Turner-nominated Lucy Skaer on her Glasgow show

SCULPTOR Lucy Skaer feels right at home thinking big in her first solo Tramway show
Artist Lucy Skaer at the Tramway in Glasgow ahead of her show. Picture: Robert PerryArtist Lucy Skaer at the Tramway in Glasgow ahead of her show. Picture: Robert Perry
Artist Lucy Skaer at the Tramway in Glasgow ahead of her show. Picture: Robert Perry

Outside Tramway, a bunch of young, arty-looking types are unloading building materials from the back of a truck – a sure sign that a big installation is underway. In Tramway 2, with the radio turned well up, walls are being constructed for the latest incumbent of Scotland’s biggest exhibition space: Glasgow artist Lucy Skaer.

A graduate of Glasgow School of Art’s celebrated Environmental Art course in 1997, Skaer’s profile has grown steadily in the past ten years. This is her biggest show in the UK since her Turner Prize nomination in 2009, and also her homecoming: she is returning to live in Glasgow after four years in New York. “It’s brilliant to come back to Scotland to live and have this be my first project,” she says. “Also, I think, in the back of my mind I’ve always had ‘my’ Tramway show, not thinking that I would definitely get to do it, but it’s just one of those spaces that you think about.”

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The last time Skaer made work in Tramway was in 2002 with Henry VIII’s Wives, the collective formed from her contemporaries at GSA which was an energetic, subversive force on the art scene for seven years. Never short on daring, the Wives constructed a life-size model of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Tramway 2. Skaer laughs, remembering. “The whole build was crazy. We were installing for three months, I think, which seems quite incredible now.”

While she describes working with Henry VIII’s Wives as “brilliant fun”, her solo practice is distinct: serious, thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, always asking questions of itself. Which would be quite a good description of Skaer herself, who sits over a black coffee and thinks, carefully shaping the answer to each question. She finds big gallery spaces exciting. “To be honest I have more problems doing shows in small spaces because I like dealing with scale. What I’m using it for in this show is to make domestic scale objects awkward in the space, and have them dramatised in a way that they wouldn’t be in a normal room.”

The notion of taking an object or image away from its original context is a consistent theme in Skaer’s practice. Her works can be striking in their largeness – like the immense drawing based on Hokusai’s Great Wave which she made for the Venice Biennale in 2007, or the skeleton of a sperm whale she used in the Turner Prize show. Others stand out because they are small: a scorpion and a diamond laid next to one another on an Amsterdam pavement. Made sufficiently un-comfortable, the object or image in question begins to reveal secrets about itself, which in turn makes the viewer consider more deeply the act of looking.

Skaer grew up in Cambridge, in a family of scientists, and came to Glasgow because it was the first art college which accepted her: “I had to say whether I was going to accept or not when they phoned me up to offer, but to be honest, I was just really delighted to have got in anywhere.” She chose Environmental Art because she wanted to work across a range of media, and though she makes films, drawings and prints as well as objects, considers herself first and foremost a sculptor.

The Tramway show engages with the unseen fourth dimension of sculpture: time. It intrigues her that we encounter sculptures in the present, yet, as monumental objects, they give the impression of having been around forever. “There are going to be leaps or loops or hiccups in time in this show. I guess I’m trying to explore the way that events and images go from being current to being recently in the past, to being much further in the past, to being unfathomably far in the past.”

Skaer is drawn to the theme of prehistory because it allows her to examine objects without a written narrative. Works in the show include artefacts she has purchased – a fragment of bronze Roman mirror, a cup by the modernist sculptor Lucie Rie, a set of 11th century Chinese bowls – as well as others she has made. Encountered without a museum-style narrative of their history, the objects have their own story to tell.

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Skaer is also using the sandstone steps of the house in which she grew up to create a representation of her street. “I’ve started using these things that are personal to me as a way to investigate this idea of nostalgia or how the past is perceived, but I’m not using them in a completely straight way. They also have to have this imposed, symbolic meaning.”

Skaer’s nomination for the Turner Prize (won in 2009 by fellow Glasgow artist Richard Wright) was a personal milestone. “It was like a marker that you won’t slip back from. The whole business of being an artist is such an insecure and strange career, it feels like it could stop at any point really, but I think the nomination solidified the fact that I’m an artist and would like to continue to be one. It felt like it stabilised something.”

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Skaer has certainly been very busy since. Tramway is her fourth solo show this year, following exhibitions in Spain, Portland, Oregon (in the Yale Union, a space as big as Tramway) and this summer’s residency at Mount Stuart, the Victorian stately home on the Isle of Bute owned by the Crichton-Stuart family. Her work at Mount Stuart – including a pile of broken stone pillars under the ornate dining room table and carvings from a fallen yew in the highly decorated drawing room – has been praised by critics.

“I made a film which was shown there last summer, so I’ve actually been hanging about Mount Stuart for about three years, which means I’m weirdly familiar and quite fond of the place. I guess I took it as carte blanche to make whatever I felt like making in visual response to the house, because I think in a way the house invites that. I felt I couldn’t necessarily make things which were that flamboyant if I was not in that setting, so I really just went for it.”

New York was energising, fast-moving, market-driven, she says, but it has made her look at Glasgow with fresh eyes. “It’s interesting because people hark back to a time in New York when perhaps there was higher crime but it was less sanitised, less developed, artists could just move into buildings and do things, and I thought: that sounds kind of a lot like Glasgow. I think being in New York has meant I can see more of the opportunities here.”

• Lucy Skaer: Exit, Voice and Loyalty, is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 25 October until 15 December