The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie


Back to Words from George...

ARTISTS LIVES - EXTRACTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

George Wyllie was interviewed for the British Library's Artists' Lives audio recordings

My mother
My father
Daphne
Wartime
Ireland
Music
Finnieston Crane
Straw Locomotive
Paper Boat
Birds
An Assembly of Robins
Berlin Burd
Pataphysics
Glasgow School of Art
Art should be meaningful
Art
Exposure
Collins Gallery
New Beginnings
Equilibrium
George Rickey
32 Spires for Hibernia
Footlights & Films
A Day Down a Goldmine
Just in Case
Vent 2000
Running Clock
Adjustable Palm Tree
Start your day cheerfully
Chuckie Soup extract

 

My mother, Harriet/Harry...

She was a good mother, very kind and brought me up well. And she had a passion for the colour red, and used to make me wear red blazers and red hats, which I found appalling really.

My mother was a bit like myself, she had ambitions. She had aspirations to be business-like and she was a good business woman, but that wasn't the age to be a businesswoman.

She did a lot of china painting, an easy option, but she only made one oil painting in her whole life...

It's a good little oil painting (of vegetables): we called it "Fruit"

People liked "our Harry": full of vim and zest.

I was her bright-eyed boy.

 

My father, Andy...

My father Andy was a nice man, cheerful man; he used to love to make up little poems and songs and sing. And I follow in that tradition, because, I write some little songs, such as the bum steer song; "when the enlightenment of the human race goes wrong, you're on a bum steer".

We always went for an annual holiday "doon the water". Dunoon was a favourite place and if we were going down to Gourock to get the boat, he would always take me up and look at the railway engine and we'd talk to the driver if we could, and the driver would let off some steam. It was wonderful.

I think a lot of "The Straw Locomotive" was due to the influence of my Dad taking me up to look at the locomotives.

 

Tramcar travel was a big thing; you went by tram everywhere.

Daphne used to go on tram rides, she used to love that. There was a tram that went up into Barrhead area; there's a private track and it sort of ran through the country.

I've got a sculpture in the Transport Museum; it's very popular, very early. It's almost naive, a tramcar on rails rising off the track and going up with wings on it, a tramcar going to the great terminus in the sky...because all good tramcars went to Heaven, you know.

I seem to like things to do with transport, boats and so on...

As a boy, my real zenith of Constructivism was bogie building. I was the best bogie builder in Cardonald.

I built a little boat at home and sailed it on the River Cart. Since then, I've built several boats: I love boat building. I was a vicious sailor, a desperate sailor. I was very good at sailing.

 

Daphne

In the war, I was sent down to Gosport and one night I went to a dance in the drill hall and standing opposite me was this very demure, very beautiful, little lady. And I danced with her and walked her home. Her parents invited me for Sunday lunch and that was my feet under the table.

From that day onwards, Daphne was mine and I was Daphne's. She is my sweetheart; she is my soul mate.

Went sailing, went to dances and all was well with the world. We had a very happy home, at the top of a hill with a good view and I felt like a Greek God looking out.

Spot-on equilibric place, there's no question about it.

I had this little studio thing on the side of the house and my daughters used to (say) "He's going out to his playpen".

And then I got part-share of a workshop in Greenock, where I built big things like the safety pin with Harry Findlay.

 

Wartime

I managed to chat my way out of the Fleet Air Arm and into the Royal Navy, which was wonderful. I was an electrical artificer and travelled to Egypt, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Australia and on to Shanghai and Yokohama, from where we took a day trip to Hiroshima.

The big reversal point for me was the Japanese thing, Hiroshima. When I realised that the human race as such had just gone a bit too far with this nuclear stuff.

 

 

Customs and Cowboys in Ireland

After the War, I sat a Civil Service exam and got into Customs and Excise in Glasgow and then got transferred to Greenock. I was called a preventative officer and that was to catch smugglers: A great job.

I got promoted and decided to go to Ireland and worked on the land boundary patrol across the border. We moved house to a place outside the town of Newry: A wild place, at the border of Armagh and County Down. Wild, wild smugglers there. Great cowboys and Indians. That was an adventure.

