25 Years of Art and Not-Art in Scotland: A Trip to Modern One and Modern Two

Art, at its best, is a kind of uncontrolled yet disciplined Yelp, made by one of us who, because of the brain he was born with and the experiences he has had and the training he has received, is able to emit a Yelp that contains all of the joys, miseries, and contradictions of life as it is actually lived.  That Yelp, which is not a logical sound, does good for all of us.
-George Saunders, “The United States of Huck”

Done with my final papers, done with the last draft of my novel, done with funding applications and travel plans – done with, it seemed, life, at least until I was to touch the tarmac at the Buffalo Niagara Airport – I sat propped up in my bed Saturday night, swilling the last of a £10 bottle of juniper, and letting Henry Adams lull me into an uneasy sleep with his musings on American life at the close of the nineteenth century.  There was nothing profound in the realization that I had to brave the cold, throw myself back out into the city and squeeze what I could from it in my last five days here – or else grow quietly mad (and fat) in my flat.  One Edinburgh “attraction” stood out on my list of yet-to-dos: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

The Journey: A Review of Clark’s Desert Boots

Sunday morning came and I filled a thermos with coffee, grabbed a Prince Polo candy bar *  in case of emergencies, and boarded the 41 bus, looking optimistically at the 35+ min. trip as another opportunity to read The Education of Henry Adams.

Though a shuttle will take you from the National Gallery on the Mound to the Modern Galleries (separated in two buildings, called with Seussian style Modern One and Modern Two) in the West End, the longer (10-20 minute) walk from Princes Street will both test your orienteering skills and offer a remarkable variation on the usual palette of grays and gray-browns enjoyed by the Edinburgh flâneur.

Because of a cursory glance at Google Maps the night before, I knew that the 41 bus would take me from King’s Buildings in Southside to Randolph Terrace **  in the West End, just past Princes Street, from which I could take a short but winding stroll to the Galleries, crossing over a bend in the “Water of Leith,” a mysterious creek or river which cuts through Stockbridge and rushes into the Firth of Forth right beside the Royal Yacht Britannia.  It wasn’t long before I began to doubt my path.  Seeing no river ahead of me, I spotted a sign bearing a street name that seemed familiar in a possibly dyslexic sort of way (Bannockburn? Broughmuirloch? Ravenclaw?).  As I drew closer, I saw that it pointed down a steep flight of uneven steps – on either side were alley-facing front doors, mail slots and potted plants, all the brick and stone wet and red-tinged.


Was in in Edinburgh or Assisi?  I heard the faint sound a creek makes – not a sigh or a babble, but as if humming to itself, in its watery way – when untroubled by depth or rapids or human interference, and I knew I’d stumbled on something special.

Instead of “special,” I found a new world.  Instead of the Georgian regularity of New Town with its massive stone manses and wide boulevards – instead of the cobblestone closeness of Old Town’s medieval tenements and wynds – I saw silent Tudor houses and a canal-style walk and a private river-side breakfast terrace seemingly unconnected to any abode, green brush growing into the creek, the green-gray creek cutting into the walls, and an odd lonely lamppost enveloped in ivy.  Someone, it seemed, had misplaced a  castle down there.  A  couple walking their West Highland white terrier didn’t find any of this as magical as I did.


They were evidently familiar with the “Water,” for they’d worn their knee-high Wellingtons.  After wearing smooth-soled leather dress boots to climb Knocknarae and the Salisbury Crags, and almost dying, or at least losing a hand to barbed wire, I had decided I would try different footwear the next time I went adventuring.  I hope Clarks desert boots are actually suited to the desert, because they aren’t suited to much else.  So far in Edinburgh I’ve used them to slip on wet leaves, to slip on wet stones, to slip on muddy driveways, and to nearly impale my foot while being catapulted over a cast-iron fence by a cop who considered me to be “trespassing” on the National Gallery arcade.  They’ve now proven unsuited to leisurely walks along the “Water of Leith” during intermittent December drizzle.  Determined that the magic of the place should not fade, I adopted a bowlegged gait and crossed the footbridge to keep heading west, forgetting, for the time being, the gallery.


