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July 27 2012

Bells toll across UK for Martin Creed's Olympic welcome

A cacophony of bells in Edinburgh, 40 strikes of Big Ben and a wakeup call in north London as part of Work No 1197

First came a mass countdown to 8.12am, and then came the most harmonious cacophony: cowbells, bicycle bells, Tibetan prayer bells, reclaimed Georgian doorbells, Cambodian fingerbells, delicate porcelain bells and even kitchen equipment – a cheap steel toast rack struck with a spoon.

Commuters and tourists passing over North Bridge in Edinburgh stopped and stared as the sound of perhaps 300 hand-rung bells echoed across the glass roof of Waverley station and out into the sunlight. Guests in the Scotsman hotel overlooking the bellringers came out to take photographs and watch, grinning, suddenly roused from their breakfast.

Bells were rung at the Houses of Parliament, in Millennium Square in Bristol, at St Albans Cathedral and at hundreds of other churches and community centres up and down the UK.

This was Martin Creed's artwork for the Olympics: Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Creed's idea was that the whole country should resound with ringing to greet the Olympics; that people should ring on their own, or in groups, wherever they were. Creed had said he would ring his own doorbell.

Big Ben pealed 40 times in the three minutes. It is believed to be the first time the strike of Big Ben has been rung outside its normal schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The bells at the National Assembly for Wales, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament all rang out, and other participants included a gang of 40 bellringers on a beach on Unst, in the far north of the Shetland Islands.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, narrowly avoided injuring bystanders when a bell he was ringing flew off its handle on the deck of HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

In Edinburgh, there was a unique double dose of Creed at his first permanent outdoor sculpture, Work 1059, otherwise known as the Scotsman Steps. It was once notorious as a night-time urinal for the city's clubgoers and drunks, but Creed has transformed it into a kaleidoscope of colour. Every one of the 104 steps of the enclosed stone stairway that links the Waverley station valley with North Bridge above has been cased in multiple hues of marble from around the world – greens, ochre, blues and blushing pink.

For three minutes the stone walls and marble of the steps distilled and amplified the sound of 300 bellringers. Mike Pretious, a marketing lecturer, stood vigorously hammering an antique bronze pestle and mortar inherited from his father, a research chemist. Aidan Carey, eight, rang a heavy brass handbell bought from Boots in the 1950s for his great-grandfather who was bedridden with gout. Work 1197 was the first time the bell had left the family home.

Shortly before 8.12am on a leafy, residential street corner in Kentish Town, north London, there was no particular sign that the Olympics were about to be rung in. Then an elderly couple appeared, the lady wielding a large set of wind chimes.

"We've had them for 40 years and I thought they needed an airing," she said. "They've been indoors for years because the neighbours complained about the noise." Looking embarrassed, she added: "I won't give my name, I don't want the neighbours to know I said that."

A woman quietly reading a newspaper produced a handbell from her bag with an inscription claiming it once sat on the captain's table of the Titanic. "I'm so excited!" said Sara Livesey, from Torbay, who was working a shift later on at the Olympic Stadium. "I think the Olympics are the best thing that's happened for donkey's years." The locals assumed a look of polite scepticism.

Kate Frood, headteacher of the local primary school, passed past on a bicycle. "I'm just off to get the school bell," she called. Quite suddenly a crowd had gathered as if from nowhere. Several people pitched up on bicycles, ready with their bike bells. There were children with sleigh bells and cow bells.

Someone had a Tibetan singing bowl, with a wonderful dark-brown rumble. "They use it for healing, and after a long day, it really works," said its owner. Someone else had "a hippie bike bell from India, very Kentish Town".

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who organised the gathering on his road, brought what he described as the "spare cat bell". Chinese state TV turned up, too. The reporter, named Tingting Ai, had set her smartphone to chime.

There was a certain amount of rehearsal before the official start time, and then Nairne started shushing everyone and listened to his radio. At the first stroke of Big Ben, he yelled "Go!" and everyone was tinkling, chiming and dinging.

Frood had a particularly professional two-handed grip on the school bell ("I ring it every morning at 9am," she said). From an upper window of one of the Victorian houses lining the street, a woman gazed out looking furious. The volume rose when a rubbish truck boomed past. Barney Skrentny had gone slightly off script by ringing a large dinner gong, providing a pleasing bass note beneath the shrillness.

When the three minutes were up, everyone cheered. Ruth Grimberg turned up, having had an unexpected alarm call. "I thought what are all these bloody middle-class people doing with bells, on the one day I don't have to get up at 6am. What is it for again? I thought maybe it was some protest about rubbish collection." She headed off good-naturedly in search off coffee, and everyone else melted away too, ears still a-ringing.


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June 20 2012

RIBA announces 50 best buildings on longlist for Stirling prize

Olympic stadium, Belfast suburban home and Kevin McCloud design in competition for 2012 top architectural award

The 80,000-seat Olympic stadium in east London will vie against a rear extension to a suburban Belfast home for a place on the shortlist for the Stirling prize, the annual building of the year award.

In a sign of the tough business climate gripping British architecture, the longlist of the 50 best buildings in the UK features the modest domestic project as well as the centrepiece for the Olympics.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) said the list of the award-winning buildings "revealed a trend which could be coined austerity chic".

The arena that will stage the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July has received a lukewarm reception in some quarters but is considered a contender for the £20,000 prize as the only truly large British building aiming at the Riba award this year.

It is likely to face competition from other award winners, including the Hepworth art gallery, in Wakefield, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, and the new Lyric Theatre, in Belfast, designed by O'Donnell and Tuomey.

There is evidence that there is still some money around, albeit in predictable quarters: the award winners include a lavish London headquarters for the merchant bank NM Rothschild finished in travertine, oak, aluminium and glass to designs by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter who used to front the Stirling prize award live on Channel 4, could this year appear on the shortlist after a housing scheme he developed in Swindon was granted a Riba award. The project known as The Triangle, and designed by the Birmingham architect Glenn Howells, features 42 homes in an updated terrace format and cost £4.2m.

Beside the seaside there were awards for the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, also designed by Chipperfield, and the Festival House on Blackpool's Golden Mile, a wedding venue commissioned by the council to allow tourists and others to tie the knot in front of a precisely framed view of the Blackpool Tower.

The list also reflects the continuing programme of Maggie's Centres for cancer patients, established in the memory of Maggie Jencks, wife of the architecture critic Charles Jencks. At an earlier date Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid designed some of the centre's buildings; the latest award-winning additions are in Swansea, designed by the firm of the late Japanese star architect Kisho Kurokawa, and in Glasgow, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

In Scotland there were awards for reworkings of the National Museum of Scotland, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, both in Edinburgh.

But Hadid, granted a damehood in the Queen's birthday honours, was overlooked for her Riverside Transport Museum, in Glasgow, with the building failing even to make it on to the list of the 23 best buildings in Scotland for the last year.

"There was a bit of a stooshie [fuss] because it was by Dame Zaha, but the argument was it doesn't matter about the name of the architect, what is important is the quality of the building," said Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

International awards went to the reinvention of a Barcelona bullring as the Las Arenas shopping and leisure complex by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and a new Centre Pompidou, in Metz, by Shigeru Ban Architects, Jean de Gastines Architects and Gumuchdjian Architects.

The winner of the Stirling prize will be announced on 13 October in Manchester.


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June 07 2012

Red Road demolition ends Glasgow tower blocks' high art

Housing scheme became a byword for urban decay, but literature, photography and film flourished there

The demolition of a tower block on the Red Road estate in Glasgow on 10 June will mark the beginning of the end of one of Britain's most controversial housing developments.

Yet though the imposing high-rises became a byword for violence, alienation and crime, they will be missed by the many artists, writers and filmmakers who made it the subject of their work.

The most spectacular was a 2007 project organised by Artangel, in which artist Catherine Yass filmed and photographed tightrope walker Didier Pasquette attempting to cross the 45-metre (150ft) gap between the two tower blocks, which are 89m tall. High winds meant Pasquette had to turn back soon after starting his attempt.

The year before, director Andrea Arnold made her feature film debut with Red Road, a thriller about a female CCTV security operator who is haunted by a man from her past who appears on her monitors.

Arnold said of the buildings: "When I was driving about Glasgow I was very struck by them, they were an amazing sight. The filmmaker Tarkovsky said if you like a location and it really speaks to you then just use it and certainly the Red Road flats spoke to me."

Red Road was part of a huge programme of tower-block construction in 60s Glasgow as the city embraced high-rise living in order to find a quick and cost-effective solution to its housing crisis.

Designed by architect Sam Bunton, the estate was completed in 1969, by which time it was home to more than 4,700 people. The six grey tower blocks, combined with the estate's two 100m-wide sand-coloured slab blocks, give the impression of an almost impenetrable wall of concrete. The towers were the highest residential structures in Europe at the time.