Once I had a narrow escape. We were going through Jonesborough and an Irish guy jumped out and said "Stop. A bunch of guys are armed ahead of you and they're going to ambush you." So we stopped the car and put it into reverse. It was a bit like Dick Barton, Special Agent... Never gone so fast in a car in reverse in my life. Ahead of us we could see these guys jumping out of their car with guns... But they never got us. Then we alerted the Army... and we got our name in the papers you know.

It was a surreal experience to work on that land boundary.

Smuggling stopped on Christmas Day and we all went down to a bar in Newry and the smugglers and the Customs had a drink together: that was a good one.

And when I departed after being the chairman of the light orchestra there, they gave me a music box. It plays "The Isle of Inisfree" and is only obtainable in the south of Ireland. They gave me, a Customs officer, a present smuggled across the border!

 

Music

You take off and you shut your eyes and you enter the realms of sound and you make your instrument be in accord with that, you're really in a state of creativity.

We always had a piano in the house and my mother could vamp on the piano, so could my dad.

When I was about ten or twelve, I jumped from a wall and broke my leg badly and at that time my mother taught me the ukulele and I used to play in my wheelchair. I got interested in George Formby songs and everything and still play the ukulele to this day.

I was into music, bam! without even trying. I saw this double bass for sale in the Clydesdale Supply Company for £7.10s, and I managed to get my mother to give me money to buy it. I put on gramophone records and played the bass with the band, Tiger rag, and all that stuff.

One day I got a phone call from a guy asking could I come down and play in the band in Govan town hall. And I seemed to do all right, just playing by ear, and then I took lessons from a bass player in a bigger band in Glasgow and kept going. Then the war came along, and a lot of the bass players went in the forces for their military bands, so I got their jobs.

During the war (the Royal Navy) sent me to London... And I took my double bass and was playing with bands and meeting people like Johnny Dankworth.

(And later on, whilst) working in Customs; Ta! Ta! I got a job to run a band in the Bay Hotel in Gourock, a trio which did very well: The Clubmen with Pauline.

 

Art

I was born in Glasgow in 1921, a very good year. And I was called George Ralston Wyllie, after my grandfather, on my father's side. I was called Ralston at that time...but later on I changed it, I just got used to calling myself George.

I liked cranes and I was nearly a crane builder. I went for a job to Sir William Arrol & Co, and I didn't have the academic qualifications but I had been building model aeroplanes and was a member of the model aeroplane flying club.

I took the drawings I'd done of these models I was making and they impressed the guys in the drawing office because I was doing this on my own, free of night school (although) I'd learnt technical drawing in Alan Glen's. (They) gave me a job in the crane department .Sir William Arrol was a very big international structural engineer, built stuff in Australia, all over the world.

I went back home and told my father, and he said "You're not going to take that job."

This was a mistake, really. He didn't want me to me to go into an airy job and be vulnerable if a slump should happen again. So I got a job in the Post Office engineering department, which was rubbish from an engineering point of view, it was about designing manholes and stuff like that.

I think I always wanted to be something to do with construction building.

And latterly, when I found sculpture, I had the best of all worlds.

I didn't go to Art College or anything like that. My notion of art was what you learnt at school, something you went to look at in the Kelvingrove Museum. You went and looked at pictures with nice frames round them and marble sculptures and all that stuff. But it was only a small section of art.

Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow had great exhibitions... I remember the Italian exhibition of sculpture based on agricultural shapes. It was semi-engineering... I think they called it the "Agricoli Movement": it was related to farm instruments and they were plough-like structures and all that. I thought, bloody hell, I could do that so I got a welding plant and started making sculpture. I would be about forty five.

I used metalwork like drawing and Cordelia Oliver used to say "you might as well just have done a drawing as made it". But I think it was Goethe who said that if you go into three dimensions, it's much more powerful as something that your mind retains. I think there's a certain amount of truth in that. In that respect, I make no apologies for being three-dimensional.

The Russians used to have ten-year plans... and I thought I'll make a ten-object plan. I will make ten objects to see what happens and I'll not worry about what they look like.

I wanted complete emptiness. I wanted to see what came out of the void in my mind...to break away from instructions...to do things that were latent in my mind, resulting from observations, feelings and so on.

I don't say I always do that now, but that attitude is still there in the background.

They were always a wee bit literal actually: I made a dancing lamppost and a mortgaged home climbing up the wall.

