ART can provoke the strangest reactions. Entering Ross Sinclair’s new installation, I seem to have stumbled back five years to a family holiday at Kinlochmoidart and the sensation of walking into the sound-check of a folk-rock concert in a West Highland church hall.
Here in this small, windowless room, clad with chipboard and hung with red felt and stags’ antlers, is that same intoxicating sense of past and present, tradition and rebellion. Speakers blare out curiously familiar songs - ‘Bonny Mary of Argyll’, ‘Abide with Me’ - all delivered with a wholesome Proclaimers-ish twang. The singer is Sinclair himself, once a professional musician (remember the Soup Dragons?), now one of Cool Caledonia’s art wunderkinder.
It’s a weird experience, made all the weirder because I’m not even north of the Highland line, but aboard a bus outside a primary school at South Queensferry. For, with customary flair and unpredictability, Sinclair has transformed the Scottish Arts Council’s travelling art gallery into the latest instalment of Real Life, his ongoing masterpiece.
It began in 1994 when Sinclair had the words ‘Real Life’ tattooed across his shoulders - for reasons lost in myth. Since then he has been justifying that act; building works around himself and every time offering further clues as to what he is about.
Mention his name to other young Scottish artists and there’s always a pause. Sinclair is a breed apart. It’s tempting to see him as Scotland’s Joseph Beuys, investing materials and artefacts of deep personal significance with magical properties which tap in not only to his own psyche, but to our collective phobias and subconscious understanding.
Sinclair is perhaps best recognised by his socio-political subversions of T-shirts and posters. But he doesn’t just appropriate items or even make individual works of art. He builds environments. None of his pieces, from the brilliantly dislocatory 1994 Museum of Despair in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, to the CCA’s unforgettable Real Life Rocky Mountain, can be seen detached from the whole. He’s actually living his art. Art for him is life. Life art. There is nothing else.
This new instalment in the work of art that is Ross Sinclair is tagged Real Life Rock Opera and there is something rather grand and baroque about it. Perhaps it’s the red felt, or the antlers glued to guitars and banjos, or the kitsch neon signs spelling out ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again?’. More than ever before, there is a tawdry beauty in this new work.
The classic Sinclair image is of the artist standing naked from the waist up, back to the camera, displaying his brand logo against a significant backdrop, often the Highlands or an urban housing estate. The most striking such work on the bus is of him sitting in his boxers on what appears to be his own grave, looking out to sea from Orkney. In fact, Sinclair is alive and well and the obelisk marks a long-dead namesake.
It’s the first step in understanding Sinclair’s Real Life. Nothing is what it seems. Even some of the familiar songs here are Sinclair-invented parodies. Constructing his own version of Highland culture, Sinclair asks us to question just what of that culture, as it is popularly understood, is genuine. On a larger scale, he also makes us question how we define our own lives. By culture? Spending power? Pop music? Just what is ‘real life’? Are any of us living it?
If there is a logic to the often baffling world of Real Life, it’s to do with a sense of who we are, as individuals and collectively. Sinclair is the socio-anarchic cultural cousin of Callum Colvin, taking up where Burns left off, to let us see ourselves as others see us. And here, that ‘us’ is very specific. Never with such simplicity has Sinclair homed in so cuttingly on the imposed marriage of unlikely cultures currently embraced in the Highlands, with that same religiously oppressed attitude of helpless resignation that took so many across the Atlantic during the Clearances. In this, while he is so obviously international, in Scottish terms he is heir to a line of artists including William McTaggart and Will Maclean.
One of the key messages of his work may be the futility of aspiration, but there is also the sense here of Sinclair as the proselytising evangelist; the hermit on a rock. Am I the only person to see the resemblance of his photographs to the landscape-contemplating solitary figures of Caspar David Friedrich? Sinclair too is a voice crying in the wilderness; a prophet. And the bus is the perfect vehicle, enabling him to spread his gospel from West Kilbride to the Western Isles. Even if you are sceptical, I urge you to get on board when it pulls into your town. Sinclair is complex, confusing, often self-contradictory. But this is as real as it gets.
Real Life Rock Opera. Locations in Edinburgh until April 9. Thereafter in East Lothian, Inverness, Moray, Aberdeenshire, the Western Isles, Dumfries and Galloway. For more information tel: 0131-529 3682 or visit www.cac.org.uk/venues/travel