Residents were initially enthusiastic but, like many similar schemes, the estate started to gain a reputation for antisocial behaviour. This ranged from disaffected youths throwing objects from the roofs to frequent burglaries, often carried out by drug addicts. In 1977 a 12-year-old boy died in a 23rd-floor fire. About 100 families had to be evacuated and many refused to return.

As people moved out, some flats were earmarked for use by students and then asylum seekers, who started to arrive in 2000. The suicide of three members of a Russian family who leapt from the 15th floor of one of the blocks in 2010 still weighs heavily on many residents.

Photographer Iseult Timmermans, one of the first artists to work at Red Road, initially came to the estate when taking home a young Kosovan asylum seeker who had been involved in one of her projects. "It was early evening and all the rubbish seemed to be swirling around and I remember looking up and feeling completely disorientated," Timmermans said. "It felt like being in a foreign landscape. I thought what does it feel like for someone who is coming from a completely different culture, often arriving at night, to be landed somewhere like this? It must have been unbelievable."

Timmermans started working at Red Road in 2004, developing photography projects that helped asylum seekers settle into their new surroundings. She was later joined by others such as Alison Irvine, whose novel This Road is Red was based on interviews with residents.

"The buildings are eye-poppingly mammoth," said Irvine. "The height and breadth of them is breathtaking and you really do feel overawed when you're standing beneath them."

Many of the artists, writers and film-makers were initially attracted by the architecture, but it is the residents that have maintained their interest.

"Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the harsh-looking buildings with the richness of the people who live in them that appealed to me," said Irvine. "The buildings house so many characters and you don't know who you'll meet until you get inside."

One of the defining factors of the cultural activity at Red Road has been the close relationship between many of those involved. Much of this has centred on a community studio where artists shared ideas and contacts.

The trust built up with residents has also been important. Some embraced the artists' work and became involved with Irvine's book, a series of illustrations by Mitch Miller and a short documentary film by Chris Leslie that highlights people's memories of the underground Mecca Bingo and Brig bar.

Much of the work by artists culminated in the Multi-story exhibition at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art in 2010. Work by Miller and Leslie was showcased at Red Road Underground, a multimedia exhibition held at the New Glasgow Society in February.

Some have used Red Road to portray a grim view of urban living – it was used as a location for TV crime drama Taggart – but many of the artists have looked beyond the architecture and tried to convey the complexity of residents' feelings about living there.

Arnold acknowledged at the time she made her film that, despite their nightmarish appearance, the flats have been home to many people who have brought up families there. Irvine's book communicates that as well as the suicides, crime and drugs, there are tales of friendship, love and good times.

Leslie's film also conveys people's affection for the place. "It was very exciting and every day was an adventure being in the Red Road," says Azam Khan in the film. "I made some really good friends out there."

Glasgow Museums has been racing to document people's recollections of Red Road before the flats are demolished. Those who have taken part include Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson, who lived with her family in a 21st floor flat of one of the blocks from 1966 until 1977, when the fatal fire broke out two floors above them.

"I think Red Road was a symbol of ambition coming out of the postwar years," said Ferguson in the interview. "If you watch some of the news footage at the time, they were heralded as the answer to everyone's housing needs. I don't think they really were that, but they did fit that time and they served a purpose for a good number of years."

Ferguson, who says she loved Red Road as a child, admits to mixed feelings about the demolition. "There will be a bit of sadness, but that's progress I suppose. People watched in awe when they were built and I suspect they will watch in awe when they come down too."


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May 22 2012

George Wyllie obituary

Self-taught sculptor whose work had an enduring influence on Scottish artists

The artist George Wyllie, who has died aged 90, occupied an unusual position in Scottish cultural life. A self-taught sculptor, who did not commence a full-time creative career until his late 50s, he became a widely recognised and popular figure far beyond the world of the visual arts.

Wyllie's creative achievements ranged from playing the double bass in jazz bands to making permanent public sculpture sited across Britain. He wrote poetry and prose, but he will be best remembered for two temporary art works with their origins in his native Glasgow. These, the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat, captured the imagination with their poignant symbolism of the decline in the city's industrial heritage.

The Straw Locomotive was a 78ft locomotive constructed from steel, straw and chicken wire that Wyllie suspended from the landmark Finnieston Crane on the banks of the River Clyde in May 1987. It was later taken to Springburn engineering works, once the heart of the Glasgow locomotive industry, where Wyllie set it ablaze in what he described as a Viking funeral.

His Paper Boat sculpture, a memorial to the city's shipbuilding industry, sailed the Clyde, the Thames and eventually the Hudson river in New York. It berthed outside the World Financial Centre in 1990 and made front-page news in the Wall Street Journal. Wyllie's sense of humour, his mischievous persona and his insistence that art was a public rather than private matter had a subtle but enduring influence on subsequent generations of artists in Scotland.

Many of his ideas now seem prescient. His early works included a sculpture of a mortgage-burdened home. His 1982 play A Day Down a Goldmine was about the origins of money and the iniquities of the banking system.

Wyllie was born in the Shettleston district of Glasgow, the elder of two sons of Andy, who worked at the local engineering works, and his wife Harriet, known as Harry. He grew up in Craigton, within sight of the city's shipyards. At school, he excelled at technical drawing but turned down a job in crane-building on the cautious advice of his father. His first job was in the engineering department of the Post Office.

During the second world war, he joined the Royal Navy and saw active service from 1942. On shore leave, at a dance in Gosport, Hampshire, he met Daphne Watts; they married in 1944. During his war service Wyllie visited Hiroshima, just months after the atomic bomb had been dropped on the city: the experience shaped his artistic life.

After the war, Wyllie became a customs and excise officer in Greenock and for a period worked on the land boundary patrol in Northern Ireland. In 1954 he and Daphne settled with their two daughters in Gourock, in a house overlooking the Firth of Clyde, where he stayed until a recent move to a local care home. "We had a very happy home, at the top of a hill with a good view and I feel like a Greek god looking out," he said in a recording for the British Library's Artists' Lives archive.

He was beginning to move in artistic circles and express himself creatively, taking a local college course in welding to help with his sculpture, but it was not until 1979, approaching his 60s, that he left the customs service and dedicated himself to art full-time. In the following decade, he created his most important works. His friendships with cultural figures including the gallerist Richard Demarco, the poet Liz Lochhead and the film-makers Murray and Barbara Grigor had widened his horizons.

Barbara Grigor introduced him to the American kinetic sculptor George Rickey, whom he visited in the US. Through Demarco he met the German artist Joseph Beuys, a mentor, whom he visited in Düsseldorf and emulated, "not in a physical sense, in a philosophical sense". Beuys's example helped Wyllie develop his ideas of art as a social practice and the artist as a public persona.

Wyllie's described his own art as "scul?ture". The question mark, he explained, should be at the centre of everything. His work often had a deliberately modest quality. Among his favoured forms were bird life and the symbolism of stones, ships and crystal. His most enduring image was that of the spire: a kind of spiritual and environmental antenna, also associated with the sailing mast. One of his most popular works is a giant nappy pin made from stainless steel originally created in 1995 for a site at Glasgow Cross; it was relocated, entitled Monument to Maternity, to the site of the former maternity hospital at Rottenrow Gardens in 2004.

He continued to work until recently and was able to attend the opening earlier this year of George Wyllie: a Life Less Ordinary at the Collins Gallery, Strathclyde University, which holds an archive of his work. Wyllie's daughters, Louise and Elaine, in 2011 set up the Friends of George Wyllie and recently launched a year-long celebration of his work, the Whysman Festival, which has obtained a major award from Creative Scotland to use Wyllie's ideas in projects with schoolchildren and former industrial workers.

Daphne died in 2004. Wyllie is survived by his daughters, two grandsons, Calvin and Lewis, and a granddaughter, Jennifer.

• George Ralston Wyllie, artist, born 31 December 1921; died 15 May 2012


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Burning grand pianos on the Scottish border

Turner Prizewinner Douglas Gordon shoots his first film in England, bringing work as well as carefully-managed arson to a Cumbrian nook. Alan Sykes looks on admiringly

Talkin Head is normally an extraordinarily quiet place – an isolated Cumbrian hill farm in a wooded valley nestled in the fells looking southwards towards the Lake District hills. The loudest noise you normally hear is the call of the curlews or the mewing of buzzards overhead. Last night, however, the farm was overrun with activity, with over 30 people – cameramen, special effects specialists, firefighters, sound operatives, producers, arts commissioners, runners, a gardener, security people and assorted hangers on – from 10 different countries from Chile to Denmark (and many from Scotland) beavering away up the fellside prior to filming from an hour or so before sunset until an hour afterwards.

The (relatively) calm centre of this storm of activity was Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, who had chosen the spot to make his first ever film in England – albeit within sight of his native Scotland.