They were crusty kind of objects and the ten of them without exception, were successful. I went right through the ten and ended up with a crucifix which was accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy. (It was) purchased and ended up in a church in Barrow-in-Furness.

I was breaking rules in the Scottish art world, (which) at that time was kind of staid, in a way, really. I (sometimes) did something quite good like that bishop, a kind of proper sculpture, but if you hit it, it'll rock and give you a blessing.

Benno Schotz, (the Queen's Sculptor) turned up and took a (very enthusiastic) interest in me. I was friendly with him until he died.

And then you get commissions. Made a big dragon out of stainless steel and car bumpers (for a disco)...about twenty feet long and we shone lights on it. It was great.

When I was made a professional member of the Glasgow Group, I was exhibiting on equal terms with all these guys who had been through Art College, so that made me feel good. Latterly, I was made an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, so that was even better. And then I was (accepted for) the RGI.

So, I thought, we're doing all right.

Quick sketches are the nearest you can get to what's happening in your mind, your dream. You have a dream or you have thoughts: back of the envelope, right away, you've got it. Anything that happens after that, you're only developing it. That's why I think little cartoons and quickies are important. Doodles are important.

"The Straw Locomotive" was a back-of-the-envelope job and the twenty-one foot safety pin was kicking about on a temporary basis.

But they're not works of art, really.

I don't know what would have happened if I had been lucky, or unlucky, enough to go to University. I think I would have liked to have gone into engineering, been a bridge builder or something like that.

But then again, I don't know, it depends on what's happening inside me, what's driving me, to say, well you aren't an engineer, but you can make an artwork, an artwork construction.

And I mean engineers to my mind, are not a write-off, beyond the fact that they get very much locked into engineering.

I think we should remember that the marriage of art and science is important...but the human race in its effort to show how clever it is sometimes distances itself from the elemental, fundamental things, planetary feelings, and also from its own humanity.

The question mark was a fluke really. I called my first decent exhibition in the Collins in 1976 "Scul?pture" because I was never sure it was sculpture and am still not sure.

So I took the "p" out of sculpture and put a question mark in.

We were never sure what Q.M. stood for. It's always good not to know something about what you're doing. We ha "Do you think it could mean Quartz Magic?"

So, we're back to stones again.

 

The Finnieston Crane

I've hung four things on that crane: the "Paper Boat", the "Straw Locomotive", the "Glasgow Speug", and a helicopter. I made a big sparrow, the "Glasgow Speug" with kids from an outfit in Glasgow called 'Arts is Magic'.

And we did the "Dear Green Helicopter" made with a steel frame and mesh covered in paper leaves (on which the kids had written) things about the city.

The value of doing (something) in the popular sense is that it gets around. It's not art beyond reach. And the involvement of youngsters is good.

I never paid a penny to Clydeport. They entered into it with good will because the staff was from a seafaring fraternity who ran it as a shipping organisation.

Since then, the corporate guys have taken over and (now) charge an artist £2,000.00 for hanging up a heart.

 

The "Straw Locomotive"

The "Straw Locomotive" represented the 18,000 locomotives which were exported from that crane in Glasgow to 43 destinations all over the world. That was Glasgow at its energetic best and that was the subliminal message that came over. Everyone remembered some of the locomotives that used to be lifted by that crane onto decks of ships to go to places like Egypt and the Argentine and all over the world.

I got £6,000.00 from TSWA3D and built the locomotive in the Greenock Welding Company.

It was 78 feet long, and had a steel frame for the chassis, so to speak, but all the rest was wire mesh, stuffed with straw. (It took a couple of months to build) and then it was like theatre.

We had it on a low-loader and we towed it up the motorway, then through Glasgow. There was a great ceremony as we hauled it up on the crane. I'm told...that there was not a dry eye. It sat there for 6 weeks to 2 months. And birds nested in it; a bit of a nuisance, because I had to get (them) out before the last theatrical episode.

We then took it up to Springburn where the railway locomotives used to be made...and with great ceremony, set it on fire

And that's where they discovered there was one bird left..I'm so sorry, because I'm really a bird lover, and my favourite meal is crispy duck.

We had a crowd; we had a piper playing a lament. (It) took a while to burn.

For me, it was a kind of Viking Funeral.

