Henry VIIIs Wives are: Rachel Dagnall, Bob Grieve, Sirko Knüpfer, Simon Polli, Per Sander, Lucy Skaer
We March Under the Banner of Visual Art
In 1997, somewhere between July and September, I received a call on the electric telephone from Lucy. The jist of it was that some of my old classmates and friends (Rachel Dagnall, Jonas Eggen, Sirko Knüpfer, Simon Polli, Per Sander and Lucy Skaer) had formed a little collective with the intentions of experimenting around collaborative art projects. They had discussed my possible inclusion in this new community and had decided to offer me an invitation to join. There was no name for this group yet and no particular ideology other than to pool our resources together into a collective discipline. There would be no authorship other than that of the entire group and titles would be dispensed with. Egos would not be satisfied. I decided to subscribe since I was between meaningful relationships. The idea of working collaboratively was not a new idea—we had had ‘our practice’ at Art School, sharing ideas and techniques, exhibiting together around common themes. But formalising these relationships into an organisation was new. At School there were systems: studios and workshops and canteens where these minglings and overlaps can happen quite naturally. Problematically, we were now dispersed far apart, foreign agents without a common space. A plot was devised, a series of postcards fluttered and telegrams tapped across Europe with tasks and assignments for each agent to interpret in their own fashion, the results of which would become the basis for the first group showing at our new headquarters and old local, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow (January 1998). The exhibition was simply titled ‘Henry VIIIs Wives’ (perhaps retrospectively as a surviving curiosity, a physical impossibility, or just a collection of people who should have known better?).
When we met, for the three festive weeks prior to the opening we had no preconceptions or motives or even outlines for the show. All we had were our correspondences and subsequent solo adventures. More games were played and more tasks set, with no censoring of ideas or suggestions. Seven worked and played together almost every hour possible but left little evidence of the activity, except for a lot of unwashed coffee cups and empty bottles of shampoo. I remember the worried questioning we received from the committee: was there actually going to be an exhibition? When the time was up, the coffee table was shipped out and the results of the games were transplanted into the gallery leaving barely a square inch of white wall untouched.
Transmission was the last time any individual concerns would dominate individual pieces. We didnt have a national flag to sail under, so we hoisted the Banner of Visual Art and set off on an uncertain direction. The singing raft didnt get very far before we set up camp again. Our next port of call was still on (current) home ground: a densely populated collaborative groups group show: ‘Host’ at Tramway (Glasgow 1998).
Our contribution to this cocktail of collaboration was, if anything, more compact than before. We had become more discerning in our choice of activities. Rather than multiple agendas and personal interests, the programme became honed to include all, in the ideas through to the execution of choicely selected projects. There would be no committee, no voting, no democracy, it wasnt needed on this island—either the group wanted to do something or it didnt. On the map, all possible lines and tangents could be explored freely, but safety in numbers though, the moon has a strange shape these nights.
The tone was now certainly darker than at Transmission, though just as absurd. And although each show has been measurably different, the group’s personality, if such a thing can be exacted, was developing: an interest in research site visits, (in this case to hospitals), multiple screen films, large-scale sculpture. Perhaps as homage to the good lady who helped us find our name, we presented a replica of Princess Dianas wrecked Mercedes, reconstructed from a second hand Fiat with fine-tuning dealt out by sledgehammers. A hungry pack of dogs appears to circle members of the group who brandish burning torches in a photograph from the same exhibition. Only members with a particular fear of dogs appeared in the image; we were learning to make ourselves useful. Utilising the members of the group as subjects, or more correctly, as objects, continued throughout the following show: ‘Green-Stick Fracture’, CCA (Glasgow 1999), part of ‘a season of Civil Disobedience’.
Again, the curatorial process sidestepped clumsily around the extensive number of works included here. We were impulsive and instantaneous, creating works around ourselves and the ‘poetic’ moments we found ourselves in. We grew our own mushrooms and waded through rivers, chased sheep across fields and swung together on ropes in our matching undies, all the fun we were having, exploiting the notion of ‘civil disobedience’—nothing too dangerous mind, just kids at play. But there was something alive deep down beneath us in the sewers and spreading through the walls, danger creeped all around…the kids were going to be to be fiddled with.