Perhaps I missed the sign.  Perhaps if I’d kept going, I would have seen the creek open up onto a wide, dry, gently inclining path leading up to whatever neoclassical building they’d decided to stash these mod masterpieces in.  But after a few false turns, a fruitless walk up a steep stairway cut straight from the sodden alluvium, and a moment contemplating a broken fence and a rough path through a twiggy bower, about the size of a wild boar or a hellhound, I decided I had to try my luck and leave the path.


The Yelp: (Or, You Know It When You Hear It)

I ducked out and found myself in the lower parking lot of the Britannia Hotel – with “Modern Two” not far up the hill.  When I finished the long walk up the museum grounds footpath, I sighted over a high hedge and caught my first message of the day: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE – all caps, bright bulbs, on a metal pipe frame – facing the Dean Gallery, an odd building (formerly an orphanage) with a neoclassical main entrance, four boxy Georgian corners, and two stairwell-capping towers almost Baroque.  So, without further ado: The Yelp.


If there’s anything the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art offers, it’s an opportunity to distinguish between brilliant accomplishment and halfhearted gesture, dizzying imagination and complete vacuity – or, Art and Not-Art.  Some of the works on display – Picasso and Dalí – show the heights of technical perfection married to some of the greatest expressions of wit and levity and unapologetic eroticism seen in the twentieth century.  Some, like  Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, express exquisite terror.  The works by Joan Miró show him at his least entertaining, but, so be it.  The curators of Modern Two, aside from that gallery’s well-constructed surrealist collection (including letters, a plaster cast of a statue owned by several of the artists on display, and a surrealist “curio cabinet” featuring, among other things, a severed hand and a female figure riding and reigning a winged and legged phallus) also offer the rare attractions of a gallery library (including a collection one can consult on appointment) and a recreation of the chaotic London studio of the surrealist sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi.  Also currently on display at Modern Two is a collection entitled “The Two Roberts,” the first major exhibition of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde – lovers, Cubists, heavy drinkers, and Scotsmen.  Absolutely worth seeing.

But this is all in Modern Two.

Across the road is Modern One, a more strictly neoclassical building of the same period, currently bearing above its front columns the blue neon announcement (which reads like a warning) that “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT,” and  housing  a rotating exhibition, currently “Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland.”

The same exhibition – really a celebration across the entire country – has a cousin-exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound, but having seen this almost two months ago, I’d completely forgotten (it was forgettable).

The standout of this exhibit was a room of selections from Charles Avery’s The Islanders series – an improvised multi-genre exploration of his wacky, edgy, bustling, Tolkein-meets-Nintendo imagination.  His wall-sized ink-and-pencil canvases depict life on an imagined island, toward the exploration and description of which since 2004 the self-taught artist has bent his considerable powers.  The pictures are troubling and great fun; one could spend hours visiting and revisiting the details of a single one, offering isolated vignettes (almost animate) and suggestions that, in their indirect and apolitical manner, call to mind the philosophical and social problems of our own world – and encourage us to work on them.

The achievement is technical – the imagination behind it is capacious.  It is a “Yelp,” to borrow Saunders’ phrase.  In other words, like the work of the Surrealists who admitted the Yelp and called it as much, Charles Avery’s illustrations never pretend to possess any pervading logic, never boast to hold an answer, never adopt the false and boring pose of “understanding.”  A damn good Yelp, and a moving one.  It “does good for all of us.”

Too much else in Modern One – too much of the last “25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland” – was, by comparison, heartbreaking.

There are exceptions and they deserve recognition.  Victoria Morton’s “Dirty Burning” is alive with aggression and lightness and tense with fine quick control.  Alex Dordoy proves he has a sharp eye for color and plane.  There are probably remarkable pieces that I missed.  Perhaps I should say now: this isn’t a review.  If you’re looking for a review: Yes: Go: It’s Worth It.  But …

Victoria Morton’s “Dirty Burning,” on display in Modern One.