A lot of articles were written and it was on television quite a bit. And they said, "It's easier to get straw in Glasgow than to get a locomotive", so there was that philosophical dimension.

Straw Locomotive

 

The "Paper Boat"

When I was doing the "Straw Loco", I looked down the river and saw all the shipyards slowly becoming redundant, and that still continues.

There were 37 at one time and now we're down to about 3.

There was a national competition organised by Gulbenkian and I got £30,000 to do the "Paper Boat". And I did it in Glasgow, and then I did it in London. And then I did it in New York and then in Antwerp. I brought it up to Dumfries and then I did it up and down the east coast of Scotland.

My friend, Harry Findlay, (who's good at welding) enjoys doing these daft things with me.

We used to build big ships like the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and I thought we're not building anything of any consequence now; we can only build paper boats. So I came up with this cock-and-bull story about an order from the Origami Line to build a paper boat.

I wrote a corny wee tune, a paddle-steamer song for a wee concertina band. "We're going to build a big paper boat...Folded up carefully, so it can float. But not what a ship used to be."

Overall, it was seventy-five feet long (and it had) a platform you could stand on and you could be seen through the gauze doing things. (The frame was made of) steel but the fabric was (the type of) plastic, used by contractors for wrapping up dusty things. It had to be laid out in a big loft, cut into shapes then Velcro'd together, and hung on the frame like curtains. We made it so it could open up and expose the question mark which went up and down.

Nice bit of engineering, actually.

We decided to re-enact the launching of a real ship, so we had a launch party at the Rotunda, with a real minister to bless the boat, speeches and Naomi Mitchison, the writer, cracked a bottle of Beck's beer across the stern. We launched it on the crane and put it in the water. Cheers all round, choir singing, brass band playing: Everything.

In London we got the Tower Bridge to open for us and because the Tower Bridge will only open for boats over 25 feet high, we put a 40ft mast on it. And we hung a Saltire borrowed from Skelmorlie Bowling Club. People on the shore were cheering and there were guys on HMS Belfast cheering like mad. (We sailed) right up to Westminster Bridge and anchored at the Festival Hall.

We told the people in New York we'd sailed across, guided by an albatross, right across the Atlantic. As the Queen Elizabeth passed by, it blew its horn.

Oh, great times in New York.

Taxi drivers would say "Are you the Paper Boat man?"

The Duke Ellington orchestra was playing on the quayside and I asked the band if I could count them in.

And I did what I called a Robotic ballet in the little rowing boat to "Over the Sea to Skye".

After that we got blown about in Antwerp. We sailed it up the River Scheldt and we were going to put it on the land beside the Maritime Museum and this big crane had to lift it out. (I asked the crane driver, if, after the Paper Boat had been lifted out, he could lift the small dingy out and place it on a plinth beside it.) So, down came the crane again with a big hook to lift this tiny dingy. And the crowd cheered the crane driver (for his) expertise in laying the boat just where it was wanted, putting it on the plinth, and then taking the dingy out of the big boat and putting it on a plinth.

That's what I mean by community involvement: it was inadvertent but it was a nice moment.

In Dumfries, we got it onto the River Nith and did some Burns stuff and then it was hey ho for the east coast. It started off at Burntisland and went up to Anstruther and back again.

By then it was troublesome keeping it up to date so I sent it to a shipyard at Inverkeithing and had it broken up like a real liner.

It's gone but it died an honourable death.

The sea is a great leveller really...one of the things that's wrong with Britain today, we've broken our relationship with the sea. That's why I did things with the paper boat.

The trouble (was) the art was maybe too good and confused the (concept).

The social comment emerged better in the "Straw Locomotive" (whereas) The "Paper Boat" was too successful as a theatrical thing.

Paper Boat

 

Birds

I loaded my car with off-cuts (of stainless steel) and made an eagle. Benno Schotz didn't like that eagle; he said "It'll never get off the ground".

Which is OK by me, because it's still there.

I like birds very much; I like the freedom of birds. Where do all the birds go at night? You never see them, do you? It's amazing. Where do seagulls sleep?

Birds

 

"An Assembly of Robins"

I got a residency from the Arts Council for a community arts thing, to work with five unemployed people. We talked about art and thought of a project to make robins. We wanted cheap material, because we hadn't much of a budget...and eventually made them out of logs cut up in the local estate. We made 250, painted them and shot through to Edinburgh and put them in front of the Assembly Rooms. And a speaker went "chirp, chirp, chirp" all day.