The work is to be called The End of Civilisation, and centres on shots of a grand piano burning in a dip in the fellside. Another screen will show the results of a tracking camera on a scaffolding tower, circling 360 degrees and filming the panorama of the Scottish borders, the line of Hadrian's Wall, Venus dipping into the Solway Firth, Helvellyn and the only three other mountains in England, as well as a closer (smaller) hill called Tarnmonath and the North Pennines.


Douglas, probably best known for Zinedine Zidane: A 21st century Portrait, explained the symbolism of the piano burning: "a piano started to represent for me the ultimate symbol of western civilisation. Not only is it an instrument, it's a beautiful object that works as a sculpture but it has another function entirely"

"I wanted to do something with a piano in a landscape of some significance and I suppose, as a Scotsman, there's nothing more significant than the border. When Jon Bewley of Locus+ led me to here, I thought it was beautiful to look from one country into another and I liked the idea Hadrian's Wall is, under a certain interpretation, a great end of civilisation. But of course technically with what we're doing with the 360 degree camera, there is no end or start of civilisation. You can imagine the Scots looking over the wall and thinking "what the hell are those Romans up to now?" - so it's a nice game to play over that border on what civilisation actually is. On my first visit I was overwhelmed to be in a landscape of such beauty and with such a huge unfathomable history."



Beth Bate, director of Great North Run Culture, said:

" We're delighted to be working with Douglas Gordon and again with our partners Locus+. The End of Civilisation is a major new commission and we're especially grateful to Arts Council England for their support."



Like all films, this one brings a boost to the local economy, with many local people being involved, and pubs and accommodation providers benefitting. Harriet Dean, whose ancestors have owned the place since the 1150s, farms her sheep at Talkin Head, runs the
holiday cottages where the film crew has been based and has been providing their catering. Initially somewhat sceptical about the project, she has been won over and says:

I've been thrilled to welcome such an amazing group of talented people here. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results and hope it will encourage more visitors to this wonderfully beautiful but empty corner of the country.


Another piano burns tonight and tomorrow the film crew will pack up their huge quantity of equipment and the farm will revert to the tranquillity that it has enjoyed for the last 850 years – until the next Scottish invasion.

The border theme will be continued when the film gets its premiere, on July 5th and 6th at the Tyne Theatre & Opera House, built on the line of Hadrian's Wall in central Newcastle. You can book free tickets here. After the Newcastle premiere it tours to form part of a Douglas Gordon retrospective in Tel Aviv and will then be shown at film festivals and exhibitions in Venice, New York, Berlin and London.

Douglas Gordon's The End of Civilisation is a Great North Run Culture and Locus+ True Spirit co-commission.


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May 18 2012

Don't let them stop you taking photographs on the Glasgow subway | John Perivolaris

A ban on unauthorised photography should only reinforce the resolve of those who refuse to surrender the visual field to CCTV

Ah, the sheer banditry of photography! More than ever impossible to police, even as the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport announces plans to ban all photography on the Glasgow subway except that for which written permission has been obtained.

I have always felt in good company as I humbly follow in the stealthy footsteps of other outlaws who have defied authority to photograph on the subway, the metro, the tube. Since the arrival of transport modernity, photographers have sought to ride its dark undercurrents – perhaps as an antidote to metropolitan spectacle, whose "falling towers" TS Eliot already found "unreal" in the wasteland of London post first world war, and whose ruin has even greater resonance post 9/11.

US writer Lincoln Kirstein recognised that a "tender cruelty" was prerequisite in photographer Walker Evans' use of a hidden camera to capture the unguarded humanity of passengers on the New York subway in the 1930s. The tenderness and cruelty of Evans' voyeurism and that of his successors are human attributes that should not be confused with the unblinking robotic gaze of corporate surveillance in 2012 London, in a privatised public space that's now transnationally owned, and is no longer answerable to its citizens.

In bad old 1980s New York, Bruce Davidson brazened it out on the subway "with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist – or a deranged person." There is a kind of in-your-face neighbourliness that is bracingly un-English in Davidson's decision to flash shoot subjects from less genteel stations who, on occasion, interacted with the photographer with a degree of intimacy that required first aid and the replacement of expensive cameras.

The outlaw status of the photographer underground was well and truly established by the mid-to-late 1990s when Luc Delahaye declared of the photographs which were published under the title L'Autre: "I stole these photographs between 95 and 97 in the Paris metro. 'Stole' because it is against the law [in France] to take them, it's forbidden. The law states that everyone owns their own image. But our image, the worthless alias of ourselves, is everywhere without us knowing it." While many of Evans' photographs showed couples and groups in close proximity, at times interacting with each other; and while Davidson records encounters, at times confrontations, with his subjects, by the 1990s the disengagement of those photographed by Delahaye is complete. Individually framed, they mostly stare into empty space, when their eyes are not entirely shut.

In 2012, we are all photographers. As such, I would encourage readers to band together in groups, such as London tube, on Flickr. Or better yet, form your own cells of underground photographers. Reclaim the visual field from CCTV in the name of a citizenry that is currently seen from above but is not permitted to see from below. And, as you ride the train or bus, lift your cameraphones in greeting as you photograph your fellow passengers, explaining for the umpteenth time that, no, you are neither paedophile nor terrorist, only a photographer and citizen of a visual democracy.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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May 17 2012

Scottish arts shakeup to concentrate funding on one-off projects

National arts agency Creative Scotland's new strategy after suffering £2.1m budget cut raises fears of a drain of talent

Dozens of Scottish arts companies and art centres are facing deep funding cuts and job losses under a radical restructuring of spending by the national arts agency Creative Scotland.

The agency's new funding strategy puts far greater emphasis on theatre groups, art centres, galleries and festivals competing against each other for subsidies for one-off projects from next April to help it cope with a £2.1m cut in its funding from the Scottish government.

Creative Scotland insists the new system will produce much sharper and more creative art, and greater collaboration between companies, but critics within the arts community believe it raises doubts about the long-term survival and strength of many of the organisations losing core funding.

They fear the uncertainty and instability of relying in future on short-term funding will lead to a drain of talent from Scotland and harm their ability to attract new talented directors and curators.

Creative Scotland said overall arts spending in Scotland was being far better protected than in England, where the Arts Council has seen swingeing funding cuts.

One of the UK's largest annual poetry festivals, the StAnza festival based in St Andrews, the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, a city now famous for its three Turner Prize winners, and the Stills contemporary photography gallery in Edinburgh are among the 49 organisations being put on short-term project funding.

Deirdre MacKenna, the director at Stills, which had got up to 60% of its funding from Creative Scotland, said: "We've no idea what the impact will be because we don't understand what it is Creative Scotland has in mind for us. [It's] all about the expertise and keeping it in the sector. [If] we undermine the capacity of the sector, you start to mess long term with its potential capacity."

Eleanor Livingston, director of the StAnza festival, said they had received significant basic funding from Creative Scotland under the now-scrapped flexible funding scheme, which allowed StAnza to stage its most ambitious programme to date in March.

"We're very disappointed that flexible funding won't continue, because we've found it extremely useful in helping StAnza develop and expand," she said.

Creative Scotland is organising a series of meetings with the affected groups to discuss the new strategy. Its executives admit it will involve pain and change for many affected groups, but it insisted that it could be extremely helpful to many companies.

The agency estimates the money available for funding arts projects in Scotland will roughly double to £15m because of a steep increase in National Lottery funding in the next few years; that will increase from £18m in 2010 to £32.3m in 2014, and again the next year.

However, the 49 "projects clients" getting short-term funding will be forced to compete on a project-by-project basis.

Venu Dhupa, the most senior of Creative Scotland's three creative directors and architect of the restructuring, conceded the shakeup would create a "more volatile environment" and require flexibility for many of the affected companies.

Dhupa said her job was to get the best possible value from public funding, but the agency would try to support the companies and ensure projects lasting for two or three years were funded where possible.

She said: "What we're trying to do is inject some energy into the ecology [of Scotland's art world] but also have some stability. We know some organisations will find it difficult to adjust to the new climate, but we will do our best to help advise them."

Creative Scotland has secured the core funding for 40 other major "foundation" organisations, such as the Edinburgh international festival, the Fruitmarket gallery in Edinburgh, Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Tramway and Citizen's theatre in Glasgow, Edinburgh's Traverse theatre and Pier Arts Centre in Orkney. Three other arts organisations, including Edinburgh Printmakers workshop, have been added to the list of foundation organisations.

A further 22 organisations have been made "annual clients", including the cutting-edge Glasgow International arts festival, the Celtic Connections music festival, Edinburgh's Festival Fringe Society, and the St Magnus music festival in Orkney.

