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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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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