At the end we sold all the robins for £2.50 each, so the "Famous Five" each got a bonus.

I took them up to Rannoch Moor and said, "This is a blank canvas; this is where we came from, the earth."

When we were in Edinburgh, I took them to all the galleries. I said "There's the Royal Scottish Academy. That is your place. Don't feel frightened when you go in (with) all these poncey people. Your mums and dads paid for this place. Keep it going." Took them to the Demarco Gallery, got Demarco to talk to them. "This is avant-gardism, this is sketchy art." Took them to the Museum of Modern Art and said, "All of that is up for grabs. You don't get it in Greenock and Port Glasgow. Here it is in Edinburgh. Appreciate it."

And I got them wound up and the girl got into Art College in Dundee.

An Assembly of Robins

 

Berlin Burd

I've never gone overtly pataphysical but I think the bird looking over the wall in Berlin was quite good.

I had this bird looking over the wall and I had 500 small birds lined up behind it and it was passing information down the line.

We got German kids to build small birds out of everything from bits of wood to shopping trolleys.

And I got kids from Boclair Academy to do them, so we'd got 250 birds from Bearsden and 250 from Berlin.

I said to this German writer: "This wall's a bit stupid really, because there's Germans on this side, Germans on that side and we're all really together, except this wall's keeping us apart. It's an absurdity."

"You're right," he said. "It takes one absurdity to question another."

And it did.

The kids in Germany remember that bird, and it was good, the Berlin Burd.

And the snow came on the day we were doing it and covered up all the wee birds. I suppose the worth of doing things like that does permeate in the art world.

Berlin Burd

 

Glasgow School of Art

I did occasional lectures in the Glasgow School of Art (about) how to do events and things, performances.

I would take something they'd be doing and suggest to them how they could maybe amplify it without changing it. I don't like to change people's ideas.

I got my students, who were David Harding's students for Environmental Studies, to do an event based on the Berlin Wall called "And I".

It was all very theatrical. Douglas Gordon was one of the students, and Roddy Buchanan was another, and Christine Borland and Ross Sinclair.

I'd have to wallop them a bit hard for being too conceptual, you know...Ross Sinclair's not quite so bad, he gets stuck in and so does Christine Borland, she does things to do with medicine and so on. Roddy does things to do with football, and Douglas Gordon's a law unto himself. But they (were) all pretty forward-thinking students.

And I mean I must have had a wee influence on them, you know. At that time I got some money from the Goethe Institute to do a commemorative event for Joseph Beuys on Rannoch Moor and I took the students with me. We erected a spire, a remembrance of Beuys, air, stone, equilibrium, and we made a little cairn with stones.

 

Pataphysics & Geopeotics

Alfred Jarry said that there's physics and there's metaphysics, and he said well, metaphysics is not good enough; we have to go beyond metaphysics.

And he invented pataphysics: the science of imaginary solutions and believing that everything in some way is joined to everything or something else.

And the way to detect that is to take an absurdity and to push it to such excesses that finally you get the truth of things. I think that's a great philosophy.

 

Art should be meaningful

Now and again, you get a genius artist like Joseph Beuys, someone able to bring a big philosophical statement to the world, but even Beuys got overrun by the orthodoxy of his contemporaries.

Give full credit to (Richard) Demarco, he deserves a pat on the back: he'd seen this exhibition in Germany and was determined to bring it over and set it up in the Edinburgh College of Art. In it was an exhibit called "The Pack", on the business of survival: a Volkswagen van and out of the back of the van tumbled sledges, and on the sledges were rolls of felt, a torch and implements for survival: A lovely visual puzzle.

Ricky invited Beuys over to Scotland and Beuys made a recording of the noises in Rannoch Moor. There's this business of a man relating to the landscape, and the landscape oozing up through your feet, through your body, and you realise you're part of something beyond ourselves.

(Beuys) planted 7,000 oak trees near Kassel, Germany: a big event. My "Stones in Scotland" (and my spires) are a wee bit influenced by that: Just the balance of nature, the air, the stone and the equilibrium, we being the manipulators of that equilibrium.