Dhupa said the restructuring would force some companies to become more entrepreneurial and commercially-orientated to win external funding or put on more popular shows. She cited the Canadian-based theatrical circus company Cirque du Soleil and the playwright and director Robert Lepage as examples of brands which had won independent commercial success.

There would also be a greater emphasis, she said, on finding and cultivating celebrities who could be trained to promote Scotland and Scottish arts and abroad, as well as supporting and promoting volunteers and amateur artists.

• This article was amended on 18 May 2012 because it suggested Robert Lepage has a dance company; in fact he's a playwright and a stage and cinema director. The spelling of Cirque du Soleil was also corrected.


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April 20 2012

Jeremy Deller's inflatable Stonehenge

The Turner prize winner's bouncy new interactive artwork, Sacrilege, kicks off the Glasgow international festival of visual art

"It's a bit weird and random," says Michael Mclaughlan, 50, bopping gently up and down in the middle of the giant inflatable Stonehenge that has sprung up on Glasgow Green. "They should get Alex Salmond down here to bounce about."

Around him, children and adults are discarding their shoes and climbing tentatively on to the grandest of bouncy castles, a large-scale interactive work by the Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller. Titled Sacrilege, it's Deller's first major public project in Scotland and a centrepiece of the Glasgow international festival of visual art which launched on Friday.

"It's something for people to interact with, it's a big public sculpture," says Deller, who was on hand for the project's launch. "It is also a way of interacting with history and archaeology and culture in a wider sense.

"We had 112 kids bouncing on it this morning. It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds. It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Deller doesn't think Scots will care that Stonehenge is a classic British – if not English – icon.

"It's about tribes. It's not about politics. It's pre-political, literally. It's great doing it in Glasgow. This is a city where you can get things done as an artist."

The GI festival, which runs until 7 May, will showcase the work of more than 130 artists across a variety of venues. Highlights include the Turner prize nominee Karla Black, who will be exhibiting a series of major new sculptures at the city's Gallery of Modern Art, and the artist and choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis, who will give the Scottish premiere of a new performance work for stage at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA).

"For the past two decades, Glasgow has been the home of some of the very best new talent in contemporary visual art," said Sarah Munro, the festival chair. "The city is ambitious in its determination to support artists working at the cutting edge today."

Sacrilege will be at Glasgow Green for the 18 days of the festival before being shipped to other destinations across the UK and finally to London for the Olympic Games.

The installation is deflated at 6pm every night and re-inflated in minutes the following morning. Project manager James Hutchinson said it had caught the imagination of Glaswegians.

"I think it would take a mean heart not to smile as you are passing by," he said. "People have been wanting to get on and we have had all ages from seven to 70. Nobody knows what Stonehenge is for. It doesn't belong to anybody. Not the Druids or those interested in British or English history or Glaswegians."

"We come to the green a lot and I was surprised to see it and wondered what it was, but I think it's great," says Robert Barnes, 72, who lives locally. "My grandson's been playing on it and I can't get him off."


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January 08 2012

Swirl power

Aberdeen university's extraordinary new library has put the Silver City back on the architectural map. But will its students ever get any work done?

It is an architectural riddle wrapped in a cultural mystery inside a financial enigma. I'm talking about Aberdeen, ever since it became oil rich and the effective capital of Europe's petroleum industry. The puzzle is how this near recession-proof Scottish city has managed to be awash with money (compared with much of Britain), yet hasn't raised a single notable building in the last quarter of a century.

It is a situation made all the more baffling by the fact that the Silver City of yore was, along with Bath and Edinburgh, one of the finest and most readily identifiable architectural compositions on these islands. Its granite monuments – shining silver in sunlight and resembling some artificial mountain range on sunless days – were crafted from a single quarry at Rubislaw. Some 6m tonnes were hewn from the earth until the quarry's closure in 1971, leaving one of the largest man-made holes in Europe.

But the lull is now over – thanks to the completion of the eye-catching new £57m library at the University of Aberdeen. Set on the campus at King's College, the building stands between the city and the sea like a super-modern lighthouse, beaming out a message – loud, clear and dazzling – that Aberdeen is back on the architectural map.

Rising like a perfectly geometric glass monolith from a clutter of university structures, but with the beautiful late-medieval King's College buildings close by, this seven-storey tower comes as something of a shock: despite its solid square shape, the library has an ethereal air, especially when lit up at night, thanks to its gleaming striated facades, boasting 720 panels in all. This gives a striking contrast to its rugged setting.

Designed by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, the library has plenty more surprises. If those exteriors aren't enough to stop you in your tracks, then what about the spiralling off-centre atrium at the core of the building, soaring up from the double-height entrance lobby to a distant glass roof? This offers the kind of giddying spatial shock normally associated with 17th-century baroque churches. The atrium, an architectural whirlwind, seems to twist around as it climbs up and through the structure, pushing its way further on to each successive floor. Stand at the foot of this highly theatrical space and, as the winter sun moves around the library, you feel as if you're inside a hollowed-out iceberg. It also makes you feel part of an intriguing architectural conundrum: the library is both icily calm yet restlessly alive, as modern as it is baroque.

Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. Founded in the Danish port of Aarhus in 1986, SHL has a reputation for making distinctive cultural buildings that marry elements from nature and science. The firm came to global attention in 1997 with the Katuaq Cultural Centre in Nuuk, Greenland. Its undulating walls, clad in larch, were inspired by the rippling bands of the northern lights, a feature of the night skies over the Arctic – and not unknown to Aberdeen.

But SHL's most famous building is the Black Diamond, as the momentous Danish Royal Library extension on the Copenhagen waterfront is known. Opened in 1999, it takes the form of a giant angular prism clad in dark granite and split in two by a clear glass atrium, clearly the firm's strong point. SHL are currently working on what will be Scandinavia's largest library, the €228m (£190m) Urban Mediaspace in Aarhus, a huge building – again all prisms and atriums – that the architects describe as a covered public space.

You could say the same of the Aberdeen library. The public is welcomed into the foyer. Here, alongside the eye-boggling view upwards, there is a coffee bar named the Hardback Cafe, not to mention spaces for presentations and a big cube of a gallery. I enjoyed its first show, Rebels with a Cause: Jacobites and the Global Imagination, drawn from the superb archive housed in the lower ground floor. Here, in and around the elegant Wolfson reading room, there are some 200,000 rare books, as well as material dating back to the third century BC.

Chatter, clatter and hiss

The students' library proper is housed on the floors above the foyer. White-walled, grey-carpeted and boasting fine views out to the university, the city and the sea, these are reached by sleek glass lifts or warehouse-like stairs. The core of each floor is given over to smart white stacks of books: there are 13km of shelves above ground holding 400,000 books, their colours offsetting that quietly dominant white-and-grey colour scheme. It was quiet when I visited recently, the vast majority of students being away for the holidays, so I couldn't be sure about the noise in term time. But surely all the cafe chatter and clatter, the steamy hisses and gurgles of coffee-making, will percolate up the atrium?

"What I've noticed," says Stuart Hill, a lead designer on the project, "is that the students tend to gravitate towards the more vibrant spaces around the atrium closer to the ground floor. Most seem to work with headphones on anyway, blissfully unaware of any unwanted noise. The collaborative study areas are being used extensively, while the silent study spaces aren't used as much as we thought they would." The nature of libraries, adds Hill, is changing in the digital era. "One of the questions we were asked before we finalised the design is: why build a new library at all in this day and age? The answer is: we've been helping to build a new type of library. "

Indeed, the wide-open floors are clearly intended as a social space as well as a place of learning, with Wi-Fi available throughout the building as it is around much of the campus. Unlike the traditional silence associated with libraries, it seems there will always be a background hum; perhaps many students today are happy with this. Personally, I would find the top floor a rather distracting place to work: looking out through its windows, I felt that the entire Granite City had been laid out for my inspection. It was all too easy to let time slide by, watching the big blue and white ferries setting off for Orkney and Shetland, as seabirds wheeled across a boundless sky.

While a thrilling design, the library may yet need a little work to make it shine in the manner it deserves to. Some of the finishes seem a little rough and ready, while the unisex lavatories are a curiosity that may prove a step too far. Hill points out that the building won't be complete until September, when it will be officially opened. "There are areas we're not totally happy with, but we'll sort these out."

The library faces and dominates a new public plaza, also by SHL. As I step out on to it, the glass and steel tower behind me lights up for the night, not quite shimmering like the northern lights, but drawing attention to itself in a way that makes it quite clear that this modern addition is the new focal point of a university aiming high.

Curiously, the library rises from a plinth made of Caithness stone. Why not granite? "Unbelievably," says Hill, "granite as a facing stone for buildings isn't available today, except from China. But one geology student noticed that the pattern on the facade is very similar to granite when viewed under a microscope – a rather poetic connection, we think, to the traditional architecture of Aberdeen."


