The Why?s Man

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


Back to... As others see us

CORDELIA OLIVER (1991)

Foreword to Scul?ture Jubilee 1966-1991

 

"Without energy no individual, however gifted, can fulfil a destiny in the arts and I mean not just the creative energy which, it hardly needs saying, is the sine qua non in any true artist's makeup, but physical energy, also, without which ideas, no matter how abundant or, for that matter, extraordinary, might well lie fallow for a lifetime. George Wyllie was fortunate in being blessed, at his christening, by the presence of a fairy godparent who proved generous with the first gift and positively bounteous with the second. What may seem surprising, indeed, is that, in Wyllie's case, the full flowering of this combined and lavish benefice has come so late in his life, relatively speaking.

For George Wyllie's lively and imaginative intelligence seems to generate ideas like soap bubbles from a small boy's clay pipe, some astonishingly substantial amid a lively multitude of iridescent froth. When I first came to know him in the early 1970s my realisation that here was an individual of real potential was somewhat tempered by the feeling that here too was someone who still found it difficult to relate content with form, to match an idea with its proper medium and, no less important, scale.

Where another artist equally given to spawning morsels of social comment or visual satire might take pen and paper to create a pointed image or linear or fantasy (of such are Saul Steinbergs and Rowland Emmetts made) Wyllie would descend into the workshop he secretes in the undercroft of his home on a Gourock hillside, select a few items from the clutter of iron, steel and other oddments, don his Ned Kelly headgear and proceed to materialise his concept in three dimensions by welding together an object that might extend to several feet in all directions.

When, in the early 1970s, he began to feel confident enough to put his work on public view in official exhibition spaces, the exhibits, were, by and large, the works his public grew to expect; objects that might be expected to carry a humorous, even satirical message but which usually disarmed by an intrinsic jollity born of their creator's warm good nature. The large, enthusiastic audience attracted to George Wyllie's work in those early exhibitions, not least because of this emanation of accessible, ebullient humour, has surely acted like a springboard to his swift development, even while it has tempted him, maybe too often, to play to the gallery.

There remain significant landmarks, however, from those 'prentice years' Bishop Rock is a small hieratic, mitred figure seated on a rocking chair (you might suspect a hint of influence from Manzu were it not for the fact that George Wyllie certainly did not know the Italian Sculptor's work at that time) who, when set in gentle motion, casts his two-fingered blessing, rhythmically and indiscriminately, on all humanity and empty air alike, Elco-an Icon for the Electric Company, a small wall-hung, luminous object, is a strangely evocative item that, for me, stands well above the general run of Wyllie's early works - the Ploughman's Lunch, Fish Tea and other odd still-life's. Still-Life with Crocodile - the latter on rails, ready to rush and snap, is more memorable. Picnic, too, was (indeed, still is, in its present happy existence on the Wyllie's back garden lawn) intended as a wry comment on man's cheerful habit of eating flesh in the polite ritual of the dining room. It is a large, 'robust ox' drawn three-dimensionally in space with thin steel rod and set between giant knife and fork on a gargantuan table mat.

Often enough, however, the works made so plentifully at this time are remembered as whimsical overstatements, relative as they might be to social striving and the resultant gaffes that inevitably occur. This was a kind of Punch humour writ large and three-dimensional. The 'wally dugs' doing comic duty as fire dogs beside the typical downmarket electric hearth were surely intended as a punning comment on a popular kitsch. But the comment itself seemed to lack bite: the comic white plastic creatures were themselves too genuinely kitschy to hit the target and make this point.

Another strand of George Wyllie's creative activity in the 1970s derived from his deep knowledge and love of ships and things nautical - a source of ideas and concepts that never seems to fail him. There was also a fascination with railway engines. His puffers, paddle steamers and engines, in welded steel, are not the ordinary 'scale models' beloved of perfectionist model-makers: at best they are true character studies, extraordinarily effective portraits of the original, possessing a life of their own that relates to, rather than merely reflects, that of the real-life object. This is also true, if somewhat surprisingly, in the case of the series of railway engines drastically etiolated, like Giacommetti's walking figures with which, at best, they share something of the same sense of matter in continual conflict with its envelope of air and space.