Later, Demarco was doing a thing in the Festival and asked Beuys to do an event. It was to take the doors off the Edinburgh Poor House and put (them up in the College of Art). There was a little hole at the bottom and he wanted a red light under there. And then Dawson (Murray) and I signed the doors. The doors then went to Berlin.

I liked Beuys. He had a kind of theatrical persona. He adopted a uniform; he always wore a fisherman's waistcoat and a wide-brimmed homburg hat. He was a nice guy, when you got to know him...a very homely guy...we went to his flat in Dusseldorf and we talked about things, eating big sausages.

He gave me a present of a plastic bag. Seems a funny thing, but these plastic bags had his theory for changing money printed on them, one in a diagrammatic way, like a mandala, and another one in his own hand. He supported a gallery in Karl Marx Strasse in Berlin and when the gallery was closing, they decided to take all the plaster off the walls and put it in these plastic bags. So the gallery was still there but in these bags. He (had) a subliminal thought; the gallery that was influencing his thinking, was all in there...and galleries bought them as souvenirs, I think, of the Beuys era.

I get a row for being enthusiastic about Beuys, but I just accept that. It's terrible when an artist sees an artist they like and starts doing things that emulate their style. And I probably do, but not in a physical sense, in a philosophical sense.

 

New beginnings

Joseph Beuys in Edinburgh did a thing with a little print called "New Beginnings are in the Offing" and I never really understood that. It was a picture of him standing in front of Greyfriars Bobby (with the above text).

I always thought new beginnings are in the immediate future...But that's not quite correct. "In the offing" means that space, that undefined, unrealised space beyond the horizon: That space you know nothing about. That's where the new beginnings are. You're in that space beyond what you could visualise. And to get to a new beginning out of that in the offing is something really difficult. There are not so many new beginnings as such. People talk about new beginnings, but it's maybe just an extension of a previous beginning.

Well, the new beginnings only happened to me when I did "The Vent", (after Donny O'Rourke and I) went off in an intuitive way, on a random walk on Kerrera.

 

Equilibrium

Equilibrium is a big word. When you're sailing, you're definitely in balance with nature: the sea and the sails and the wind and the elements, you're part of that mechanism where you've got a rudder, a tiller, and you can adjust your human condition to keep the balance right.

The spire with the rod going upwards, counterbalanced by a stone, is able to move about without blowing over, like the sails of a ship.

A bicycle's a good example of equilibrium as well and a glider, once you've got it up in the air, is in equilibrium, beautifully. A rowing boat with rowers: equilibrium again.

And birds are very much the patron saints of equilibrium.

 

32 Spires for Hibernia

I went back to Ireland many years later and decided to unite Ireland sculpturally.

We made thirty two spires joined up together, ring-a ring-a- rosy if you like, over the border and this Irishman comes up and says "George, do you think anyone asked this stream, if it wanted to be part of the border?"

That's Ireland, a very metaphysical place.

We took it up to Calton Hill for the Edinburgh Festival and made a little film called "Thirty two spires for Hibernia" about it. You can use a sculptural statement as an icon to encapsulate the problem in Ireland.

(Nowadays), because we can, we can completely neglect the stimulation of art, we don't do it, we let people take over; corporates, engineers, even architects, who have no passion for the arts.

That's a big problem. I don't know how you can bust that. But I work away at it and talk about it. I think it would be good if society could get into that easier, more natural, way of living. Free of the constrictions of big money, the hype, the conceit and all that stuff.

An old welder who was going to die in a matter of weeks, said:"George, hope is hard".

So you can hope if you like, but it's not easy.

32 Spires for Hibernia

 

George Rickey

The two materials I like best are for these reasons; one is an eternal material, and one is as modern as one can get in a practical sense.

The first is stone, and the modern one is stainless steel.

When I went to America, I was befriended by an artist called George Rickey who lived in upstate New York. He was a kinetic artist and I remembered seeing his work in Edinburgh (outside the Gallery of Modern Art); wands that balanced beautifully and moved in the wind. Lovely, mechanical, kinetic stuff.

George Rickey

Vent 2000

On the island of Kerrera, there's a little byre with a triangular window, and the wind was blowing through it and the smells were coming in and going out. It was to ventilate the byre for the animals. And I was standing looking out there and I thought, God! I see more out of this triangular window than some people see looking at a television monitor, and (it's) more perceptive and more in tune with real life. So I decided to make a sculptural vent.