The Not-Yelp (Or, the Boy Who Cried ‘Art’)

I’d like to stick with George Saunders because he’s so sensitive and free of malice – and any serious discussion about art must be sensitive and free of malice.  In his essay on discovering Kurt Vonnegut while working (and trying to write like Hemingway) in Sumatra, Saunders offers a novel way of thinking about art.

Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life” – he can put whatever he wants in there.  What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.

Saunders is talking specifically about fiction, but his words apply to all art.  We don’t love Rembrandt or John Singer Sargent because they can paint things that look like “real life.”  We might find their achievements remarkable because they can render life as we see it (or more precisely: better than we see it).  But we love them because they render life as we feel it.  Rembrandt’s accomplishment is the same as Picasso’s, and Michaelangelo’s is the same as René Magritte’s (and David Mamet’s and Béla Bartók’s to boot).

One could argue that Saunders’ definition reduces any attempt to judge art or partition “Art” and “Not Art” to a hopelessly subjective, even solipsistic endeavor.  One could easily shut down the conversation this way.  But there’s a hope in what Saunders says; it lies in the words “undeniable” and “nontrivial.”  The hope is that people – artists and art lovers – will continue to talk about what art they love, wonder and discuss how that art moves them the way it does – and to nurture no illusions about Not-Art.  We all owe ourselves, each other, artists, and “art,” that much respect.

So, to carry on: how do they move us?  Or, how does a work of art make that “undeniable and nontrivial” something happen?

The poet William Carlos Williams strikes as close to that answer as anyone I know.

He writes:

Poetry has to do with the dynamization of emotion into a separate form.


It is in the minutiae, in the minute organization of the words and their relationships in a composition that the seriousness and value of a work of writing exist – not in the sentiments, ideas, schemes portrayed.

In other words the artist must through disciplined craft transform the raw stuff of life (rather than some idea of what the work should be – more on this later) into something lapidary, transcendent.  Something that works on the viewer, reader, listener, like Saunders’ black box.  That which makes, defines, establishes a work of art, then, is not an idea, a philosophy, a statement (god forbid), but emotion dynamized through the tense and disciplined yet fundamentally illogical process of composition.

Many of the artists on display at Modern One lacked emotion.  After this, they failed to make disciplined choices.

“I intentionally make the work with no literal meaning,” the installationist Claire Barclay (featured in Modern One) says.  This and other comments suggest that meaning is paradoxically central to her work: she wants viewers to assign or suggest meaning, as guided by their unique emotional responses.  The problem: one doesn’t have an emotional response.

Compare this with the four pieces by Alison Watt also on display at Modern One, large oils depicting white fabrics (suggesting bedsheets) pinched and swirled, showing  impressive rigor of line and curve.  There are hints of bodies underneath, but Watt’s touch is too light to make anything so obvious – and the perspective is too close to offer anything more than a suggestion.  “Rosebud” and “Sabine” stand out in my memory.  I remember: how I felt.  Alison Watt made me feel because she is an artist –  disciplined, illogical, concentrated, exacting, imaginative.  She practiced simultaneous spontaneity and control, channeling emotion.  This is the seemingly impossible act at the heart of anything worth the epithet “art.”

So Last Night, I Had This Dream About …

One gut test for false “art,” I’ve found, is that it makes you feel about the same as you do when a friend – maybe even a stranger – insists on sharing a play-by-play of the dream they had last night.  The one that was “So crazy, man.”  The one that was, being a dream, not subjected to the rigorous choices artists make in presentation.

The nadir of the “25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland” came at the northernmost end of the upper hall, where I found two video installations.  The first was Smith/Stewart’s – I could hear it, heavy breathing, before I saw it.  There was a partitioning wall (for protection) and an utterly unnecessary warning that some patrons might be disturbed by what was to follow.