Whimsy, it has to be said, also enters this mechanical scene on occasion. But there is one case where a touch of sentimentality is, in the circumstances, both understandable and forgivable. When the last tramcar made its final journey through the streets of Glasgow, it was attended by huge crowds of mourners; among them was Wyllie, moved by the experience to make his model of an angelic tramcar winging its way To the Great Terminus. Sentiment apart, this sturdy little object, now in Glasgow's Transport Museum, is typically pungent and full of character. Royal Coach, too, has a charm of its own in the railway series, smugly set, as it is, on a fat cushion of royal blue velvet.

George Wyllie's knowledge and love of ships and shipping goes back to his boyhood. War service in the Royal Navy gave him first-hand knowledge of seagoing proper plus, crucially if inadvertently, an experience which, like a time-bomb, was to explode in his consciousness years later in a way that had a notable effect on his work. It was in 1945 that the young Electrical Arificer 4th Class, on HMS Argonaut, went with some of his shipmates to post-nuclear Hiroshima. "We had no idea then of the dangers of radioactivity. There we were, happily picking up bits of molten glass and sand that had once been granite." The practical side of his nature must have been stimulated by naval seagoing. A work he called The Great Lash-up commemorates, in modest satire, the deliberately over-explicit instructions given to ratings on how to sling a hammock.

The first of several seminal experiences, this visit to Hiroshima would eventually come to fruition in the questioning that now permeates all, or most of what George Wyllie likes to call his Social Sculpture. Even in the 1970s the question mark was already present in his way of thinking. His insistence on calling his work not sculptures but scul?ture made difficulties for all art critics like myself, who would find compositors regularly correcting what they took to be a typing error.

For the mid-seventies, with a sizeable output to hand of what he rightly saw as exhibitable work, George Wyllie felt ready for a big one-man show. His first approach was to the then newly opened Third Eye Centre, but, with advice from Scottish Arts Council personnel, his application was refused. The world of 'fine art' in Scotland was not yet prepared to accept the oddities and, to some extent the crudities, of Wyllie's messages and methods of conveying them.

That refusal was Third Eye's loss. But perhaps it was entirely appropriate that it should have been the University of Strathclyde, originally Glasgow's Royal Technical College which he had attended in his youth, that offered him exhibition space in its Collins Gallery. It was there that Wyllie's humour and his 'common touch' - something that cannot be taught, alas - made itself felt immediately. In this, his first full-scale show of Scul?ture, George Wyllie packed the gallery with items large and small. Bishop Rock was there, and Still-life with Crocodile, and a memorable major exhibit called Codpiece. Set out with all the pretentiousness of a prehistoric monster in a natural history museum was a 16-foot fishbone of welded steel - a mightily enlarged version of what the cat leaves.

It was here, too, that what seemed to be almost an obsession with birds made itself felt, from the comic nature of small birds - Canary with its Foot Caught in a Girder - to the menacing presence of the big predators, like the eagle with overlapping feathers in bright stainless steel. One piece from this period is unique for the time in that it characterises the subject quite brilliantly through abstraction. On an angular cliff "drawn" in space with steel rods, sit five vultures, their identity and character unmistakable even though materialised in equally abstract terms. This item, Crag, along with the fierce, shining eagle, normally guards the Wyllie's front door in suburban Gourock.

The Collins exhibitions was a huge success, visited and enjoyed by hundreds of people and widely reported in the local press. Reporters found much to write about and plenty of photographic opportunities. But there were still those who questioned the legitimacy of Wyllie's work as 'fine art' and who found unacceptable what they saw as lack of finesse in the end result. It was at a later exhibition held in the Collins Gallery that Wyllie made what was surely a wry comment when he topped his Heath-Robinson-like Machine for Applauding Paintings with a thumbs-up, thumbs-down mechanism, "critics for the use of". That, too, was where he introduced the highly popular The Great British Slap and Tickle Machine "in case laughter disappeared under Thatcherism".