"Vent 2000", I called it, to compete with Windows 2000.

And then I got an opportunity to build one in Caithness on the cliffs between Thurso and Scrabster, looking towards the horizon over which lies Iceland...and the air is the same air as in Viking times.

So I thought, let's collect some of this stuff. I had a little heater device to seal the plastic bags of air collected in Scotland from the Pentland Firth, from the surface of the sea...(each with a certificate saying it was collected while fresh and it had great properties of invigoration, no contamination).

Took about 100 bags of air down to London, stood on the steps of St Paul's, under the resurgam arch. ("I will rise again"), and with a view to letting London rise again, burst the bags and said "There you are, there's some fresh air from a clear part of the planet. Get re-energised."

And it worked like a charm.

 

Exposure

I believe that art should be out there for everyone, and art exhibitions ghettoise art quite a bit.

We really need art desperately at the moment to excite people to get involved in aspirational ideas, to create. And the best art does it in an uncompromising way; it does it because it believes in itself. And you can't always do that in a gallery.

But a lot of artists can't see beyond the gallery; they get frightened.

I'm the other way around, conditioned largely, I suppose, by the American experience, Upstate New York's "Forest of Fertility", the spires in the open air, the stones, then the "Paper Boat" and the "Straw Locomotive".

 

Collins Gallery, 1976

I had my first big exhibition in the Collins Exhibition Hall in 1976 and Barbara Grigor dragged George Rickey along.

They were going around laughing their heads off...it was a funny exhibition; there was a machine for applauding paintings, for example.

There was a McGonagall sculpture, sculptures that McGonagall might have made, like: "A falcon is a bird of prey; just look at what he's done today".

And the falcon's sitting there with a falconer's hand in his mouth.

There was a crocodile that went down a railway and ate a still life.

It was very well received in Glasgow. I always had a soft spot for the Collins.

And latterly, (in 1990) that exhibition, and the second one, earned me an honorary doctorate from Sir Graham Hills, the Principal. He loved it because he recognised that everyone who looked at it properly, realised there was a social comment underneath the fun.

 

Just in Case

Mayfest is defunct now, that's why I built the safety pin, just in case it went defunct.

I got this twenty-one feet high, stainless steel, safety pin, which was erected as a tongue in cheek sort of thing; well, if a disaster happens, then, the safety pin is there. "Just in Case" we called it.

I exhibited it at Glasgow Cross one year, and then Chris Carrell wanted it down it outside the Guildhall in Portsmouth. I think (then), we were interested in an attachment to the European Community, through a safety pin.

We brought it back up to Edinburgh for a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers; an attachment to the Commonwealth. You can use it as a kind of metaphor or icon for (all sorts of) attachments. And latterly, I did it one more time in Buchanan Street in Glasgow.

It was lying down in the store in Greenock and then, Laura phoned me one day (about the University taking over the site of Rottenrow Maternity Hospital) and said "I think it would be very appropriate to have a sculpture (in the new gardens), how about the safety pin?"

And I'm really pleased that somebody in the curatorial business thought of doing that. So the safety pin is now a "Monument to Maternity". The first safety pin was made in New York but the earliest pins were Greek. So we (put) the caption in Greek and in English to explain this safety pin and why it's there; I like that idea.

I don't Iike to be the boss man (when it comes to organising events around my work). It should be a catalyst: if (people) are going to join in, let them do it their way. That's the value of sculpture, the iconic nature of it focuses attention and other things happen around it.

Monument to Maternity

 

The Running Clock

Radio Clyde wanted a sculpture as part of their PR stuff.

I went up to the Bus station and saw people hurrying out and hurrying in. And I thought, well how about a clock going in and out there?

So, I designed this thing on legs, about three metres high, with a metre square clock on top, with four faces on it.

And it was a big success, you know: (people) smile when they pass by the running clock, running along Sauchiehall Street.

Running Clock

 

The Adjustable Palm Trees (for Glasgow Airport)

I just like the idea of somebody coming from Majorca, home from their holidays, and there's a row of palm trees, Glasgow palm trees, to ease the strain of coming back to dear old Glasgow. We made some stainless steel jobs, adjustable so you can get any height you want.