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December 30 2011

December 04 2011

Reopen for business

Scotland's National Portrait Gallery, reopened after a dramatic £17.6m overhaul, is a bright and democratic delight

The Big Man, just up from the coal mine, looks fit to burst with mirth. The Newhaven fishwife, in her striped skirt, presents a triumphantly empty basket. In the factory, the 19th-century cloth weavers pause from their labours before the camera's protracted gaze, but the child in the Glasgow slum cannot keep so still. He leaves a trace of himself, a little shivering ghost peeping out from a doorway in Close, No 46, Saltmarket.

The overlooked, the forgotten, the marginal and the nameless: these people of Scotland's past (and present) now take their place for the first time in the newly remade Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It is a radical change, and strikingly democratic. It may also be the most significant of all the many alterations made since 2009 to that wallflower of a museum in Queen Street.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has never been fully loved, at least not compared to the National Gallery, the Museum of Scotland or the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art I and II. The world's first purpose-built portrait gallery – funded by the Scotsman's proprietor when the government wouldn't stump up the funds – opened in 1889, a huge neo-gothic edifice of red sandstone that more resembles an ecclesiastical building than a museum.

Inside, it could seem sepulchrally dark, the great hall mainly notable for its austere brickwork, the upper floors disorientating with their false ceilings and mysteriously blocked-off doors. The carpets (such as they were) tended to trip you up. It always felt a bit heavy on the Scottish lairds, a bit light on the moderns and it did not contain what is surely the nation's most famous portrait, Henry Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, which seemed to say it all.

Some of the portraits were enthralling, and the temporary shows could be excellent but the SNPG came to stand, in certain quarters, for superlative cheese scones. Growing up in Edinburgh, I remember hearing it acidly referred to as the overflow tearoom to Jenners. But in the past two years the building has been completely remodelled, floors and walls rearranged, small galleries created, large galleries beautifully brightened with LED systems and the plentiful daylight now entering through the new roof. The Museum of Antiquities has moved out, opening up 60% more space. And its excellent library has been brought wholesale from the top floor to the centre of the building, filled with wonderful sculptures and strange curiosities, including the death masks of Voltaire and grave robbers Burke and Hare. The library is now open to the public. And that is as symbolic as the 2,000 gold stars that now twinkle in the once-dour great hall. It turns out that they were always there in the background, but just needed some attention. The museum has opened up, brought its portraits – its people – out of the shadows.

So it now shows, for instance, not just the textbook Mary, Queen of Scots but images of her confidantes, husbands, advisers and detractors, notably her nemesis John Knox, to present a more intimate sense of her life. It gives you not just the 18th-century painter Allan Ramsay, in self-portrait, but his father, wives and many friends (including the philosopher David Hume, off-duty in a velvet cap to keep his bald head warm) so that his milieu, as well as the evolution of his style, emerges.

And nearby you will find Rousseau, painted by Ramsay for Hume when the Scot brought the Frenchman to Britain to escape persecution in 1765. And Bonnie Prince Charlie, escaping Scotland for the continent, sketched by Ozias Humphrey in 1776 as a dropsical old drunk in whose bloated face you can nonetheless see traces of the Young Pretender.

Connections and cross-connections develop everywhere. Here is the humble likeness of James Wilson, the Lanarkshire weaver who found fame as one of the Radical Martyrs, hanged for protesting against unemployment in 1820; and the grandiloquent portrait of the hanging judge. Here are the fishwives of Hill and Adamson's famous calotypes near an oil portrait of the Scottish suffragette who would bring their successors to protest in London.

Portrait pantheons rely on words as well as images. You read of John Campbell, cashier to the ultra-loyalist Royal Bank of Scotland, who brazenly cashed £6,000 for the Jacobites in 1749. You learn how the Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson influenced Karl Marx, how the geologist John Hutton proved in the late 1700s that the Earth must be more than 6,000 years old, as popularly believed.

Sometimes the wall texts make too much of the biography, downplaying the picture for the person. Nothing is made of the stunning little still life of rocks and fossils in Raeburn's painting of Hutton, for example, or the amazingly free brushwork in David Wilkie's self-portrait.

The SNPG should not be so timid about its paintings. From Nicholas Hilliard's devastatingly subtle James VI and I to Wyndham Lewis's hieratic Naomi Mitchison, scowling impatiently, the museum is full of great works of art.

On the other hand, the new inclusivity allows for some real revelations. The room devoted to Scotland's first portrait painter fills the imagination. George Jamesone (c 1589-1644) studied with a decorative painter in Aberdeen. The SNPG has a fragment of the Libyan Sibyl he painted for a Burntisland house, later home to Mary Somerville, 19th-century scientist.

Jamesone's portraits are hardly Van Dyck, not surprising given the isolation of these early painters. But his self-portrait – leaning forward, alert and highly attentive as if dwelling on your every syllable – is a little wonder.

The new photography gallery introduces the 19th century as never before: schoolboys, crofters, salmon poachers, ladies in long skirts scaling Salisbury Crags. Thomas Annan's Saltmarket series is the first slum record and there are other deservedly famous images, most breathtakingly AG Buckham's aerial view of Edinburgh Castle as a sceptred Camelot ringed with silver clouds.

Indeed landscapes have a heavy presence, as if the SNPG regarded them as a form of portraiture by other means. That may be true of Graham Fagen's affecting video Missing, which searches wastelands for lost children. But it is arguable and distorts the display. Anyone looking for Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh or JM Barrie may be dismayed to find them hidden in a side-room of the cafe.

It is not that the curators regard these paintings as upscale decor: I imagine they believe more visitors will look at them here than ever before. For this is a museum of and for the people, Scotland's family album, from the last crofters on St Kilda's to the latest immigrants. Everyone should feel some connection with the thousands of faces on show.

You can argue with the cast list all you like: Gerard Butler but not John Logie Baird? The 20th century is particularly bizarre, but a museum can only work with what it has. I wish this one had portraits by Robert Colquhoun, James Cowie or Joan Eardley (to name only three) and the great film works, say, of John Grierson and Margaret Tait. But now that the gallery is so beautifully renewed perhaps more loans and donations will follow, and even without them the experience is rich, deep and enlightening: just as you would expect from Scotland.


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July 26 2011

Suspend your disbelief

Newly renovated, the National Museum of Scotland at last gives a collection of Victorian curiosities the extraordinary showcase they deserve. Jonathan Glancey takes a look inside

A hippopotamus suspended from the rafters. A colour television dating from 1937. A giant Victorian lighthouse lens that once illuminated the Firth of Forth. A seal gut anorak, looking like plastic, made by Inuit hunters in the 1850s. An exotic bird stuffed by Charles Darwin.

The collection of the old Royal Museum stretching along Chambers Street in Edinburgh's Old Town is an engaging but initially baffling affair. Where did all this stuff come from? And why has so much of it – at least 8,000 objects – only now gone on show for the first time since the museum was formally opened in 1866?

Housed in a magnificent Victorian building designed by Robert Matheson and Francis Fowke, the former Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art forms one half of today's National Museum of Scotland. The other half, next door, dates from 1998 and was designed by the architects Benson & Forsyth in a style that is half Scottish castle, half Le Corbusier monastery. Now, after a £46m renovation, the 19th-century museum reopens on Friday, and the two halves have finally been joined together.

While the Benson & Forsyth building is dedicated to showing objects made in Scotland, its restored Victorian sibling is a gloriously eclectic archive of the objects that Scottish explorers, inventors, soldiers and scientists brought back from their travels – as well as pieces from people such as Charles Darwin, who trained in Edinburgh.

Keen to plunge in, I head towards the grand steps leading up from Chambers Street to the even grander Lombardic Renaissance museum entrance. Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, and his project architect, Gordon Gibb of Glasgow-based Gareth Hoskins Architects, stop me. "The entrance is this way," says Gibb, pointing to a dark, wide-mouthed opening in the base of the right-hand side of the museum's imposing 19th-century stone facade. While it seems odd to ignore the obvious way into the museum, this crypt-like entrance proves to be a dramatic and highly effective architectural manoeuvre.

Step inside, and you enter one of Scotland's finest and most unexpected new public spaces. Gibb has opened up a labyrinth of former storage spaces and dungeon-like workshops under the main museum floors. This brooding, low-lit vault – like the undercroft of a medieval cathedral – will receive visitors, feed them in a fine new brasserie at one end, offer them cloakrooms and then send them up from an atmosphere of romantic gloom into the soaring, daylit galleries above.

"The vault was originally divided by a stone wall," says Gibb. "We took that out to open up the space." This meant propping up the centre of the crypt with heavy-duty steel columns. "At the same time, we lowered the floors by over a metre to give us the height we needed to make this a public space. But, we wanted to keep the light levels low to create an atmosphere of . . ."

"Expectation?" suggests Rintoul.

