Thursday, 25 February 2010

Martin's credo: if you can say it, it's art

Strange interior this. A set of tables, the largest at the bottom, is stacked so that the smallest almost touches the ceiling. Along the mantelpiece a line of terracotta plant pots is arranged from smallest to largest. In the drawing room a pair of curtains is repeatedly opening and shutting.

This is the world of the Scottish artist Martin Creed, in his first solo show in the country that raised him. For those who come out in a rash at the mention of the Turner Prize, Creed is there in the pantheon of irritants. After Damien Hirst’s cow and calf pickled in formaldehyde (which won the prize) and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (which didn’t) came Creed’s installation, The Lights Going On and Off, which carried off contemporary art’s most famous award in 2001.

It was a witty work of minimalism — his admirers said — that comprised an empty room in the Tate Gallery in which the lights were switched on and off. For that, Creed was presented with a cheque for £20,000.

Here in the upmarket Park Circus district of Glasgow, in the Victorian townhouse of his friend Douglas Gordon, Creed, 41, has been set loose in a domestic setting for the first time, filling two storeys with his ever-so-familiar works.

A stack of A4 papers piled up near the staircase. A wall that has been criss-crossed in red paint, applied with a paint roller. And, on the first floor landing, a standard lamp is going on and off again in an exhibit entitled — you have probably guessed — The Lamp Going On and Off.

“One of the things with works like this is that you can describe them in words and you can carry them about in your head,” he chuckles. “I like that. It’s like the way you can carry around a poem, if you can hold it in your head as an idea.”

Critics protest that anyone could come up with this stuff, and Creed’s answer is disarming: yes, they could. What sets him apart is “dogged repetition”, the same thing produced again and again until someone takes a good long look at his work — a scrunched-up paper ball or a lump of Blu-Tack — and decides to make a purchase for, it is said, a five-figure sum.

For some people this trade in the art of the stationery cupboard is no laughing matter. But then Creed, for all his self-deprecating humour, can strike a serious note about his work.

The word “art”, he says, as much as it means anything, is about “putting things in front of people for their enjoyment”. There is no difference between his stack of tables “and a painting by David Hockney. It is an arrangement of colours and shapes. The fact that it is made of tables or paint is a detail. To me, the more I think about it, all artists are the same. But I don’t even like to say I am an artist, because the word art is so difficult.”

Creed, who was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, was brought up in Milton of Campsie and Lenzie, a buttoned-up little town on the northeast fringe of Glasgow. When he was growing up a single pub served Lenzie’s population of about 8,000, and the notion of opening and closing a door repeatedly probably represented a good night out. The local psychiatric hospital forms one of his strongest memories — he recalls as a teenager guiding lost and confused patients back to the hospital gates.

He left Scotland to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in Central London and, in the following 20 years, only twice exhibited north of the Border, each time in group shows. This year Creed returns with a vengeance. He has a second solo show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and will convert the dark, dank Scotsman Steps — close to Waverley Station — into a £100,000 artwork lined with marble.

In August a dance work premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London will be reprised at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh. To cap it all, a collection of essays, with a introduction by the artist, will be published by Thames and Hudson and introduced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

It all adds up to the image of an artist who appears to have been accepted into a kind of critical and commercial mainstream. But when he is back in London, as he makes his way down to his office on Brick Lane, he still won’t tell taxi drivers what he does for a living. “I just say I work in the city,” he says. “Which I do.”

In an office? “Yes, in an office. I did have a studio for two years but it was a waste of space. Most of my work is planned in private and done in the world, it is not made in a studio and then moved out.”

And in an office, of course, he has his palette to hand: the angle-poise lamp, the Blu-Tack, the paperclips. “Yes everything is there,” he says. “Masking tape too.”

* Things, Martin Creed, is at the Common Guild in Glasgow.

Read it online here, on/off, where you'll find a few more interesting facts about the man. I really enjoyed meeting Creed, who was great company. Picture by Jim "Knuckles" Glossop.

Tiree's timeless sands stolen away

The broad white sands of Tiree, one of the most serene and beautiful sights in Britain, are being stolen by thieves to supply the building trade.

Environmentalists and local estate workers estimate that tonne upon tonne have been taken since Christmas, with contractors driving heavy vehicles down to the Hebridean sands under cover of night and loading up truckloads of the fine white grains, which are bagged and used by local construction companies.

The Isle of Tiree, a four-hour ferry ride from the mainland, is a place rich in tradition, and crofters among its 770 or so inhabitants have a legal right to take small amounts of sand for use on their land. But a building boom, fuelled by the island’s improbable status as a surfing destination, has led to much larger-scale exploitation, that could have devastating effects — Tiree is so low lying that it is known as the “land beneath the waves”.

Ross Lilley, an area officer for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said the theft represented a long-term threat to beaches and to the island itself, if sea levels rose. “Heavy storms, like those of 2001, appear to be increasing and there is a long-term trend of sea levels rising,” he said.

