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TV review: Scotland's Art Revolution

There still lurks in Scotland the dread of showing off; a terror of being seen as pretentious; the worry that if you fly too high or talk too fancy someone will grumble 'ah kent his faither.'

Kirsty Wark
Kirsty Wark

But when artist Douglas Gordon goes all humble, and denies that he is being celebrated, Kirsty Wark tells him 'get over yourself!' Of course he's being admired and it's fine.

It's fine these days, but it wasn't always so in Scotland where anything daring was often viewed with suspicion. The very movement Gordon sprang from - Environmental Art - was initially shunned by the mainstream art. It started life in the 1990s, saying that art's physical setting and social context was just as important as the artwork itself. This philosophy was put into practice in the grim New Towns which had appeared all over the country. Environmental artists would create sculptures and murals in these soulless places, arguing the physical setting gave their work more meaning than if it just stood silently in a draughty gallery.

These artists also worked with cheap, ordinary materials, not expensive paints or specialist tools. In doing so, they tried to 'cast off the idea that art is elevated or different from ordinary life'. Of course, the art establishment didn't like these young contrarians. They preferred things done properly, not things done in Irvine. The students on the new Environmental Art course were edged out of the famous Mackintosh building into an abandoned school safely round the corner - away from the proper artists.

In their exile, the students formed a group - eventually to be known as 'the Scotia Nostra' - which caused an 'earthquake across the international art world', for this generation of Glasgow mavericks went on to produce six Turner prize winners. Art critics noticed something was actually happening outside London and proclaimed 'the coming of Glasgow!' The work and influence of this group is now being acknowledged in Scotland's biggest celebration of contemporary art, an exhibition called Generation featuring 100 artists and spread over 60 venues.

Scotland's Art Revolution (BBC2) sees Kirsty Wark interviewing these artists to understand why this explosion of Scottish creativity occurred and what connection it had to our industrial decline.

The programme stresses the impact of artistic exile on the 'Scotia Nostra'. Much of their creative daring came from the sense of exclusion they felt and the camaraderie it forged. Left to their own devices, and with nothing to lose, they were free to go rogue and create something unusual.

Douglas Gordon made his name with slow-motion videos of films like Psycho and The Exorcist. He explains these films were taboo, and he was forbidden from watching them when young. As an adult - and artist - he was drawn back to those things which were banned or concealed, and admits that 'being transgressive' is crucial in Glasgow's contribution to art.

His fellow artist, Nathan Coley, says being 'a bit gallus' plays its part, too. So, there was no room in this surge of Scottish creativity for the prim and the traditional. These artists of the 1990s were desperate to strike out into something new, and the cold-shouldering from the mainstream art world gave them a push, just as Scotland's industrial decline gave them the opportunity. The dismantling of our shipyards and factories literally gave them space to work. Sheds and warehouses were lying empty, full of nothing but space and light and the artists eagerly claimed them. Industrial decline also gave Glasgow artists mental space, as well as the physical kind. Stuart Cosgrove says the fading of Glasgow's tough, industrial image left room for something else to take its place. We were becoming a more metropolitan city in the 80s and 90s, he says. There was an upsurge in Glasgow bands, like Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, and it was suddenly OK to be creative. You weren't sinning against the spirit of the city which was all about hard graft and hard living. In the huge gap left by industry, Cosgrove says we could now imagine ourselves as a creative city rather than an industrial one.

Along with the surge in music and art there was a flourishing theatre scene, such as the well-loved 7:84 company and Glasgow writers like James Kelman and Agnes Owens were making their name (though Owens is maddeningly neglected these days). My only beef with this programme was that it didn't devote enough to the flourishing in these theatrical and literary fields, though that may well have required another two, three or four hours.

What was noticeable about this programme was its optimism, and not just optimism for the future, but in looking back. It was heartening to see a discussion of Glasgow's industrial decline which resisted the same old discourse of decline which leads to unemployment which leads to poverty and booze and heart disease, ad nauseum. They were able to salvage positive things from Glasgow's dark days, showing how stretches of the city didn't just become scrap and wasteland, but were taken over by artists, and the work they did in those places is now being recognised around the world.

Admittedly, this recognition is only happening after Glasgow took a battering in public perception as a grim, violent place. Our restoration is still ongoing, and would proceed a lot faster if we shouted about it more often. Does the 'kent your faither' fear still lurk in some narrow hearts? If so, the Generation exhibition is helping stamp it out. Let Glasgow flourish.

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