Glass lifts and broad stairs lead up through apertures cut in the stones to the spectacular heart of the museum: a soaring, four-storey cast iron and timber structure surrounded by delicate and intricate galleries. Even on a dark and thundery day, the Grand Gallery seems almost unnaturally awash with daylight.

"It's like a giant Victorian birdcage," says Rintoul, and with its thin iron columns set close together and arched timber roof, that's exactly what the structure resembles. It is the Scottish masterpiece of Fowke, the Irish-born British military engineer best known for designing the Royal Albert Hall. Fowke, who died in 1865, worked on the museum with local architect Matheson. While the facade of the building is more Matheson, the "birdcage" hidden behind is far more Fowke, clearly influenced by Joseph Paxton's revolutionary Crystal Palace of 1851.

"We've stripped it back to its Victorian glory," says Gibb. "It was so clear from early on what we needed to do. Clear away the clutter, open up vistas and connect all the galleries leading off the Grand Gallery."

The architects' touch has been strong yet sensitive. Today, every part of Fowke and Matheson's design, built in stages from 1861 to 1889, does indeed link together. Here is a museum in which it is impossible to get lost. Wherever you walk, you will find yourself returning to the Grand Gallery. And, throughout, there is daylight: this is the least claustrophobic of museums.

The original museum was established in 1855 by George Wilson, an Edinburgh doctor and chemist, and his elder brother Daniel, secretary of the Society of Antiquities in Edinburgh. In the mid-1950s, the society moved into the Royal Museum, and the collections of the two institutions were merged.

When I ask Rintoul if the museum is a bit of a rattle bag, he corrects me. "A rattle bag? The collection is very wide-ranging, but it represents the sheer diversity of thought and activity that came out of the Scottish Enlightenment. Every object here tells a special story related to the ways in which Scotland went out to the world from the 18th century."

Part of the building's charm lies in the dramatic contrast between its grandiloquent stone facade and its light and airy interior, made even more theatrical because the exterior has been left untouched. Its stones bear sooty witness to 19th-century grime. Shrubs still sprout from cornices. Until a way is devised to clean these stones without razing layers of history, they will remain weathered and aged.

Before the current renovation, Fowke's crystal clear interior had become not so much dirty as cluttered. Rintoul's aim, from his appointment in 2002, was to sweep it out. As layers of paint were stripped away and bricked up doorways reopened, the building gave up its secrets. "We were helped by the fact that Fowke's original work was so very good and reusable," says Rintoul. "When we stripped the carpets from the galleries around the Grand Gallery, we were delighted to find the original American red oak timbers." The curators also discovered thousands of objects in store, most of them wrapped and crated in what is now the crypt-like entrance hall.

The clarity of Fowke's design gave the architects the lead they needed. "We wanted the architecture to stand on its own," says Gordon Gibb, "with the exhibits layered in." The architecture of the building can now be read as clearly and cleanly as it was when the museum first opened.

This approach is very much in tune with Gareth Hoskins's other projects. The Architecture Galleries at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in 2004, house fragments of buildings, models and drawings of many ages and styles, and yet the overall feel is as clear and illuminating as a shaft of light. With the Culloden Battlefield Memorial Centre, near Inverness (2007) – a building rooted in the landscape – the practice has helped tell a rich and complex story through a clear-cut design free of gimmicks. Yet the centre has a quietly powerful presence inside and out, reinforced by a long stone and timber wall projecting uninterrupted to the battlefield and countryside beyond.

Back in Edinburgh, the clear layering of objects on show in the renovated museum is a joy. The displays, designed by museum installation specialists Ralph Appelbaum Associates, gather collections of objects into particular stories that explain where they came from, how they were gathered and why they matter.

Dr Henrietta Lidchi, the museum's keeper of world cultures, walks me through its uppermost galleries. "Museums try to contain cultures," she says, "but here we like the idea of cultures moving on, morphing and changing. We work with peoples from around the world making connections and using the museum's resources as a tool for sparking off new ideas; these can be in jewellery, fashion – the list goes on."

So just as Scots went abroad to collect the objects displayed here, so the new National Museum of Scotland is now taking its message out to the world. Director, curators, designers and architects have revitalised a superb building that you will surely want to experience for its own sake before plunging, layer by layer, into the depths of its beautifully presented collections.

Before I leave, I do another turn around the galleries, looking at some of the newly found objects, lured first by the scaly throated tree-creeper stuffed by Darwin during his expedition around the world onboard HMS Beagle, then by the Nobel prize medal awarded to Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist and pharmacologist, for the discovery of penicillin, and, then by a painted buckskin worn by a native American chief long before Custer's last stand. Above all, though – and happily encasing these things – here is one of the truly great, and beautifully remodelled, Scottish buildings.


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June 22 2011

Totally cosmic

His swirling 'land sculptures' are inspired by molecular biology and outer space. Architect Charles Jencks tells Jonathan Glancey about his most ambitious project yet

The Life Mounds are the first thing you see as you drive through the gates of Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park in the grounds of Bonnington House, outside Edinburgh. Newly completed, these eight man-made hills have been shaped by the distinguished US critic, polemicist and designer Charles Jencks. Beautiful things, they rise in stepped ramps sheathed in emerald green turf, clustered around swirling ponds.

Last week, I climbed and sat on top of the tallest of these escarpments, as swallows performed aerobatics over the insect-rich waters. The Life Mounds called to mind the landscapes of ancient standing stones and barrows, of south-east Asian rice terraces, of patterns seen through a microscope; there was something of the spiralling forms of far-flung galaxies. All of these things (perhaps not the rice terraces) are acknowledged influences. Over the decades – he is a notably young 70 – Jencks has written a number of spirited books on modern architecture. It was his Modern Movements in Architecture, published in 1973, which helped me see that what had passed for a monolithic, single-minded Modern Movement had been no such thing. It was Jencks who identified the shift away from the certainties of modernism into the vagaries and rich (and sometimes indigestible) experiences of postmodernism: The Language of Postmodern Architecture, written 30 years ago by Jencks, remains a bestseller. And it is Jencks who, I can't help feeling, has begun to tire of the intellectual thinness of much contemporary "iconic" architecture, and to look for something beyond its ephemeral nature.

"Have I turned away from architecture? No, it's not that," he says when we meet at Portrack House, his home near Dumfries. "But I do believe architecture, and all art, should be content-driven. It should have something to say beyond the sensational. But, yes, the lack of culture in so much new architecture is worrying." Jencks wants to shape works that make us stop and think about our place, not just in the here and now, but in the cosmos. "It's something people have done even before they built Stonehenge, so why not now?"

The biggest woman in the world

Over the past decade and beyond, Jencks has fused a hungry interest in cosmology with his love and encyclopaedic knowledge of architecture and landscape art. This vision is explained in a new and engaging book, The Universe in the Landscape. "Not everyone will get it," he writes, with touching honesty. The Life Mounds at Bonnington are informed by cosmic patterns, as well as the molecular structure of cells at the point where, for good or carcinogenic ill, they divide. This stunning landform turns out to be a meditation on life and death.

"I've been a lucky man," Jencks says. "I've only faced one real tragedy: the death of my wife, Maggie, from cancer in 1995." Maggie Jencks was an innovative garden designer; together, throughout the 80s and 90s, the couple created their Garden of Cosmic Speculation in the grounds of Portrack House. Maggie's Centres, a number of cancer care clinics designed by world-famous architects (Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers) were her idea, and is a scheme that has continued in her honour.

Jencks is now working on an enormous project just north of Newcastle. He has been commissioned by a UK coal-mining company to create a land form that will soften and enhance an otherwise challenging landscape. "Northumberlandia" (the name is his, intended to suggest a land goddess) is currently under construction, and due for completion in 2013. A giant effigy, in clay and soil, of a recumbent naked woman rising 34 metres (her breasts) and measuring 400 metres from head to toe, she will, Jencks says, be "the world's largest human form sculpted into the landscape".

Such figurative interpretations of earth goddesses could be seen as kitsch. But Jencks argues that she will fold, if not quite blur, into the landscape. Still, compared with the layers of cosmological meaning embedded into Portrack and Bonnington, this is clearly a populist work, one its patrons hope will become a major tourist attraction.

A commission from CERN

The Gretna Landmark Project should be one, too. Details have yet to be unveiled, but this ambitious work will mark one of the key border crossings between Scotland and England. Developed by Jencks and the artist Andy Goldsworthy, the final design will also involve the disparate talents of designer and engineer Cecil Balmond, California artist Ned Kahn and British architect Chris Wilkinson. Expect the unexpected, and certainly the bold and eye-catching.

