Graham Fagen: Scotland's representative at the Venice Biennale 2015

Graham Fagen: Scotland's representative at the Venice Biennale 2015

'War Garden (after Tubby)', courtesy Graham Fagen and Matt's Gallery

Artist talks about his work at Scotland + Venice 2015, to be exhibited at the Palazzo Fontana

On a rainy day in Glasgow, Graham Fagen calls up a photograph on his laptop of Palazzo Fontana. It’s a terracotta–coloured, picture–perfect Venetian palazzo, facing on to the Grand Canal. For a minute, the sights and sounds of Venice are in the room.

Over the next month, Fagen’s artwork will be shipped – literally, by boat down the Grand Canal – to be installed there. After being selected to represent Scotland in this year’s Venice Biennale, Fagen helped the Scotland + Venice partners choose Palazzo Fontana as the new venue for this year’s show.

Curated this year by Lucy Byatt of Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, this is the seventh Scotland + Venice show. Over the past 12 years, approaches have varied, from shows by a single artist (Martin Boyce, Karla Black) to group shows. 2013’s was curated by the Common Guild, a collection of three solo exhibitions by Corin Sworn, Hayley Tompkins and Duncan Campbell, who would later win the Turner Prize for his Venice work, It for Others. Palazzo Fontana is not only a new venue for Scotland, it’s a building which has never been used for a Biennale show before.

‘I got to see about a dozen different locations, and was allowed to pick one,’ Fagen says. ‘Which was great for about half of the first day we were there, and then I suddenly realised I’d better get a move on: the people who were showing us the spaces were asking what I was going to put in them. I was lucky enough to be able to select one where the context helps me with the work I’m interested in addressing.’

So how does one make work for the contemporary art world’s biggest jamboree? Fagen has talked about having a ‘library of ideas, questions, curiosities, intrigues’ which he draws on. A contemporary of Douglas Gordon and Roddy Buchanan at Glasgow School of Art, he works freely and often collaboratively across media, from sculpture and filmmaking to neon text and theatre. The seeds of ideas that were sewn on his first visit to Palazzo Fontana grew, drawing on a range of other inspirations: the slave trade, reggae music, George Washington’s false teeth.

Then he heard Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt’s new setting of Burns’ song ‘My Heart's in the Highlands’, a song he had always dismissed as a clichéd piece of tartanry. ‘I became really intrigued by the fact that somebody from another country, a different culture, was able to take that lyric and change the meaning of it [and] change my perception of it completely.’

That took his mind back to another Burns’ song, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, which he memorably recorded for a show in Tramway in 2005 with reggae vocalist Ghetto Priest, alluding to the fact that Burns had planned to leave Scotland in 1786 for a job on a plantation in Jamaica. The song wasn’t finished with him yet. ‘I was curious about Part’s treatment of ‘My Heart's in the Highlands’, that’s when I started wondering about what other instruments, what other musical traditions I might bring to ‘The Slave’s Lament’.’

Since he first recorded the song in 2005, Scotland’s role in the slave trade has been examined in historian Stephen Mullen’s book It Wisnae Us, and in projects such as last summer’s Empire Cafe, during the Commonwealth Games. At the centre of Fagen’s show in Venice is a new version of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, presented as a five–screen video installation, featuring Ghetto Priest, composition by Sally Beamish, musicians from Scottish Ensemble and reggae dub by leading producer Adrian Sherwood. It will play in a room where the windows face the Grand Canal, opening onto Venice’s own history as a melting pot of trade and commerce, legitimate and otherwise.

In another room, a tree sculpture made of rope and cast in bronze alludes to Venice’s maritime past, as well as to Fagen’s earlier bronze castings of plants. And another will contain 19 of his ‘drawings’ of his own teeth, made using white enamel paint and Indian ink. It’s a sustained element of his recent practice which started on a residency in the United States, picking up on the American obsession with perfect gnashers, as well as legends about George Washington’s falsers (real teeth? slaves’ teeth?), which several museums claim to own.

‘I’d done a lot of these drawings, and when I sat down to have a look at them and a think about what I was doing, I realised that I was actually drawing consciousness,’ he says. ‘Then I became very worried because I thought if I tell anybody that, they’ll think I’ve lost my marbles!’

Heartened by reading the American philosopher John Searle on the subject, he has taken the idea a step further by making rough casts of his face (including the teeth) in clay. The results are misshapen masks with gaping holes for the mouth and eyes, attached to stylised trees. Somewhat sinister, no?

‘Yeah, especially when you’re making them from your own head,’ he says. ‘It’s horrible to do. Don’t do it at home. And don’t do it before your kids are due home from school, because they come home and see your face in a very strange colour and they wonder what the hell you’re up to. It’s almost as bad as realising that you’re drawing consciousness!’

Graham Fagen: Scotland + Venice 2015, at Palazzo Fontana, Venice, Sat 9 May – Sun 22 Nov,

Graham Fagen: Scotland + Venice

Graham Fagen, fresh from the Venice Biennale, talks about his new work.