What You See Is Where You’re At
A new exhibition launches a year of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, as Neil Cooper discovers
It’s fitting that the title of What You See is Where You’re At, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s 50th anniversary reinvention of its spaces, is taken from Glasgow-based artist Luke Fowler’s archive film collage inspired by controversial anti-psychiatrist and counter-cultural guru R.D. Laing. By blasting back to its own iconic past, from shock-of-the-new surrealism to post-sensation-seeking conceptualism, it embraces the here and now of influence and innovation while also giving a sagely beatific nod to the future.
‘We were thinking about what would give the best sense of and have the most impact for our 50th anniversary,’ explains Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland. ‘One of our greatest assets is our collection, and we do a lot of singing and dancing about our exhibitions, but maybe we don’t shout about our collection enough.’
With this in mind, ‘What You See is Where You’re At’ will feature a rolling programme that fast-tracks its way through 100 years of historicised contemporaneity. As it compares and contrasts the use of colour in turn-of-the-20th-century painting against that used in 1960s pop and op art or else cuts and pastes collage into a room of its own, the effect resembles a vivid carousel of images seen on a grand scale, with something different on show at every visit. As dots are joined from Picasso to Braque to Bacon, Beuys and beyond, an opaquely mapped lineage gradually emerges.
‘Objects have a natural life,’ says Groom, ‘and they change as they respond to the company they keep. To go through our stores and reveal all of these wonderful things has been extraordinary, especially when you look at someone like Dan Flavin’s work. A lot of people think they don’t know it, but by the time you’ve been on a journey through all the other rooms, you realise why it’s there.’
The Modern Art gallery opened in 1960, and was originally housed in Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens. It moved to its new premises in 1980, extending to the neighbouring Dean Gallery some years later.
‘As the collection grows we’ll always need more spaces,’ says Groom, ‘but what we’re focusing on now is working more intelligently and more collaboratively, lending out work to other galleries across the world, and flying the flag for what’s the best collection outside the Tate.’
Crucially, What You See is Where You’re At will also include works by major Scottish artists who have emerged over the last decade, including Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce and Nathan Coley. Squaring the circle of SNGoMA’s significance in the current wave of homegrown activity gone global will be two rooms of work curated by Douglas Gordon.
‘These are major contemporary artists who were influenced by what they saw here,’ Groom points out, ‘so it’s part of an ongoing process that they’re given space to influence others. That’s part of trying to work out what the next 50 years will bring as much as what the last 50 already have. The important thing with all of that is to make the work live.’
What You See is Where You’re At, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Sat 28 Nov–Sun 28 Feb.