Indeed, the Collins experience came at just the right time to instil in George Wyllie the confidence to continue in his own way. And meanwhile, over in Edinburgh, Richard Demarco was embarking on his Road to Meikle Seggie. This was an essentially symbolic title for what was, in effect, a journey of the spirit, an exploration into the ancient pre-Renaissance culture that Scotland shared with most of Europe. It was an adventure that almost inevitably ended in a concern for the wellbeing of this planet. Now that being avowedly 'green' is in tune with the zeitgeist, it is easy to forget that, even a dozen years ago, an artist filled with concern for the environment and for humanity as a natural part of that environment, was unlikely to attack kudos for that alone.

Demarco's initiative in staging the palindromically-titled exhibition Strategy-Get-Arts during the 1970 Edinburgh International Festival had brought to Scotland Joseph Beuys, the guru figure from Dusseldorf whose vision of conceptual art, expressed in 'actions' and installations, involved a kind of 'Christ-for today' mission to change the world through art. For George Wyllie Strategy-Get-Arts remains a memorable, influential experience but it was not until years later that he and Beuys actually met. The influence of that meeting on Wyllie has been profound, encouraging him to take his art out of the showrooms of art dealers, even of public galleries and using places where people congregate, to make symbolic 'statements' in material form that, with luck, might strike the public consciousness and even linger in the mind to bear eventual fruit. That has come to be one of George Wyllie's major concerns.

By the early 1980s, meanwhile, Third Eye Centre, under a new director, was ready to welcome the idea that an exhibition of "humorous sculpture with a deeply serious vein running through it" might strike the right note for the times. The result was A Day Down a Goldmine. Whether seen as a "suite of sculptures" or an "installation" (I quote from the booklet published on that occasion) the show was a considerable success on all counts. No-one more serious than the clown, they say, and this, in effect, was a clown's clever sermon, preached on the text, "An Incorrect Assumption leads to a False Conclusion", and aiming to expose the absurdity of money, with all its attendant ills.

A Day Down a Goldmine, then, began as an exhibition. But even in that first manifestation, in July-August 1982, Wyllie's concept erupted into performance. The sad saga (with all the consequent "bum steers") of man's misguided search for power through the possession of gold was retold in a comic lecture illustrated by Wyllie's exhibits not least the emblem of that "greatest invented gods, Tresticles, who went one better" three golden balls recumbent at the base of rampant column, sited at Delos, Valhalla of Bank Clerks.

The actor, Russell Hunter gave voice to Wyllie's text while the author, like Sorcerer's Apprentice (a deliberately comic figure in cap, dungarees and big, gold-painted boots) indicated the exhibits in question. These was, indeed, an alchemist's machine for turning base metal into gold; a telescope to view the earth through a slab of gorgonzola (made, inevitably, of rusty steel), and a do-it-yourself Machine for the Equal Distribution of Wealth, even (no disrespect whatsoever to another of Wyllie's heroes, Marcel Duchamp), complete with its spanner in the works.

A Day Down a Goldmine, has had a continuing after-life, in performance, since that initial debut at Third Eye. Given better shape and professional sinew in direction by Kenny Ireland, and with Bill Paterson taking over from Russell Hunter, the show played to capacity audiences at The Assembly Rooms during the 1985 Edinburgh Festival, after which it was seen in London, at the ICA. And with slight modifications towards the mood of pantomime, it rounded off Glasgow's year as European City of Culture 1990, at Tramway, the space made famous by Peter Brook's production of The Mahabharata and other events since. John Bett was Master of Ceremonies on that occasion.

BE SUSPICIOUS is the slogan erected by Wyllie at the entrance to his 'goldmine': watch out for rockfalls. If you have a credit card, he suggests a suitable message to stick over it:-

SUN ENERGISES EARTH ENERGISES US
WE POSSESS THREE ENERGIES...
PHYSICAL, MENTAL AND SPIRITUAL
ANYTHING DENYING THE CREATIVE FLOW OF
NATURAL ENERGIES MUST BE SUSPECT
THE MONEY SYSTEM, MAN-MADE, DOES
BE SUSPICIOUS!

The question mark, then, in Wyllie's Scul?ture is right at the centre of his credo; it permeates almost everything he does nowadays. Even his wholehearted support from Demarco's concept of The Artist as Explorer, embodied in The Road to Meikle Seggie, has been affectionately satirised in The Road to Muckle Chuckie, a succession of little wheeled trolleys each bearing a foot-high monolith; and in the Standing Stones that mysteriously walked over the Salisbury Crags to Holyrood Park on Fringe Sunday 1985 to everyone's amusement.