The crack is often the sound of a small explosive. Questions were being raised, censorship implied—the games would have to be restrained before someone got hurt. The restrictions placed on the group provided a necessity to engage with the institution, the space and the locale. Playgrounds and battlefields. Here we found that an un-level playing field has plenty of grassy knolls to hide behind. We tossed the white cube over our rolling bodies and from the debris gallery walls were reconstructed to form interrogation chambers where we could ask our own questions. Interpreting and responding to our immediate context within the allowed time frame was the first amendment—if the group was not together, the group did not exist. When the group was together it responded to its immediacy. The agents became foreign interventionists, taking these methods to work in ‘Nine Reasons To Be An Optimist’, UKS Galleri (Oslo, 1999). A united front, combined and uneven in development, we were doing our best to avoid becoming political despite our engagement. Instead we looked to shaping our environment: to become more harmonious, more thing shoo-ey than feng-shui, an all pervasive soundtrack of Nashville honky tonk, the gallery panelling and lighting track removed or repositioned, the local citizens re-housed in the basement and the attic according to our programme. A young local girl with albinism is photographed with a beautiful white horse. Representatives from nine local religions were invited to a disused airport control tower with panoramic views over the deserted and frozen airfield. The gallery was transformed into a museum of incongruous artefacts that framed the work. A group show, ‘Evolution Isnt Over Yet’, was staggered over two legs providing an opportunity for one lengthy and one shorter stretch for the group, a sort of limping collaboration if you will. For the first leg at The Fruitmarket (Edinburgh 1999) we produced photographic work with local people—elderly residents of a day care centre re-enacting iconic pictorial moments of the twentieth century. The second leg was housed in a disused gunpowder factory turned art centre, ‘Fabrica Pavlova whatever’, Lugar Commun (Lisbon 2000). The indigenous wildlife in the extensive parkland grounds was exported out whilst species from Portugals colonies (birds, reptiles and fish) were imported in to replace them, all to the deafening sound of gunfire and explosions.
As the Millennium encroached, we took refuge in the cold wastelands of the North again for ‘The Desert Beautiful’, Galleri 54 (Gothenburg 2000), a gallery occupying the space of a once residential tenement flat (meaning that alternative accommodation wouldn’t be needed on this particular trip). We dont need much, something to cook on, somewhere to wash, I can sleep standing on my head—but some standards have to be maintained after all. Apparently Ace of Base lived upstairs but I never saw them. Again the gallery needed some quick alterations before we began: the woodchip wallpaper on two walls was stripped down to reveal the bare brown plaster beneath on which we made wall drawings: various tessellating designs from through the ages. A celebratory mood was in the air; rockets were set off (but burnt out in the floorboards of our pop star neighbours), a mountain of popcorn was cooked up in readiness for a festive feast or a lean winter. It was noted that a skinny boy like me would fit quite easily through the Christmas tree wrapping machine in the local square — a Mummy was created from layers of blankets and net wrapping to be ceremoniously paraded through the streets on three sets of shoulders. The music from this video — African drumming and strange accordion type squeals from Laos as before — surrounded the other works, carried on a gentle morning mist through a space now filled with exotic plants. The local citizens, all immigrants, again re-housed in the space where they could now live amid the all en-compassing forest we had created.
‘The Fear Of Death’, Collective Gallery (Edinburgh 2001), was a solo show split into two separate but interconnected rooms: one dark, one light. A curious double door connects these two rooms (a door of two separately hinged panels that fold in on each other when opened but create a purgatorial void between them when closed). This door was our DIY version of a much grander one found in a local Mission. A video of the elderly Father Seamus demonstrates his ever faithful enthusiasm for his door—it is as he says “so smoooooth!” Outside, the gallery’s windows were dressed with a lentil landscape and a portrait of Che Guevara made from roasted and un-roasted coffee beans, consistent with the rest of Edinburghs Cockburn Street. The construction of these window works is evident once inside the building, the sleek and elegant coffee house welcome scaffolded over by the beams and struts inside that keep the works upright.
The construction of our works is often laid bare. Perhaps amid this catalogue of our endeavours to date there might be some clues left that give some insight into our most recent show, ‘Light Without Shadow’, Tramway (Glasgow 2002). Im waiting for Lucy to call back again just now. Rachel, Sirko and Per have already left town, and Simon and Lucy will be disappearing off in different directions quite soon. Its important to get a few evenings together before then. There are some future projects simmering on the boil that we’ll need to talk over and hopefully it wont be too long until the Banner of Visual Art flies again.
Glasgow, May 2002 http://h8w.net/