More from Tiree here: Sandstorm. This piece made the UK edition of the Times, the one below about Bute didn't. But I actually went to Bute, and not to Tiree, which was a mere phone job. I give good phone.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Islanders buy out Attenborough estate

There is an expectant smile on the face of Deirdre Forsyth, returning officer, as she prepares to announce the result on this, the Isle of Bute’s day of destiny. “The votes for, 2,557,” she booms proudly. “The votes against, 177. Five papers were spoilt.”

The cheers ring out across Rothesay’s art deco Pavilion. An old man punches the air. This joy unbounded tell its own story: the biggest community land buyout in Scottish history has just moved inexorably forward, and by a massive majority. The grin on the face of the Rev Ian Currie — here to ensure fair play at the count — is as broad as the icy channel separating Bute from the mainland.

“This is an historic moment”, says John McGhee, the metropolitan QC who has chaired the buyout campaign. “In five years’ time we will all feel better about this place. When I am in London, and people say where are you going, and I reply ‘Bute’, they will say, ‘I know where that is’.”

The islanders now have effective control of Rhubodach Forest, a 1,700-acre estate that sweeps down from the summit of Buttock Hill in the north, to Shalunt Farm, on Bute’s east coast. For more than 20 years this estate has belonged to Lord and Lady Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames, and it was their decision to sell that prompted the campaign.

If the next stage of the purchase process seems onerous — the islanders have to raise £1.4million by the end of May to meet the price — the generous support of the Scottish government means there is little doubt they will achieve their goal.

For campaigners such as Christine McArthur, 45, a native Brandane (as they call the Bute islanders), and the gaggle of B&B owners and business people who have mucked in, the buyout represents much more than possession of acre upon acre of Sitka spruce, or even ownership of a site of special scientific interest that lies at the northern fringes of the estate. It is about “people having pride in the island, and putting it on the tourist map again”.

On Bute, this approach makes a kind of sense. There is talk of attracting “carbon-neutral tourists” to the island to enjoy Rhubodach, along with artists and wildlife lovers. The surrounding countryside is low-lying, and conquerable by bike or on foot; it is served by Scotland’s best ferry service and Wemyss Bay, the mainland port, is a short rail journey from Glasgow.

Then there are the faded charms of Rothesay itself. It was the 19th-century playground for Glasgow’s “tobacco lords”, the merchants who prospered from the British Empire. Afterwards its relative proximity to the city made it a bucket-and-spade resort. Both legacies live on, in the peeling Victorian promenade and the mouldering Georgian side streets, set off by brash seafront cafés. The Rhubadoch purchase can catalyse further regeneration here, or so the logic goes.

And all the while the Attenboroughs look on from their London home, even sending a message of support to the campaigners. They bought into Bute in 1988 when investment in forestry was promoted by government, to help to restore national timber reserves. Terry Wogan, the rock band Genesis and Steve Davis, the snooker player, were among hundreds who acquired Scottish estates, taking advantage of healthy tax incentives. Many of these buyers proved to be absentee landlords, but not the film director. Lord Attenborough bought a local farmhouse and has been a frequent visitor to Bute for 20 years.

Mrs McArthur’s family have come to know the director, who has been ill recently. “He loves it here because no one ever bothers him,” she says. “He was walking along with my Mum once when a cycle race went by, hundreds of them, from the mainland. One braked — they all almost fell off — and said, ‘Are you Richard Attenborough?’ Straight-faced, my Mum said: ‘Everyone always says that to him.’ They all got on their bikes and sped off round the corner. Lord Attenborough laughed, ‘You are wicked, Eliza.’”

From the beachside cottage that Mrs McArthur shares with her husband, Colin, a fisherman, the view is spectacular, across the perfect calm of St Ninian’s bay towards the sinuous spur of the Mull of Kintyre. “It’s almost Herbridean, we feel so cut off,” she says. “Lots of people make films here. Bute seems so far away, even though we’re so close to the mainland.”

On the window ledge, a greetings card from Lord and Lady Attenborough looks forward to their next visit, and a taste of the local catch. Little wonder they keep coming back.

Photo by kind permission of James Glossop. Read the story, and comments, at timesonline, Bute

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Our friend, the man who abused our child

“It was Sunday night and we were sitting watching Sports Personality of the Year on the telly and the door bell rang,” remembers John. “One of these men was showing me a badge. He said, ‘Mr Reilly? Leith CID. We need to talk to you about something.’” John nervously assumed he had forgotten to pay a parking ticket, until one of the men asked if his wife was home. “I wasn’t sure what the right answer was,” he says. “I thought, ‘What’s going to come out?’”

As soon as they were ensconced in the Reillys’ comfortable living room, one of the policemen asked if the couple knew Rennie. “At first,” says Maggie, “there was slight relief, because you think, ‘At least we haven’t done something.’” The police explained that they were calling as part of an ongoing investigation, Operation Algebra, and that they were investigating Rennie for possession of indecent images of children. And then the heart-stopping words were uttered: “We believe it involves your son.”

This is from an interview with "John" and "Maggie", the couple so shockingly betrayed by their friend, James Rennie. This piece makes around 3,000 words and appeared here in The Times Saturday Magazine