There is nothing but deep, serious purpose, however, in the spires, of all sizes and different materials, which George Wyllie has erected on various parts of the earth's surface, from the Moor of Rannoch to West Berlin. The first of the series, a tall slender sapling slung inside a wooden tripod and weighted with large stone so as to sway in the wind without being blown down and destroyed, was erected and due ceremony on Rannoch Moor in September 1986. The day was sodden, windswept and turbulent; nothing if not evocative of the aeons of freedom from human interference which had moved Joseph Beuys to call that particular stretch of west highland landscape "the last great wilderness in Europe".

The erection of the spire was Wyllie's way of commemorating Beuys' visit to the moor in 1970 when he first came to Scotland during the exhibition Strategy-Get-Arts. But it was more than just that: it was a tribute to Beuy's influence on those who came to see him as a symbol of the need to believe in art as a force for good in this troubled century - something to be raised against the opposing forces of the market. An audience of around thirty watched, and even assisted in, the erection of that first commemorative spire.

But it was more, George Wyllie insists, than just a commemoration; it was intended as a celebration of the spiritual energy that he had always felt to be the source of all the German artist's 'Actions'. Of course, as he will tell you again and again, his own work has always been, and still is, critical and questioning. "But the spires are different: they are definitely celebratory like all spires through the ages. And yes, I do admit to aiming at transcendence, to work on a spiritual level like Beuys, for that seems to me to be the missing element in life today. I want my work to stimulate through imagination as well as questioning. Take the absurdity of money, now: that has to be questioned. Of course, others have done so, like Major Douglas with his idea of Social Credit, but A Day Down a Goldmine was an attempt to go beyond just logical thought on the subject. It is so easy to get bogged down in logic. So you have an idea, and you just hope that, after you've found a form for it, whatever that is, something comes out of it. The artwork has to invent its own answer in order to create awareness".

By far the most ambitious of the spires - in a sense the apotheosis - was a 30 ft. high version, a gleaming steel rod gimbal-mounted on a stainless steel tripod and erected in Berlin as part of Glasgow's presence during Berlin's reign as European City of Culture 1989. Another, perhaps more typical, Wyllie-ism was to enlarge to equally monumental proportions one of his long-legged, minimal birds in steel rod and sheet, and transport it across Europe to a site in that same city where it stood tall enough to look over the Wall. Children from schools in Berlin and Glasgow were then exhorted by this veritable Pied Piper of a man, to make five hundred birds of their own of every kind and in any available material, and bring them to the Wall as company for the mammoth Berlin Burd from Glasgow.

The ability to enthuse others, young people not least, had a notable outcome at Christmas 1988. Invited to decorate the facade of Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms in George Street for the festive season, but with only a modest budget to work with, George Wyllie enlisted the help of a small group to unemployed youths in Port Glasgow, gave them the idea and the means of making hundreds of big red-breasted robins from sawn-up logs, steel wire, roofing felt and scarlet paint, and using these to cover the whole frontage of the building. A succes fou this was, indeed, not least because the sight of the comic robins (each measured nearly a foot across from beak to tail) was accompanied by the recorded sound of birds twittering that, in itself, added to the sense of Christmas cheer.

Another seminal experience dates from 1982, soon after the success of A Day Down a Goldmine, with an invitation to work in New England with the American sculptor George Rickey who lives in the heart of a forest near Albany. The American experience was two-sided as we shall see, but it was the forest environment and the sense of time-and-space in which to work without pressure that seems to have renewed and intensified that concerns with "spaceship earth", in Buckminster Fuller's graphic phrase. The endless cycle of fertility was to become Wyllie's primary theme at this time, embodied, typically enough, in a notably down-to-earth form. He made A Temple of Fertility. Having discovered that the ordinary toilet roll, left to weather for a certain period, regains an appearance and texture approximating to the tree whence it came back home, he 'planted' a grove of slender 'trees' of rusting steel, attaching to each a toilet 'scroll' which changed to dark brown, solidified paper logs. One tree, in stainless steel with pristine toilet roll attached, signified the clinical halfway stage in the cycle.

