Even in its Victorian beginnings, Aberdeen Art Gallery was resolutely contemporary and determinedly humane. Since then Aberdeen’s collecting activity has remained true to the intentions of its original benefactors. Despite the neo-classical grandeur of Aberdeen Art Gallery’s architecture, the collection itself teems with romantic fervor – a kaleidoscope of shared human experience. The intense emotion of Stanley Spencer’s cathartic "Resurrection: Re-union", and Francis Bacon’s "Pope 1 – Study after Pope Innocent X after Velazquez" set the tone for the whole collection.
Child of our time
Developing Aberdeen’s collecting policy for the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland, which she entitled “Child of Our Time” – the then Lead Curator Jennifer Melville was inspired by the exhortation of one of the Museum’s originators:
But while the passionate wailing of the human heart must have an interest for all ages, what is the use of seeking for it in the history of long-dead civilisations? Are there not in the life around us, among the people whom we see daily, interests and incidents sufficiently tragic? If, as we believe, ‘the artist must be the child of his own time’ is it not equally true that he is the greatest artist that sees and feels and lays before us the joys and sorrows of those with whom we are linked by the closest ties of common life?”
John Forbes White, “The Royal Academy of 1873”
Of course, the bonds of “common life” are now dispersed in ways unimaginable in 1873, and Melville gathered works that testified to the shrinking world of globalised culture, while at the same time exploring what is strange and uncanny in our virtual encounters with objects and with each other - mediated they may be, but they are still visceral, still physically felt.
The bonds of common life
As Melville explained,
“Immediate locality remains important today, but now localities are infused with fleeting visions, computer generated images, air-borne information, 24-hour news bulletins. Still the human element persists, and inanimate objects are given meaning and weight through their connections with humankind.”
Humour runs light and dark in these works. The visual language of celebrity adorns the walls in the vintage album cover portraits of Jim Lambie’s “Head and Shoulders with Conditioner.” In João Louro’s “Blind Image #92” Paris Hilton and her like are evoked, but remain unshown. Here, and in Adam McEwen’s premature obituary of Macaulay Culkin, the “dazzle” of a star is shown waning, as if it is embalmed in collective memory.
The anonymous everyman takes elegiac female form in Julian Opie’s “Sara Walking – Sparkly Top and Jeans”, Kenny Hunter’s “Feedback Loop”, and Torsten Lauschmann’s “Pandora’s Ball” – each one is caught in a dream – while the occupant of Gavin Turk’s bronze sleeping bag, “Habitat”, is as poignantly invisible in the gallery as he or she is on the street.
In “The Lion and the Unicorn” Rachel Maclean’s surreal, baroque characters debate the referendum question in voices made familiar by broadcast. While elsewhere, the fabulous creatures invented by Charles Avery and Henry Coombes provoke wonder and pity – human landscapes are glimpsed momentarily through the eyes of other species.
Aberdeen Art Gallery is in transition. Closed for refurbishment until 2017, the complex of buildings that incorporates the impressive granite Sculpture Court, Cowdray Hall and the War Memorial will be extensively re-modelled, creating new sightlines, new galleries, and dedicated space for performance and new media works. The hang of the permanent collection will be reconceived – Aberdeen Art Gallery has canvassed the public for feedback on ideas for chrono-thematic room displays – while the curators will have the opportunity to work with artists to create site-specific projects for key spaces around the complex.
Independent curator and researcher Stacy Boldrick has been invited to consider the history of the renowned Sculpture Court and its displays - from classical casts arranged between the arcade pillars, to a welcoming, open display space for modern contemporary highlights from the collection. Funded by Affiliate, Boldrick will curate a new display for the re-opening of the Gallery, focusing on the possibilities of sculpture as a medium, and featuring a diversity of materials and practices from classical nudes to the projected image.
While it is closed, elements of the contemporary collection have been presented in a newly-refurbished suite of rooms at National Trust for Scotland Property, Drum Castle, in a display entitled ‘Human Presence,’ curated by Olga Ferguson.