Scottish Collectives and Young Athenians

Establishing emerging art

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Should we look at the work of ‘emerging artists’ in a more sympathetic light? Isla Lever-Yap examines what happens when they cross over into the establishment.

Visiting a gallery in Berlin recently, I arrived at an artist-led space, which, despite supposedly being open for an hour, was still closed. After strolling around and returning two hours later they were just opening shop, only to discover that their projector didn’t work, the door to the adjoining gallery was locked and nobody had the key. The young gallery assistant smiled apologetically and shrugged his shoulders.

Emerging spaces run by young artists get away with a lack of resources and occasionally slipshod work ethic entirely because their platforms showcase audacious work an institution would otherwise raise a quivering brow at. Emerging spaces in Scotland, such as Embassy and GeneratorProjects, are often the first platform that young artists encounter. And for this initial contact these spaces bring a dynamism establishments often fail to even grasp.

In this respect, the latest Royal Scottish Academy slew of shows at Scottish Collective presents a puzzling dichotomy, the behemothic establishment embracing supposedly maverick galleries that have, in participating in the RSA collaboration, admitted a certain willingness to add a bit of institutionalism to their usual dissent. Aberdeen’s Limousine Bull, Dundee’s GeneratorProjects, Edinburgh’s Embassy and Glasgow’s Market are all taking the stage. Artist-led and emerging spaces are generally reviewed with greater benevolence than those old enough to know better. But the RSA stage is the mainstream, bringing with it a different audience and a more turbulent landscape of criticism than the artist-led home ground is used to.

When reviewing emerging spaces showcasing work of dubious value, journalists are often willing to indulge the space as long as it possesses a degree of sincerity or perhaps comes from that fuzzy, well-meaning place where there is potential to be had, even if that potential is years away from being realised. But this isn’t to say compassionate critics have no criticism whatsoever. Instead they speak in a language couched in a veneer of faint praise. Reviews are riddled with a tone of mild malediction using terms such as ‘encouraging’, ‘admirable’, or - perhaps the most damning label of all - ‘worthy’. Of course the role of the critic is not to cosset the artist or gallery, but to evaluate the success of the work in relation to its stated aims and aesthetic appeal. Equally, nobody with a heart would want to slap a puppy for not quite learning how to come to heel, just as no one expects a fresh-faced graduate to produce the defining work of their oeuvre in their first group show straight out of college, or for that matter, their first solo show. But Scottish Collective is not an emerging space, nor is it showcasing rookie artists.

Local communities of friends surrounding an emerging art space, in spite of exclusivity and cliquey attitudes, are part of the gallery’s motivation and survival. These usual notions of local solidarity are absent in the realm of establishment culture, and so ‘professionalism’ brings its own pitfalls. The work of Scottish Collective will be judged on a par with previous RSA exhibitions. And so, whether these young galleries are jumping the railings or the RSA is simply raising the critical bar - this institutional showcase might indeed kill off the context within which the artworks tend to thrive. Yet, at the very least, the provocation will have been an interesting and worthwhile experiment.

Scottish Collectives and Young Athenians, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, until Sun 12 Nov.

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