Perched on a waterway, and thronging with entrepreneurial spirit, Dundee has sent its fair share of emissaries out into the world. Artefacts amassed by explorers, missionaries and merchant adventurers have found their way into the City’s collection in The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. Contemporary artists, in the role of observers, explorers, anthropologists, documentarians and storytellers, have also mined the natural and cultural landscapes around them. Many of the art works in The McManus carry traces or relics of the artists’ physical and conceptual explorations, re-presented within the museum walls. Often, these artists are also concerned with their own mediums, testing the boundaries and the unique properties of drawing, film, photography, sculpture.
Explorers and Observers
In developing an approach to collecting contemporary art for the NCSS scheme, Anna Robertson, Senior Curator, took inspiration from both the existing museum collections, and also from the cultural transformation of Dundee in recent years, and this policy continues today. The emergence of Generator in 1996 and Dundee Contemporary Arts in 1999, as well as the ongoing research practices at Duncan of Jordanstone and the forthcoming construction of the V&A Dundee, ensures that Dundee remains the site of an international exchange of artists and ideas. Through its themes of exploration and observation, the acquisitions policy reflects the twin values of rootedness and internationalism.
“Solitary Life” by Alex Hartley is a form of dispatch or memoir from the artist’s Arctic expedition to Kinnvika – a c-type print of a snowy landscape, with a cabin superimposed on the surface, built up in mixed media relief. Hartley references the craving for wilderness, which he considers both utopian and divisive, as well as the scientists’ cabins he found, preserved in the zero humidity conditions since the 1950s.
The filming for Pernille Spence’s “I look up I look down” took place in Northern Spain outside of an aircraft during a skydiver’s freefall (the artist herself is performing the skydive). In the video loop, there are isolated moments where she appears to be either flying with instinctive control, or falling out of control - either terrified or ecstatic. As well as exploiting the paradoxes that occur when camera and subject are both in movement, the work continues the artist’s research into human movement and psychological/physical (re)actions.
Matt Stokes makes work about the communities that spring up around musical sub-cultures. His film, “Long After Tonight”, (originally commissioned by DCA), documents a re-staged Northern Soul dance event held at St. Salvador's Church in Dundee. It draws on Dundee's history as the home of a small but strong Northern Soul scene in the 1970s, when fans travelled across the country to attend the all-nighters in the church hall, known as ‘Sally’s’.
The Anthropological Impulse
Corin Sworn’s suite of works, “The Foxes”, takes as its starting point a recently re-discovered collection of slides taken by her father during his fieldwork as a social anthropologist in the 1970s. Sworn travelled to Peru in his company of her father, and brought a selection of these photographs to the Peruvian village where they had been taken decades before. Her film includes exchanges with people who pore over the photographs and reminisce with her and her father. The photographic image seems to carry both a visceral identification with the past, and a disconcerting dislocation from it. The works were presented to the McManus by Outset Scotland because it was felt that they would complement, and comment on, the museum’s existing holdings in fascinating ways. “The Foxes” became the first contemporary artwork to be shown amongst historical artefacts, in the Dundee and the World gallery in 2016.
Making a place
The McManus’s programme of buying through the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland co-incided with a major refurbishment – from 2005 to 2010 – and the curators had to collect works without knowing what the new building would look like. However, there was also a unique opportunity to incorporate a work within the new Page/Park-designed elements of the building, and David Batchelor’s large-scale light work called “Waldella, Dundee” was commissioned for permanent installation in the new stairwell. Batchelor’s installations regularly make use of found industrial objects, and Waldella is made of discarded plastic bottles: “The only colours that interested me were unnatural and artificial colours. Industrial colours, city colours: chemical, electrical, plastic, metallic, neon…” he explained. David Batchelor’s recycled chandelier now forms an iconic part of the McManus experience, and is much photographed.
In tandem with other cultural developments in Dundee, the McManus refurbishment has again asserted the power of contemporary culture to transform the city. Leisure Culture Dundee (which became a SCIO in 2011 and now has a service level agreement with Dundee City Council) has continued to build its ambitions and its engagement with contemporary art. Alongside the recognition that all museums have an obligation to pursue new acquisitions if they can, there is a determination to present the diversity of contemporary art practices, even if that means dealing with challenging mediums.