhibition itself, which is Fagen’s focus. “What I’ve learned for myself over a long period of time is the way I enjoy working is when I have context. The Biennale doesn’t seem like the context, but this building and the city of Venice.”

It is 12 years since Scotland first presented a post-devolution exhibition as a “collateral project” at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important international showcase of contemporary art. Fagen, part of that project, Zenomap, presented a short film as part of the wider programme. Among the artists who have shown for Scotland since are Martin Boyce and Duncan Campbell, both of whom went on to win the Turner prize. Fagen, who was commissioned to work with the Imperial War Museum during the Kosovan war and who has worked on commissions with the National Theatre of Scotland the Scottish National Galleries, is focusing on the work rather than the occasion. Is it an honour? “Yes, to have been selected, because it’s not something that you apply to do or ask for. It is always an honour to be asked. “

If Fagen is a sculptor, his subject is not just physical form but how we ourselves are formed. “It is about cultural formers, cultural assimilations, cultural clashes and cultural learning,” he says. “For me all of these things seem to be so much about what Venice is about, even the idea of hosting international festivals. For centuries it has been a hub because of trade, but trade brings culture, ideas, concepts and other things.”

Growing up in Irvine in the 1970s as part of the Glasgow overspill, it was punk and reggae that showed Fagen wider horizons, but also first presented strange conundrums of his own history. The sounds of Jamaica seemed much more meaningful to him than the poems of Robert Burns he rote-learned as an Ayrshire schoolboy.

The discovery that Burns was once destined for life in the West Indies as a plantation slave driver, however, was a pivotal moment for the artist. In one of his most significant exhibitions to date, at Tramway in 2005, he worked with the singer Ghetto Priest and some of Jamaica’s leading reggae musicians to recast the Burns songs of Fagen’s childhood for a new age. When Ghetto Priest sang a dub version of the Burns poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ it brought history full circle.

Last summer Fagen was part of the novelist Louise Welsh’s Culture 2014 project, the Empire Café, which looked at the impact of the transatlantic slave trade. “When I was researching in 2005, my peer was the novelist James Robertson who had also looked at the subject and it felt like it was just me and him. But in less than ten years there has been a massive shift in terms of engagement with that history and what that history means now.”

In Marseille last September he worked with theatre maker Graham Eatough on a film installation, In Camera, based on Sartre’s play Huis Clos. They constructed a stage set, designed to look like a chic art gallery, and in a film they recorded in the space the art works and the set were subsequently smashed.

The play is set in the afterlife, where famously “hell is other people”, but the pessimism of Sartre’s original was rethought. “In the play the characters accept their fate, in our version the valet character cajoles the rest and suggests that there is a way out.” The film ends with the characters upending the set, and, as it falls away, a picture window and a view of the city are revealed. It might be a metaphor for Fagen’s art, which often works to show how we are imprisoned by our histories and assumptions, and how stepping outside the set of our own lives can reveal other points of view.

“My work has always touched on the social and the political,” says Fagen. “The work has always had a pragmatic edge because of what I’m trying to communicate. Maybe it’s to do with getting older, you think about the complexities of social, cultural and political situations. Now it is starting to feel my work is more human, maybe with more emphasis on the importance of intuition and creativity.”

As part of this Fagen is returning to the importance of music. “As an artist you make some shape or form no matter what medium. What is interesting about the possibility of music can be the way that some shapes or forms can be in different places at once which is a lovely idea.”

We turn to the blank score on the wall. There is work to be getting on with.

• Graham Fagen’s solo presentation for Scotland + Venice 2015 is at the Palazzo Fontana from 9 May until 
22 November.