Why is one of those small words which carries a heavy load, though of its kind – see also: if, and, but – it’s the one with the strongest back.

For that reason, and also because it was embedded in the sound of his own surname, the word was a great favourite of George Wyllie’s. So much so that it became a kind of trademark for the Glasgow-born artist, both in its written form and as a punctuation mark.

He liked to refer to himself as a scul?tor, for instance, and not just because it vexed prissy sub-editors on the newspapers which came to call – publications like this one, on whose behalf I once made the journey to his home in Gourock to spend an hour or so in the company of the genial, self-taught polymath.

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No, it went deeper than that, which is the reason Scottish film-maker Murray Grigor gave his 1990 documentary about Wyllie the title The Why?s Man: In Pursuit Of The Question Mark.

Say it a certain way and whys man sounds like wise man. That works for Wyllie too. “Playfully serious” is how he is described on the website which is the digital face of his archive. That pretty much nails it.

‘Interrogation’ and ‘practice’ are longer words which younger artists use these days, artists who have been trained and art-schooled (unlike Wyllie). They write them often on official forms when they’re applying for funding. In plain English it means this: this is what I do, this is why I do it, and here’s how it illuminates our collective understanding of the big stuff. You know, life and that.

Besides always looking pretty dapper, a trait he shared with the late, great John Byrne, George Wyllie’s ‘practice’ encompassed sculpture, yes, but also print-making and what today we might call conceptual art. Wyllie’s definition of public art, he once said, was “art that the public can’t avoid”, so his ‘concept’ for it became ideas like: ‘Let’s float a massive paper boat down the Clyde’. Or: ‘Let’s make a locomotive out of straw and hang it from a crane then burn it like a Viking longboat’.

The wider points he was illuminating – interrogating, if you prefer – were to do with Glasgow, its physical situation (that river!), the citizens’ view of themselves and the ways they made sense of that view (humour in every variety from Surreal to gallows) and, of course, an industrial heritage centred on making things. Big things.


The Herald: Wyllie's Rottenrow sculptureWyllie's Rottenrow sculpture (Image: free)

That’s why he built his 78-foot long Paper Boat out of plastic, steel, gauze and Velcro, emblazoned it with the letters QM – he never could decide what it stood for, but let’s go with Question Mark – and set it afloat on the Clyde on May 6, 1989 amid a welter of music and applause.

His burning train engine, meanwhile, came exactly two years earlier – a wire framework stuffed with straw and hung from the Finnieston Crane, where rather heavier predecessors manufactured at Springburn’s various locomotive works would once have been loaded onto ships for export. In June 1987, The Straw Locomotive was duly taken to Springburn and, on the site of the old works, it was torched. A fiery requiem for the end of an industry. Great, unavoidable public art, and almost unbearably poignant.

George Wyllie died in 2012 aged 90. His legacy lives on, of course, but opening on March 28 to give it a bricks and mortar presence is the Wyllieum, a gallery devoted to him and his work. It’s based in a new waterfront development in Greenock, close to the Custom House where he was employed as an Excise Officer for 30 years before taking up art in his late fifties.

As well as being archive and repository, the Wyllieum will house a permanent display alongside space for a series of rolling exhibitions featuring Wyllie’s work or that of other artists responding to it. The inaugural exhibition is Spires, a selection of the structures he began making in 1982 using tripods, uprights and large stones as weights.

One dedicated to German artist Joseph Beuys was placed on Rannoch Moor, another straddling the border between the north and south of Ireland. It was later moved to less contentious territory: Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.

The Herald: Wyllie died aged 90Wyllie died aged 90 (Image: free)

So George Wyllie is to be commemorated and celebrated, which is only correct, and it is to happen where he would have liked it most: at the water’s edge, overlooking his beloved Firth of Clyde. No ifs, not buts. And for once, the why need not apply.