Ruth Barker

The Dialectics of Mapping


Questions on the Eminent Rise of Contemporary Art in Scotland.

The knowledge has been rolling like triumphant thunder through the arts community of Scotland, resonating with an echo, not just of patriotism, but of promise. The 2003 Venice Biennale will be the first time that Scotland as a country has had its own pavilion. And we are proud.


That we are proud is an important distinction, because I’m not Scottish. I live in Glasgow, though and so, like many other non-Scots, I can appropriate a share in the identification of artistic success – and it has by anyone’s standards been a successful year. Rosalind Nashashibi’s success in Beck’s Futures 2003 places her as successor to 2002 winner Toby Paterson, and 2001 winner Roderick Buchanan; all three based in Scotland’s ‘second city’.  Nashashibi will also represent Scotland in the Biennale – not as a ‘headliner’ (Glasgow’s Simon Starling, Jim Lambie and Clare Barclay will be showing in the prestigious piano nobile), but as one of the 26 other artists who will be involved in the Scottish Zenomap project. Of these 26, 19 live in Glasgow, 9 were born in Scotland. Here perhaps we see the crux of the matter – a matter of mapping.


Contemporary art criticism has been implicated in cartographic play for the last hundred years or so, as it has engaged with the multitude of functions and intentions of art. Those whose business it is to discuss these discursions have made use of an expansive atlas of terms to circumnavigate the movements that surround them - from cubism to the YBA’s. This system of nomenclature has had the intensive (and reciprocal) effect of definition, in the same way that contour lines on an ordinance survey summarily define landscape. The cultural landscape, then, as we understand it, is divided and contained by these mapped signals of naming – which may be as useful or as limited, as any other form of signage.


Why is this pride in location so readily inflamed in Scotland? Easily generalised in print, even if not strictly true – because in the Scottish art-world a definition of Not London is swiftly established, which efficiently (though perhaps unfortunately) translates into the historical Not English on both sides of the border.


How helpful is it to talk of ‘Scottish Art’, or ‘Glasgow Artists’? This is something harder to attain, as the amorphous fug of terminologies embrace the idea that a tremendously vital variety of artists may be surmised with a waft of their geographical location. We can gesture towards a shared experience, a community in common, but the grouping fails, arguably, to establish many other shared assets. Artists in Scotland are generating work across the board, in no one particular style or medium, and so perhaps it is surprising to expect them to coalesce.


The recent successes of contemporary artists working from Scotland are easily identifiable and rightly to be celebrated. However, they also pose a series of questions as to the logistics of collection which are as integral to any writer/artist’s conscience as the process of semantic shorthand is to the process of concise argument.