The razzmatazz of the USA gave scope to the populist showman George Wyllie, who, back in Scotland, filled Glasgow Art Centre with jokey, rough-shod items mostly made of wood. The wild West of Hollywood, with Tom Mix and Ronald Reagan as primary targets, seemed a natural subject for his comic shafts of satire, although the booklet A Neat History of Tom Mix, published by Wyllie himself in an edition of fifty copies, vouches for a measure of real affection, in that area at least, which is perhaps natural in someone reared in "cinema city" Glasgow.

Until the mid-eighties, although George Wyllie's reputation as a serious artist was growing, no single work seemed to aspire to greatness. True, there was an exhibition, in 1979, at the Talbot Rice Gallery in the University of Edinburgh, in which the space itself offered an opportunity for the artist to divide, as it were, the sheep from the goats, with the humour largely contained on the upper, mezzanine level - Call of the Sea was an ivory coloured telephone receiver nestling in a bluish pink conch shell, and Let's Name This Ship was to do-it-yourself launching platform complete with iron champagne bottle comically prophesying the decline of shipbuilding - and the more serious items in the big white gallery below. But there, too, the theme was nautical in essence as in the linear abstraction involving tension and balance in crucial equilibrium. That same work reappeared a little later in the Kildrummy Castle Open Sculpture Exhibition, where it was site on rising ground, its pointer veering to and fro, for all the world like a lookout on the watch for invaders.

In The Straw Locomotive, it seems to me, George Wyllie has come nearest to resolving the essential dichotomy of his creative urge. One of those selected in 1987 TSWA-3D competition for major site-specific artworks, George Wyllie conceived a full-scale, skeletal locomotive of heavy steel wire, filled it with straw and arranged to have it suspended from the massive hammer-head crane at Finnieston on the north bank of the Clyde in Glasgow, the very crane that had traditionally been used to load the great North British locomotives into the ships that would take them all over the world.

A popular landmark, The Straw Locomotive remained on view for the weeks of Mayfest and into the summer, with grass seeding itself and birds nesting in its fabric. Thereafter, it was taken down (Wyllie rescuing the birds) placed a low-loader and driven through the streets of Glasgow (as the real railway locomotives used to be) back to Springburn where it was ceremoniously set alight on the wasteland where the North British Locomotive Works once stood. When the flames eventually died down, a large question mark revealed itself amid the flowing cinders. It was an exciting event for the crowd who watched it: Glasgow's version of Up Hellya, the traditional burning of the Viking longboat. Yet the event had its tragic side: Wyllie's intention had been to question the reasons for Glasgow's decline as a great manufacturing centre, not just in Scottish but in world terms.

Although his later concept on similar lines, The Paper Boat - in 1989 Gulbenkian Large-scale award winner - was almost identical in its aim, the effect was different, less moving, somehow, if only because it was 'launched' (from the same Finnieston Crane) in a musical comedy atmosphere and its purely decorative quality when afloat on the river in the city centre, not least as a luminous presence after dark, tended to nullify the concept's sombre meaning. Not surprisingly Wyllie received invitations to take his Paper Boat on waters as far apart as London's Thames, The Scheldt at Antwerp and the Hudson River at New York -- where The Wall Street Journal, no less, took its message on board in a serious review.

The Paper Boat, like The Straw Locomotive secreted a large mark of interrogation (QM on its prow stood for just that) which rose into view as the sails split in two. It Was Wyllie's ambition to see his meaningful vessel moored opposite the Palace of Westminster and thumb its nose, so to say, at Maggie Thatcher. No respecter of persons, he once erected an oil derrick on the grass outside the Serpentine Gallery when invited to take part in one of its summer shows, saying that he had always fancied the idea of drilling for oil next door to Buckingham Palace. The gesture, he now regrets, wasn't big enough to be meaningful, but the Adjustable Palm in stainless steel, with a giant sardine tin key in its ancestry, still exists as vivid reminder of the occasion."

 

Cordelia Oliver (1991)


George Wyllie Education Initiative

Managed by Media Matters Education Consultancy