IN the former Thurso town hall, now a visitor attraction entitled Caithness Horizons comprising a museum, library and café, I’m watching a trapped fly. Not just any trapped fly. This is Film Noir, Fly, a Douglas Gordon video from nearly 20 years ago.
ARTIST ROOMS: DOUGLAS GORDON
Caithness Horizons, Thurso
* * *
STEPHEN HURREL: NORTH SEA HITCH
* * *
WALKER & BROMWICH: ORCADIA & OTHER STORIES
Pier Arts Centre, Orkney
* * * *
A reminder that back in 1995, before the artist could marshal big resources and even bigger production values, his art had a compelling, lo-fi pull.
Displayed on a simple monitor in a darkened room it shows a fly, stuck on its back, which rouses itself, kicks its legs and then subsides again. My mind wanders, thinking of the ridiculous dance The Dying Fly and recalling gruesome scenes in Iain Banks’s 1984 novel The Wasp Factory, but when I return to the screen, still the fly struggles on in a relentless yet pointless attempt to escape. It’s a horribly compulsive work, which these days gives me a peculiar sense of shame.
The video forms part of a small suite of works the artist has donated to the Tate/National Galleries of Scotland partnership Artist Rooms and is being shown in Thurso as part of the Generation project. In the background is a similarly relentless soundtrack. Looking down with his black, black, ee consists of three small screens featuring the cawing and crooning of ravens as they wander and hop around the interior of the chapel of the Palais de Papes in Avignon. They are harbingers of death, but what or whom has died in this place, symbolic of earthly as much as sacred power, is not quite clear. Beside them, from 1996, is A Divided Self I and II, one of Gordon’s key early works in which the artist’s two arms – one clean-shaven the other hirsute – are locked in an endless wrestling match; mind and body, good and evil each upturning but never overcoming the other.
This is a bravely bleak little selection and in its northern setting above a museum full of Norse imagery and displays on the nuclear industry (Dounreay is nearby) it should speak to both elemental mythology and modern dilemmas. It feels a little too detached, though, too parachuted in to gain real traction in its setting. While it gives an impression of the key themes of Gordon’s work, good and evil, internal conflict, mortality and our fruitless attempts to escape it, this boutique show does so at the expense of a more intimate connection with art and ideas.
An hour south down the road in Sutherland, I meet artist Stephen Hurrel in Helmsdale, where he is working on his residency at Timespan entitled North Sea Hitch. Hurrel, whose work in film, sound and field recordings has explored watery environments from the Clyde to the coast of Barra, plans to grab rides on local boats to see how far he can venture into the adjacent seas with a view to exploring the tensions inherent in our modern relationships with the sea. This week he has been out rowing in a local skiff.
When we talk, Timespan is showing the first work in a three-instalment project, Dead Reckoning, a recent film made largely in Cromarty. Hurrel’s camera roams around the rusting hulks of oil platforms and catches the shiny new textures of a gleaming offshore wind turbine. His mic, trailed through cloudy waters, captures the submarine sounds, whistles and clicks of local seals. Hurrel’s work draws on the operation of a marine mammal research team, which was tasked with exploring the impact of offshore power generation on marine wildlife. Where Dead Reckoning shows a single giant turbine, elegant and imposing, soon there will be hundreds.
The offshore renewable explosion is transforming Orkney, where after a hearteningly easy crossing of the Pentland Firth, I arrive at the the Pier Art Centre in Stromness for a mini-retrospective of the work of Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich. The collaborators are tackling the speed of change in Orkney with a new work: Game for Change, a game developed with a board game designer and a business consultant. It turns out to be the only hesitant moment in a very strong show, which charts their work from Walker’s 1996 project Portable Paradise to a very recent film, Eccentric Banquet.
In 1998, as a young graduate, Walker packed up her car and drove from her studio at Goldsmiths College in London to a residency on Orkney. The work she made there, Dream Cloud, is emblematic of their ideas. In a grainy video (recorded by Bromwich in their first collaboration together) Walker straps herself to a vast white parachute formed in the shape of a cloud and attempts to take flight. A day of trying is reduced to just minutes of footage: an endless attempt to break free. The artist never took off, but the pair’s artwork did and this show, Orcadia and Other Stories, is a heartening telling of a story of contemporary art in Scotland that doesn’t follow the usual narrative of Glasgow dominance.
Walker and Bromwich make art where visual absurdity, and at times public joyousness, articulate underlying ideas of the search for both individual freedom and collective transformation. In a series of photographs and an elegant choreographed film, the artists parade their Love Cannon, a giant phallic flower that spurts pink balloons in weird ceremonies and public processions. Rocket (2012) is a transformed inflatable “anti-weapon” that looks more like a limp flower than anything else. I like their sculptures best, these cartoonish images which puncture symbols of power whilst forming central imagery for the kind of public events they will develop for Stromness later this year.
In bringing people together in such elaborate ways, they are still trying to reach the sky. But the work is not without sting. Their recent film Eccentric Banquet starts out as a celebration of eccentricity, inviting members of the public to dine together and muse upon their perceived individuality.
But through the duration of a recorded dinner, it becomes a rather fragile exposure of class difference and power.
In the setting of the stunning Pier Arts Centre, where key works from the permanent collection by the likes of Eva Rothschild and Camilla Low are also on display, it’s possible to imagine art in Scotland that is part of a different narrative from the Central Belt story I write about most weeks.
It’s time to go, but I’m reluctant to leave Orkney without giving a writer colleague just a glimpse of the area’s extraordinary Neolithic past. At Maes Howe we are given a guided tour. We survey the Neolithic landscape. Try to reimagine. We crouch down and walk stooped through the long entrance passageway. Before you start, says the guide, look around you and imagine the social commitment necessary to build something like this 5,000 years ago. Walker and Bromwich’s aspiration of community and ceremony seems less eccentric than entirely consistent.
• Douglas Gordon until 11 October; Stephen Hurrel until 3 August; Walker & Bromwich until 23 August