Meanwhile, Jencks and his 30-year-old daughter, Lily, an architect and landscape designer, have been working on a design for CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) near Geneva. Their brief is to give this hidden wonder of the modern world (its workings are mostly underground) a physical presence. "There is no question," says Jencks, "that this Vatican of Science, with the visage of Heathrow Airport, desperately needs urban definition." As far as I can make out, the end result will be a pair of giant interlocking question marks made of grassed earth closing around, and interrogating The Globe – a hollow timber sphere originally designed for the 2002 Swiss Expo by architect Hervé Dessimoz.

In Jencks's view, cosmic passion, or the desire to know and relate to the universe, is one of the strongest drives in sentient creatures. The power of neolithic henges and bronze-age barrows, of the Uffington White Horse and some of the greatest buildings of all time – the spiral minaret at Samarra in Iraq, the Pantheon in Rome – lies in their elemental qualities. Their meanings are not explicit, yet they send shivers of recognition down the spine. The Life Mounds at Bonnington, to my mind Jencks's best landform work to date, have that effect on me.


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May 31 2011

Scottish independence could lead to battle of the Biennale

It's no longer any secret that Scotland's art scene presents a serious rival to the London-dominated English equivalent

If Britain breaks up, there will presumably have to be an official Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. There's already a Scottish programme during this year's festival, which will feature the work of Turner contender Karla Black and be staged at Palazzo Pisani in the Cannareggio district of the watery city. There's also to be a Welsh presence, with Tim Davies representing his country this year at the Ludoteca in Castello.

Yet these are defined by the Biennale as "collateral" events, taking place away from the main site. If you visit the main national exhibits at the Biennale Gardens, what you will find is a British pavilion – and a very historic building it is, opened in 1909 in time for the fair's eighth edition.

If Scotland achieves full independence and Great Britain becomes a historical ghost like the Holy Roman Empire, will the British pavilion have to become the English pavilion, or the pavilion of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Perhaps it should be organised in rotation, with a different nation of the former Britain occupying the site each year.

You certainly cannot argue that English art in any way dwarfs the work emerging from other parts of the British Isles. In fact, looking at Scottish contemporary art takes us to the cutting edge of why the country might break away. Scottish artists have won the Turner prize for the last two years and two Scots are on the shortlist this year. The recognition of Glasgow artist Richard Wright by the Turner in 2009 opened the floodgates, and it is no longer a secret that Scotland is a serious alternative and rival to the London-dominated English art scene. Obviously it takes more than art to sustain a country, but the self-confident creativity epitomised by contemporary art north of the border illustrates why Scottish nationhood feels real and viable.

Art in Scotland is different in substantial ways from art in southern England. There is far less media attention from day to day and artists can get on with their work in a more relaxed atmosphere, while galleries as far from metropolitan concerns as the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, tend to have a natural sense of community and social purpose. And the results speak for themselves. Wright, for one, is a superb artist whose idiosyncratic approach could never have prospered in London. The creativity of Scottish art is meanwhile matched by a brilliant modern literature, whose leading light, Alasdair Gray, is also a terrific painter.

It's surprising how many people are expressing anguish about a break up of the British state, as if an idea of British culture was something we cannot do without. But transpose this to the global festival that is the Venice Biennale. The British pavilion has a history, but would it be so painful to see that history end? Not really. A Scottish pavilion on equal terms would probably win more awards. It would certainly add to the mix of world art. And the English could go and visit. Obviously they'd have to queue along with everybody else.


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May 12 2011

St Peter's Seminary saviours

Site-specific artists NVA given two years to raise £10m to renovate abandoned brutalist masterpiece

There are those who still think the bravura brutalist design of St Peter's Seminary in Cardross, 25 miles from Glasgow, to be an eyesore. There are those who say it was blighted by technical problems from the day it opened 45 years ago. Then there are those who believe that this is one of the greatest modern buildings in Europe. Whatever your opinion, St Peter's was deemed important enough to be placed on the World Monument Fund list of the "World's 100 Most Endangered Sites" in 2008.

Now, Scottish arts group NVA, funded by Creative Scotland and a number of UK trusts and foundations, has been given two years to raise £10m to enable the partial renovation of the great concrete structure. The aim is to transform the graffiti-plastered ruin and the surrounding Kilmahew woodland strewn with litter into an arts-led public space.

"The opportunity to purchase St Peter's/Kilmahew concludes years of speculation about the seminary buildings", says Angus Farquhar, NVA's creative director, "and marks the beginning of a new future for the site and for the many people for whom it has significance ... a new form of generative public art that develops from a long-term creative dialogue with the users and radically accepts the value of the building in its current form expanding an 'unfinished' narrative that will change over time."

That narrative has been beset with sorry circumstances: by the time its construction was completed in 1966, the number of vocations to the Catholic priesthood in Scotland had fallen dramatically, while a Vatican II encyclical from 1965 declared that priests should no longer be trained in the countryside but in the communities they were to serve. St Peter's closed in 1980, became a drug rehabilitation centre in 1983, then closed again four years later and began its rapid descent into decay. In 1993, the building, designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie Kidd and Coia as a homage to Le Corbusier, was listed Grade A – a building of special architectural importance in Scotland.

Visitors to the site in years to come will walk through restored woodland and come across the shored up ruins of St Peter's alive with artistic adventure. This will take many forms, from teaching to live events, with the buildings acting as a sublime frame. NVA also plans to increase security, as the woods and ruins have become a less than holy haven for young people.

No one has expected the seminary to be restored to its original purpose, least of all the Archdiocese of Glasgow. Since the early 1990s there have been several attempts to find new uses for St Peter's, but the NVA proposal garnered praise internationally when it was unveiled at the 2010 Venice architecture biennale. But NVA has just two years to raise funds and to spirit the project into life. It wants people – and not just locals and artists – to join in the discussion and, hopefully, help raise funds. St Peter's is a site of international importance, but if NVA fails, the lands and ruins will return to the Archdiocese; and, then – without purpose and funding – they can only fall into further decay.


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February 11 2011

Postcards from hell

His paintings are emotionally trite and technically drab. Does Vettriano deserve to be in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery?

Jack's back – Vettriano, that is. The Scottish painter of nostalgic erotica who is probably more famous than all Scotland's Turner prize winners put together is finally to be honoured by one of the nation's museums. His self-portrait will hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh when it reopens in the autumn after a refurbishment.

I was going to say that this is an outrage, but actually it's fair enough. A portrait gallery is – among other things – an archive of celebrities, and Vettriano is surely that. I personally get cross with his work because I love painting and believe it should be subjected to exacting standards. I think his pictures are emotionally trite and technically drab, so they damage the cause of the painter. A much finer example of modern painting in Edinburgh is Richard Wright's decorated ceiling in the Dean Gallery. I believe that Vettriano's paintings are a mixture of sexual cliche and false sentiment and that their execution is lacking in real energy or verve. You may disagree, but if so, surely you have to explain why.

All this makes me think of a recent article in the Observer, which raised once again the question of criticism's survival. This time it is supposed to be social networking sites that are making the professional critic obsolete. But the argument was self-defeating. Apparently, we critics ganged up hysterically to promote Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom, but the public only partially believed us and the book was not really a massive bestseller.

So surely this is actually a defence of the critic. The job of the critic is not and has never been to sell commodities. Criticism is supposed to be about establishing actual merit, regardless of a work's commercial impact or indeed the number of tweets it inspires. Franzen is a serious author and Freedom is a literary novel – it is not trying to be The Da Vinci Code.

If the logic of internet chatter is to equate quality and success, this actually makes the role of the critic very clear – and very traditional. It is our job to say no – the loudest artist is not necessarily the best, the most hyped show may not be the most worthwhile. That is why I claim that Richard Wright is a more important Scottish artist than Jack Vettriano, however many greetings cards the latter shifts.


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January 07 2011

Scottish architects RMJM sued by US staff

• Holyrood designer accused of withholding $664,000 in bonuses
• Lawsuit follows merger with US firm Hillier

RMJM, the architecture firm responsible for the Scottish parliament, is being sued by employees in the United States over claims that it owes them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Scottish firm – which gave Sir Fred Goodwin his first job since his departure from RBS – is at the centre of a bruising row with its US staff in which it is also accused of siphoning off cash from an American company it merged with in 2007.

According to a lawsuit lodged last month in New Jersey and detailed in Building Design magazine, RMJM director Sir Fraser Morrison and his chief executive son, Peter, have reneged on the $24m (£15.5m) deal that saw the firm merge with US-based Hillier.

RMJM denied yesterday that it had siphoned off cash from Hillier but said it expected to pay staff the $664,000 they were owed "in the near future".

According to the legal papers – filed on behalf of a number of US-based principals by former Hillier owner and shareholder representative Bob Hillier – the company still owes $664,000 of a $1.5m cash bonus pool promised to staff for 2009 under the terms of the merger agreement.

The lawsuit, which seeks to recover the money plus interest and costs, also accuses RMJM of:

• Asset-stripping and "siphoning off corporate funds" worth up to $8m from Hillier, now known as RMJM Inc.