Alas, I was not disturbed.  I felt the faintest hint of hunger.  As I watched the video installation, I judged that I would do best to save my Prince Polo bar for the bus ride home.  Suffer now for the later reward.  Oh, the art?  Well.  Two projections on perpendicular walls showed oversized human heads breathing inside plastic bags – the breaths amplified.  Sado-masochism?  Eroticism?  Humor?  Intimacy?  A curator had tossed these words onto the sign on the partition, hoping they’d be sticky.  Someone even had the courage to say that whole lazy affair was “visually arresting and full of black humor.”

No.  If any patron of the gallery felt anything on seeing Smith/Stewart’s installation, they would have had to have whipped themselves up into the emotion – willed it forth, nurtured it, encouraged it, deceived themselves – the way people first decide to feel offended, and only then convince themselves that they are.

Next to this was Roddy Buchanan’s video: a succession of hands drop to the floor a succession of glass bottles holding various potables.  They smash – the foam spreads.  Et cetera.  I was listening to someone’s retelling of a dream.

I’m sure George Saunders wouldn’t mind me giving Willy Williams a chance to speak, but just in case, here’s another gem from George.  Perhaps to prove the totally tangential point that all art is “stolen,” this quote is comprised of two pinched quotes, one of them only partially attributed.

Einstein once said something along the lines of: “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.  Touching on the same idea, a famous poet once said: “If you set out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then you’ve written a poem about two dogs fucking.

Smith/Stewart, I suspected, set out to make “art” about two people with bags over their heads.  Buchanan set out to make “art” about dropping glass bottles.

Congratulations – yes, you can keep those quotation marks.

This is the danger of “ideas.”


The afternoon grew dark. Wary of navigating the “Water of Leith” at night, I set back out across the lawns of the galleries, and spotted again the sign, “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE,” what I learned was a sculpture by Nathan Coley.  The effect was even more dramatic against the darkening sky.  The grass had begun to take on night’s blue tones – but the clouds were still white, and the low sun was pale and made the bare branches sharp and black.  The lawn was big and empty; all was a backdrop to Coley’s six words.

Coley didn’t come up with the phrase himself.  According to the artist, he plucked the phrase from a royal proclamation for a seventeenth-century French town, reputed for miracles, and overrun by pilgrims.  “There will be no miracles here,” the king declared.  In its historical context, the phrase is incredibly bold.  On the lawn of the Dean Gallery, it becomes a meditation on church and state, public versus private space, the degrees and purposes for which individuals or groups can utilize that space.  But it’s Coley’s choices of presentation that elevate the words to art.  The circus or fairground-style lights convey hope, even cheer.  But that same association – especially set on the bare metal poles that support the words, conveying across the distance of the lawn their coldness – undermine that same hope.  The backdrop of the trees and sky – the angle at which the sculpture faces any viewer – all of these choices of the arrangement of “minutiae” effect the “dynamization of emotion” which the viewer feels.  Coley’s choices “make” the art.

And taking a last look at this, now one of my favorite pieces I saw that day, along with Magritte’s “corps humain” and Watt’s bedsheets and Charles Avery’s incredible world, I set out for the river, Prince Polo waiting in my pocket for the long bus ride home.

* Prince Polo is a Polish candy bar which originated under the People's Republic. Three layers of wafer cemented by chocolate are then encased in a thin but satisfy external shell of only the best Polak cacao. I first encountered the candy two years ago in Germany, and since then my Schlesier-Germany family and friends have included the beloved PP in most care packages - indeed, they attach the unmistakable golden bars to almost every correspondence. Outside of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and Iceland, where the bar enjoys massive popularity, PP is known to but a few initiates - and these hold the candy in semi-divine regard.
** In fact, had I been a better navigator of Google Maps and its renderings of the Lothian bus routes, I would have found that the 41 line will take one to Queensferry terrace, offering a much shorter, flatter, and easier walk to the Galleries.  Not for the first time, my ignorance proved my fortune.


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