The Why?s Man

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

Back to Voyage Round a Safety-Pin


David Michael Clarke, 1997

The yellow post-it sticker hung on my bedroom door. I approached it with my usual mixture of interest and indifference. "George Wyllie called," scrawled the blue biro, "Call him back." For two days, I didn't. I needed time to think.

Why would an established sculptor like George Wyllie, be phoning a young emerging artist like me? How did he get my number? What does he want? It must be a favour. It probably involves work. Do I want to work with George Wyllie? Probably not. Paranoia was setting in. Just phone him. What harm can it do? The least you can do is talk to the guy. He might just want to know who won the FA Cup in 1959. I could tell him. It was Nottingham Forest. They beat Luton Town, 2-1.

So, why all the doubts? After all, I had known George for about five years. That's exactly why I had the doubts - because I had known him for five years.

I first met him as a young art school graduate, enrolled on my first tour of duty as an invigilator at the CCA. George was never content just to look at the work. After a brief perusal, he would always come up and engage me in a compulsory discussion as to the content and concept of the show. It was a compulsory discussion because I was cornered. Unable to leave my post and under strict guidelines to be polite and helpful to the public, I was held captive to a man who's no stranger to a soap box.

George wasn't all that keen on many of the shows, and when he did like a show, he would often wonder why his generation wasn't represented within it. I wanted to tell him that they'd had their chance, and that it was time to let a younger generation have their say. Besides which, I didn't want George to have another show at the CCA. I wanted to show there myself.

Just in Time by George Wyllie

Of course, I didn't say any of this, not because of politeness, but because I actually quite liked the man. Okay, he had a tendency to go on and on and on, but he did have some interesting things to say and his heart was always in the right place. I didn't like all his work, but I liked his Straw Locomotive, which was hung from the Finnieston crane and respected him as an artist who made work about things that were important to him. He was never indifferent. He always cared and cared passionately.

So why was I procrastinating over this simple phone call? The answer is simple. I kept remembering an old anecdote, left over from art history. Auguste Rodin had once asked fellow sculptor Brancusi to work in his studio, but Brancusi declined. "Nothing grows under a big tree," was his reply.

Eventually, I called him. I couldn't not. He told me he had seen a performance I had just given on, among other topics, the Spice Girls. My performance took the form of a rapid-fire slide lecture on popular and contemporary cultural issues. George liked the way I looked at the world and was also drawn to my energy. He told me that he was to create a performance with the poet Donny O'Rourke, but Donny had been forced to pull out. He wondered whether I would consider joining him, at least, have coffee with him. He lured me in with fundamental principles. He talked of intuition and invention. He talked of monuments to an uncertain past and sculptures dedicated to an unpredictable future. We talked but I didn't commit. I was still uncertain.

I found myself aping George himself. "When I was a lad," I wrote down. Before I knew it, I had written five stories. I had written about my first ever visit to Stonehenge, about adventures with my friends in the Dorset sun, my pubescent experience of sex education and the deep despair and isolation that I felt on graduating into the recession of 1990's Britain. I faxed them to George the next morning. I think he was surprised. I was surprised. I hadn't consciously decided to work with George, but inadvertently I had stumbled on board.

For the next few weeks we met up regularly. Sometimes we talked, often we laughed, but always, we wrote. Our topic of study was "Uncertainty," and we both threw ideas into a hat until we had enough songs, speeches and sculptures, to cobble together what can only be described by George in his inimitable way as a "modest, multi-media, musical and audio-visual extravaganza!"

Suddenly, big doubts began to appear in my mind. I felt uncomfortable with much of George's writing and I'm sure he felt the same way about mine. George is fifty years my senior, and despite his young mind, can't help but draw from the benefit of hindsight. I just couldn't perform some of the things that George had written, because I was too young, and George couldn't relate to mine, because he was too old. The atmosphere tensed up. We didn't laugh at each others jokes. The fun element diminished.

Despite the problems, we persevered. We were at the editing stage anyway and were beginning to throw things out. Slowly it was coming together. Fragmented texts were connecting. Somehow we were pulling together a strange logic. A logic that verged on nonsense, but always made sense. At least, it did to us. The atmosphere began to lighten up. We were laughing again. We were starting to feel that we were onto something, although as to what it was, we were, and still are, uncertain.

The script is all but finished and George is polishing up the numbers on his ukulele. What's the piece about? I'm still uncertain. Was the work worthwhile? Of that, I'm sure. Has it been interesting working with George? Well, I think I'd have to go along with his wife, Daphne when she says about their life, "It's not always been easy, but then it's never been dull!"

George Wyllie Education Initiative

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