Jonnie Common and Duncan Marquiss mark 150 years of the McManus

Jonnie Common and Duncan Marquiss mark 150 years of Dundee's McManus Galleries

Duncan Marquiss and Jonnie Common at the McManus / credit: Ross Fraser Maclean

Drawn to Light will use the much-loved Dundee building as a canvas for a rich visual and musical spectacle

Over coffee in the McManus Art Gallery and Museum's bustling cafe, associate curator Sion Parkinson describes his hopes for Drawn to Light, the extensive outdoor art commission that will close the Dundee building's 150th anniversary celebrations this weekend. He references a photograph in the collection which shows the day in 1880 when the city's statue of Robert Burns was inaugurated, and 22,000 Dundonians crammed into the plaza outside the McManus to see it.

'What excited me was, how often do you get so many people showing such civic pride for an artist or a poet or a musician?' says Parkinson enthusiastically. 'I thought it would be great to rekindle a little bit of that for the 150th year of the museum, to celebrate what it does on behalf of the city. Drawn to Light is a very different commission from the McManus, using our facade as the artistic space and turning the gallery inside out.'

For one night only (apart from an informal preview of the work the evening before), the road outside the McManus will be closed off, and space will be made for up to 6000 people to watch a new diptych of commissioned work from artist and filmmaker Duncan Marquiss and Dundee-born musician Jonnie Common.

A magnificent building in the style of the Gothic revival in the heart of Dundee city centre, the cathedral-like McManus was opened in 1867 as the Albert Institute, its original name paying tribute to the late Prince Albert. The people of Dundee paid for the building, but also own it; George Gilbert Scott's building itself is part of the museum's collection. In 1984, the Albert Institute was renamed in honour of former Lord Provost of Dundee Maurice McManus, and between 2005 and 2010, it was extensively refurbished to the designs of the architects Page/Park. The modern-day building inspired both the pieces of work which comprise Drawn to Light.

Parkinson invited Jonnie Common to get involved on the basis of 2017 album Kitchen Sync, in which the musician used the sounds of his own kitchen to create a bed of samples from which the music was made.

'I hoped he could do something like that here,' says Parkinson, 'and he did, he recorded the swipe cards, the dehumidifiers, the cabinets and drawers opening and closing. He's incorporated that into his music, and it sounds really playful, really melodic. It has that mixture of being experimental but accessible. He's also been recording the sounds of nearly every space in the gallery and the collections unit to find out what resonance it has. Once you have that, you can apply it to any sound, so that our conversation now could appear as though it were happening in the Victoria Gallery upstairs. He's mapped the physical structures of each space sonically to create new data which can also be added to the collection.'

As part of Drawn to Light, Common will perform his new musical work in the 'natural DJ booth' formed by the balcony at the top of the curling staircase on the McManus's west end. The same space will also play host to a new projected video work by Duncan Marquiss, which again uses the interior contents of the building as its inspiration. A DJCAD graduate who was a tech at the McManus while he was a student, Marquiss exhibited at the museum in 2016 and one of his pieces is now held in the collection (he also plays music with The Phantom Band).

'Duncan is a very cerebral, sensitive artist,' says Parkinson. 'He's filmed various items from the museum, and he's really trying to show from these disparate objects almost how a museum might think, to conjure up what its memories might look like. You'll see them floating in a void and peeking out from windows… It's not your typical projection mapping piece, it uses the building as a canvas. Almost like a huge outdoor Imax.'

The idea behind Drawn to Light is for as many people to enjoy as visual a feast as possible and to show something of the inner workings of the McManus, but also to let the people of Dundee revel in a much-loved building that belongs to them. With focus shifting towards the biggest Scottish venue opening of 2018, happening barely a mile away from the McManus, Parkinson points out the original name of the building, the Victoria Gallery upstairs, and the bust of the Royal couple still held by the museum.

'This place is the original Victoria & Albert Museum,' he laughs. 'It has everything.'

Drawn to Light is at the McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee, Sat 25 Nov.

Drawn to Light: Duncan Marquiss and Jonnie Common

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of The McManus, leading contemporary artist Duncan Marquiss presents a new large-scale video installation, and is joined on Sat 25 Nov for a live performance by Jonnie Common.

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