• Planning to cease "most or all" of its operations in Princeton this month following the closure of its Philadelphia operations in June.

• Trying to disguise the fact that Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison are the "alter egos" of RMJM and should thus be held liable for the cash.

"In the last three years … the plaintiff believes that RMJM Inc has transferred to RMJM Group and/or RMJM Ltd cash in the amount of approximately $8m and yet … has refused to meet their obligations," the lawsuit stated. "Upon information and belief, RMJM Group's principals divested RMJM of assets, transferring these assets to themselves and to other entities owned or controlled by these principals, without regard to the obligations."

The papers added that RMJM had cited "cash-flow difficulties" in its correspondence and noted that Fraser Morrison owns about 10m company shares and lives in New York, while Peter owns 400,000 shares and lives in Connecticut.

According to Building Design's 2011 World Architecture 100 survey, RMJM is the eighth-largest architecture firm in the world, dropping down from fifth in 2010.

Referring to the allegations, a spokesman for RMJM said: "We're surprised and disappointed at this move, as it's well-documented that, like virtually every practice, we've had to manage our cash carefully for the past 18 months. However, we fully expect the final $664k payment of the $24m we paid for Hillier to be made in the near future and for the matter to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

"Separately, the allegations of asset-stripping are both outrageous and completely and utterly untrue. In fact, the direct opposite has been the case, as millions of dollars have been injected into the US business since the beginning of the recession."

The news of the lawsuit came amid fresh rumours about Goodwin's status at the firm. Scottish media have suggested that the disgraced former banker had not been seen at RMJM for weeks.

A spokesman for RMJM said: "Sir Fred remains an adviser to the business and we call on his services as required. This encompasses periods when increased input is helpful and others when we require to call on his services less."

Sources close to Goodwin insisted the relationship had not changed and that he was still an ad hoc adviser to RMJM.


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December 08 2010

This one's for you, Glasgow

Turner prize star Susan Philipsz comes from a long line of innovative artists and musicians with Glaswegian roots

Douglas Gordon, who in 1996 became the first Glaswegian artist to win the Turner prize, was once asked what he had been taught at Glasgow School of Art. His reply was simple. "To sing," he said. "Not how to sing, but simply to sing."

Those words now seem prophetic. On Monday night, Susan Philipsz, another artist born and raised in Glasgow – although now based in Berlin – followed in Gordon's footsteps. Philipsz was nominated for the Turner for her sound installation Lowlands (2010), which consisted of recordings of the artist singing a 16th-century lament for a drowned lover, originally played beneath three bridges on Glasgow's River Clyde before being transposed to Tate Britain.

Since 1996, no fewer than 10 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the Turner, including Christine Borland (1997), Martin Creed (2001), Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (both 2005), Nathan Coley (2007), Cathy Wilkes (2008), Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (both 2009). Of these, five won: Gordon, Creed, Starling, Wright and Philipsz. It's a reflection of the way in which Glasgow has emerged from post-industrial decline to become the UK's main art centre after London, with a reputation for producing innovative and highly acclaimed artists and musicians.

But there's more to it than simply that. Many of the best-known artists from Glasgow emerged from the Environmental Art Department at the city's art school (where, as it happens, I also teach). Students were encouraged to produce art outside studios and galleries ("with or through people", in the words of the course description). Crucially, they were also expected to seek permission to install their work in the public domain, breeding both confidence and an abiding interest in context and site-specific work. Those interests were evident in their post-graduation projects, notably the 1991 Windfall exhibition, organised by Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce, Nathan Coley and others in the disused Seaman's Mission by the Clyde, and positively reviewed in the inaugural issue of Frieze magazine. The obvious parallel is with Goldsmiths College, London, and you might compare Windfall and the 1988 Docklands exhibition Freeze, which precipitated the beginning of the YBA phenomenon.

That comparison only goes so far, however. Collectors of contemporary art in Glasgow are few and far between, and the city certainly has no equal to London gallerist and collector Charles Saatchi, so often credited with creating much of the hype around the YBAs. The establishment of The Modern Institute by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster in 1998 and more recently, the young commercial galleries Sorcha Dallas and Mary Mary has changed that situation to a certain extent, but Glasgow remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. Much of the most notable art that has emerged from the city since the early 90s has been deliberately non-permanent, short-term and ephemeral, and made on very tight budgets. Without the relentless enthusiasm of people mounting exhibitions, playing gigs and throwing parties in tenement flats, pub basements and disused buildings, none of it would have happened at all.

Philipsz's Lowlands, which was commissioned for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, underlined the importance of live music in generating a sense of community in Glasgow. The three adjacent Clyde bridges where Philipsz's work was installed were built during the late 19th and early 20th century, when Glasgow was the workshop of the world and the fourth largest city in Europe, after London, Paris and Berlin. At this time folk traditions flourished in the worker's inns, taverns and shebeens around the city's Bridgegate, Saltmarket and Gallowgate – where bars like The Victoria and The Scotia are still active gathering places for folk singers and musicians today. Indeed, last year's Turner prize winner, painter Richard Wright, supported his work during the 80s and early 90s by playing banjo and guitar at numerous ceilidhs and gigs around the city – and now plays in alt-pop band Correcto with Franz Ferdinand's Paul Thomson.

Wright is by no means unusual amongst his peers. Many of Glasgow's best-known artists are also musicians, such as Jim Lambie, who was once in a band called the Boy Hairdressers and still moonlights as a DJ. Cathy Wilkes performed with all-women collective Elizabeth Go, and 2008 Jarman prize winner Luke Fowler plays in experimental band Rude Pravo. Most of the city's best-known bands, including Franz Ferdinand and The Phantom Band, have members who trained at Glasgow School of Art.

The city's art and music scenes have grown in tandem because, as Glasgow-based writer Nicola White, put it in a 1995 essay, "Parties matter. They are part of the glue that holds any artistic community together, compensation for pursuing what is, at heart, a very solitary line of work." When Douglas Gordon took to the rostrum in 1996 to accept the Turner prize, his first thought was to thank his family and the people he called "the Scotia Nostra". Susan Philipsz, too, dedicated her award to her family and friends, saying "this is for you". She couldn't have put it better.

Sarah Lowndes is the author of Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2010)


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October 22 2010

Up the anti

The Glasgow Boys, a group of young Scottish painters who spurned the 19th-century establishment, have snared a major show at London's Royal Academy



October 03 2010

Could Dundee be the new Bilbao?

The proposed designs for the V&A's new Dundee outpost bear an uncanny resemblance to the Spanish city of Bilbao. So how do the two cities compare?

Six competing designs for Dundee's new £47m outpost of the Victoria and Albert museum, due to open in 2014, were unveiled last week. One looks like a pair of squatting armadillos; another resembles a futuristic 3D visor; a third would sit on the river Tay like a glittering box of light. Whichever design wins, it will transform the skyline of Scotland's fourth largest city, just as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum did for Spain's Bilbao in 1997. So how do the two northern, post-industrial cities compare?

Bilbao

Population: Around 353,168.

Language: A sensitive issue, to say the least. The national language is, naturally, Spanish; but as the largest city in the Basque country, Bilbao's other official language is "Euskera", or Basque.

Industry: Historically centred on mining, steel, ship-building and banking; today, the city is more focused on tourism.

Insurrectionary past: Bilbao has suffered from its association with the Basque separatists Eta, whose violent campaign has killed more than 820 people over 40 years.

Culture: Did I mention the Guggenheim? That's pretty much where it's at – though there is also a symphony orchestra, an opera company, and a big summer rock festival that attracts bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden.

Cuisine: The Basques favour an adventurous blend of fish, meats and vegetables, drawing on their enviable position between the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay. Classic recipes include baby eels in garlic – ugh – and quails in chocolate sauce.

Dundee

Population: Around 143,000.

Language: English, nominally; though the Dundonian dialect may stump visitors. For example you may hear this after several days under Dundee's slate-grey skies: "Yer lookin' affy peely-wally th' day" (translation: "You're looking terribly pale today").

Industry: Known historically as the home of "jute, jam and journalism" for its now-defunct jute mills, marmalade factory (local woman Janet Keiller is reputed to have invented the preserve in the late 1700s), and DC Thomson, publishers of the Beano, the Dandy and, incongruously, I'm Pregnant magazine. Today, it's software development and biotechnology.

Insurrectionary past: Almost 10,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the 80s, leading to violent industrial disputes and sit-ins.

Culture: For art and film, the trendy, glass-walled Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre; for theatre, the top-class Dundee Rep (where David "the Doctor" Tennant cut his teeth).

Cuisine: Not all deep-fried. Local delicacies include the "bridie", a hot meat pasty; and, of course, the eponymous whisky-soaked cake.


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