Rising from the wasteland

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LAST year, Dan Dubowitz became a statistic. The acclaimed Glasgow-based artist was struck down by an aneurysm after complaining of severe headaches. He was rushed to hospital for tests and had major brain surgery. He admits his workload was punishing, but then says quietly that "autopsies reveal that one in a hundred people has an aneurysm, but only one in 100,000 collapses over their breakfast croissant".

Dubowitz, who is in his mid-30s, was suffering from frighteningly high blood pressure and had simply taken on too much. He became ill just as he and his colleague, artist and sculptor Matt Baker (together they were the Heisenberg partnership, which is no more) were unveiling The Gatekeeper, in the Gorbals.

That moving and beautiful work, which includes the bronze figure of a woman floating between two four-storey tenements above Dubowitz’s huge photograph of another woman walking through a deserted, desolate colonnade towards the camera, is the largest piece of public art ever to have been commissioned in Glasgow. Beneath it lies an underground "crypt", a chamber filled with the ashes of keepsakes and mementoes gathered by local residents, including objects Dubowitz tirelessly collected from the city’s Queen Elizabeth Square before it was demolished.

Dubowitz, who divides his time between Glasgow and Manchester, was in the Gorbals for the burning ceremony and the consecration of The Gatekeeper in March last year, but a week later he was in hospital having a life-saving operation.

Speaking for the first time about his brush with death, the father of two says: "I was overworking. I had taken on far too much because I hadn’t found project managers I could delegate to in Scotland. I think the whole Gorbals thing, my Artworks Masterplan exhibition to focus public debate on wastelands, was just too personal to hand over to other people. I was running this big project but I was still an artist; I just wouldn’t compromise."

His illness changed everything. "I got a break in every sense," he says. "A lot of things ended, some working relationships, for instance. Although straight after surgery I was back on the phone organising things. I was so used to filling my days, I couldn’t stop. But the big break was in not being frenetic any more."

For some time Dubowitz did not know whether he was going to recover his health or not. He went through some very dark days and was deeply depressed. "I couldn’t concentrate, therefore I couldn’t rehabilitate myself intellectually. I am who I am through my work, so for three months I was neither making nor doing. The confidence went, too.

"I decided to keep quiet about what happened, so I haven’t worn the illness on my sleeve at all; it was private."

However, about two months ago, he realised that he was fully well again. "I still have to make some life-changing decisions about the way I work, so that I don’t find myself back in the same place again - in hospital," Dubowitz says, running his hand through his shock of black hair.

Artistically, though, he’s completely charged. "I’m much more productive than I was before the brain haemorrhage," he says, adding that he has been helped by cognitive therapy, which he discovered through a Scottish charity.

But he isn’t joking about the amount of work he is currently handling. Recently appointed Artist for Ancoats, he opened his Manchester exhibition Wastelands: The Presence of Absence, recording the moment in time between the industrial suburb’s degeneration and regeneration earlier this month.

On December 11, Dubowitz stages Wastelands: Sanctuary in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side - the Episcopalian church is famous for supporting an eclectic range of art and artists. (The wirewalker Philippe Petit, who danced between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, is artist-in-residence.)

Inside the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, Dubowitz will install light-boxes in the nave and two chapels showing his remarkable photographs of three derelict sanctuaries - the abandoned 1960s Modernist seminary in Cardross, in the west of Scotland; Pugin’s Gothic Gorton monastery in Manchester; and the Renaissance convent of San Gimignano, in Italy, which was until recently a high-security prison. From the convent there is a view of the Tuscan twin towers - hill fortresses - that were the model for the World Trade Center towers. "The first skyscrapers," says Dubowitz, showing me an image of them on his laptop.

It seems somehow fitting that a man who has only recently been reminded how short and precious life is, should be asking us to focus on images of people-less religious ruins that bear the ghostly imprimatur of previous generations. This sense of time past, of a presence conspicuous by its absence is crucial to Dubowitz’s work. He’s the poet of the wastelands, often accompanying his photographs with the words of those who once worked in or inhabited these places.

In Ancoats, his next exhibition will be Immuration, when permanent artworks will be immured in "spaces animated by a living past which makes them sacred". This work in progress means people are for ever bringing him artefacts. News of a newly-discovered tunnel arrives and Dubowitz, now known in Manchester as the Rapid Reaction Artist, rushes off to photograph it before it disappears.

"I have way too much work on," he sighs. "It’s such a lovely position to be in and they are all things I want to do, because they’re major projects. There’s another important Wastelands project, like the Gorbals, but 10 times the size in scale and ambition. It’s to rebuild Sunderland, but there’s no doubt that the Gorbals work was a precipitating factor in how ill I got, so it’ll be a dangerous move on my part." He has also launched a publishing company and is producing his own books as part of each Civic Works artwork.

In the meantime, though, he can’t conceal his excitement about his "New York gig". He believes his rehabilitation after his brain surgery began when he went to Cardross to photograph the crumbling seminary. "It just turned the switch on, I don’t know why. There isn’t a person who visits Cardross, however irreligious they may be, who does not feel that they’re not alone there. There’s a presence, it’s like it’s alive. I’m not talking about the nuns and the priests who once inhabited it - they’re long gone. It’s something deeper, something emotional.

"I’m always asking what buildings are for. I’m not a wordsmith, so I don’t put this across well, but I only come alive when I’m in a wasteland, such as Cardross. That’s where I find hope - in the places other people find hopeless. That’s why I feel drawn to voids. I feel a sense of becoming in wastelands and I can think there. It’s the fact that things are on the move and on the go. People call it decay. Why don’t we just call it change? We’re all in decay, we’re all changing. I guess I know that more than most people."

Wastelands: The Presence Of Absence is published by Civic Works Press, Glasgow, 12. Wastelands: Sanctuary is at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, at 112th Street, New York, December 11-February 2. Wastelands: Presence of Absence/Ancoats Stories, Piccadilly MetroLink, Manchester until spring