 

Footlights and film

What I discovered from doing things like the "Straw Locomotive" and the "Paper Boat" was the theatrical aspect: like old fashioned street theatre.

(But) you only do an event once, (so) the way to retain it is to film it. I had a friend, Murray Grigor who ran a little film company with his wife, Barbara, and they made a film called "The Wh?ys Man" because at the centre of my activities there was always a question mark.

It's a good way of amplifying your statement. It was out on Channel 4 and covered all manner of things from exhibitions to people I knew, to outdoor events and bits of footage, and there was a band tootling away.

It actually broke the mould of art documentaries. When Murray and I get together, it's just a bam-bam-bam of ideas. He loves slapstick, the Keystone Cops and all that and injected a wee bit of that into the film. But if you do too much in a very successful comic way, sometimes the comedy overrides the seriousness because people are very, very quick to laugh, and the message kind of gets lost in the success of the wit.

We really have allowed confidence tricks to be played on ourselves all the time. A German friend of mine told me, he said, "The best way to counter an absurdity is with another absurdity."

Hence we go down to the goldmine to look at the beginnings of money.

 

Greece and Goldmine

When I retired I got an award from the Scottish Arts Council to travel and I decided to go to Greece.

I find Greece very stimulating. I wrote "A Day Down A Goldmine" in Greece, down on the island of Paros, sitting on the veranda scribbling away, going out for an Ouzo with Daphne sitting beside me, going for a swim in the warm sea: Delightful experiences. Perfect.

Here's me a bloody stupid Customs Officer in Greece with his lovely wife, in a warm climate, writing a nice worthwhile little play.

I'm waiting for the computer programmer who can put Social Credit on a computer programme. That will be the ultimate art work, if you could do it, get that program on a computer, indisputable and launch it at a time when Enron is crashing, when something is crashing round about our ears and say, "Well excuse me, if you did this, things wouldn't crash and we'd be okay again."

It was a Social Credit based work And I had to get a metaphor for it. So I began with under the ground so we're in a goldmine.

A Day Down a Goldmine

 

Start your day cheerfully

After her first stroke, which wasn't quite so bad, Daphne said to me: "Start your day cheerfully" and "Keep on doing what you're doing".

I made a thing called the "All British Slap and Tickle Machine", to keep laughter alive in the city. And it got marginalised by the trendy art world. It was a machine you sat on and turned a handle and leather hands hit a simulated stomach and waved the Union Jack above you and all that. (We were) in danger when Thatcher came in, of losing a sense of joy in things.

A thing happened this week, when the Pakistanis played the Indians at cricket, and they were happy. Two or three months ago they were going to fire nuclear shells at each other.

Now when I was in Madras, I made a monument to a cricket bat, and the belief was that cricket did much more for society than the politicians in Madras. And I phoned up the British Council lady who, with her husband, had invited me to Madras, and said "Look, I was right".

 

Chuckie Soup (Excerpt from Para Handy Tales by Neil Munro - Tales from a Puffer)

I kent a vegetarian yince, said Sunny Jim, and he lived maist of the time on chuckie soup.

Chucken soup? repeated Dougie, interrogatively.

No; chuckie soup. There was nae meat o' ony kind in't. A'ye needed was some vegetables, a pot of water, and a parteecular kind o'chuckie-stane. It was fine and strengthenin.

You would need good teeth for't, I'm thinkin, remarked the Captain dubiously.

Of course ye didna eat the chuckie-stane, Sunny Jim explained; it made the stock; it was instead o'bane, and it did ower and ower again.

It would be a great savin, said Dougie, fascinated with the idea. Where do you get them parteecular kinds of chuckies?

Onywhere under high water, replied Sunny Jim, who saw prospects of a little innocent entertainment.

A'ye need to do is to scrub them weel, and put them in wi' the vegetables when the pot's boiling...the Captain and the mate had a plate apiece, and voted it extraordinary.

It'a genius you are, Jim! Said the Captian; if the folk in Gleska knew that soup like this was to be made from chuckie-stanes they wouldna waste their time at the Fair wi' gatherin' cockles.

And the next time Para Handy reached the Clyde he had on board in all good faith a basket-load of stone culled from the beach at Tobermory for his vegetarian mistress.


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