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Peter Robertson interviews Calum Colvin

An Interview with Calum Colvin by Peter Robertson

Peter Robertson

Peter Robertson is an author and journalist born Glasgow 1960 and raised in rural Perthshire. His fiction has been published in English, Spanish and Portuguese and he has also written critical articles and literary translations. He lives in Madrid and Buenos Aires. He is the Founding Editor of "The International Literary Quarterly" ( In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

PR: First of all Calum, I want to thank you for agreeing to be our featured artist for Issue 7, and especially for granting me this interview in your studio here in Edinburgh. A personal meeting is certainly the best way to get to know you well, as man and artist. As soon as I came across your work, I found it utterly compelling--full of verve, subtlety and defiant in the sense that it challenges artistic canons-- and I knew instantly that I wanted you to be the featured artist for this issue.

CC: Thank you for your kind comments Peter, and also for inviting me-it's an honour.

PR: Calum, I'd like to ask you some questions that will help to place your work in perspective.

CC: That's fine Peter, fire away!

PR: You have gone on record as saying that a concept of "hybridity" is central to your work. What exactly do you mean by this? Is it a process that began with your studies at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee or does it date from your studies in London at the Royal College of Art, or even later?

CC: I mean that my work is very much a hybrid of various media: painting, photography and sculpture. This began soon after I started working with photography (whilst studying for a diploma in sculpture at DoJ) in 1982. I was interested in 'documentary' photography but quite quickly realized that this was one element in a whole range of possible areas of enquiry inherent in the medium. I realized that I could use the monocular viewpoint of the camera to encompass a whole range of concerns.

PR: Developing this theme, you have described Scotland as a "hybrid" nation. Did you gravitate towards "hybridisation" because you felt it was the best approach when dealing with a country you appear to see as divided, as suggested by your artwork, "Twa Dogs", which portrays religious and sectarian conflict?

CC: As a child I attended both Catholic and Protestant schools and was therefore made keenly aware of the perceived differences ('They're not the same as us, the Tims'. 'Proddies donít really believe in God' etc. etc.). Somewhat confusing to a ten year old caught in the middle! Also, Scotland's complex and frequently troubled relationship with its neighbors, England and Ireland, has led to a very mixed range of political and cultural outlooks. Scotland is, for many reasons, very different from north to south and east to west. I began to see Scotland as an intriguing construct, ingenious and schizophrenic. I thought perhaps I could layer meaning in my work in some way that would reflect this.

PR: A central theme of your art is the collision between high and low culture. In your portrait of Sir Walter Scott, you include the detritus of Scottish shortbread, tin memorabilia and Jimmy hats. Scotland is perceived as a rich cultural repository but also the "Land o' Cakes". Can you tell us more about your fascination with this cultural collision.

CC: From Culloden to Brigadoon! I suppose it is because I am interested in contrasting views on the same landscape. Scotland has an often dark and violent history, yet sells a romanticized kilt and haggis version of this to tourists in the High Street in Edinburgh. Much of this can be traced back to the tartan pageant organized by Sir Walter Scott on the occasion of George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822. The more you look at the construct of national identity, the more you see an incredible mishmash of half-truths and magnificent falsehoods. Perhaps this is true of all nations.

PR: You have been called an icon manipulator and you have certainly stretched the meanings of Western archetypes. I feel that you are a subversive artist in that you take an old master and deconstruct its meaning, forcing us to perceive it in completely new ways. Take your "Heroes 1", based on Ingres' 1808 painting, "Oedipus and the Sphinx". And then, in "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" you correlate a tradition of Christian iconography and an ironic view of tartanry and kitsch. And, as if this were not sufficiently iconoclastic, in an apotheosis of subversion, in your "Sacred and Profane" exhibition, you re-interpreted eight paintings including "Venus Anadyoneme" (after Titian) and "The Stoning of St Stephen" (after Elsheimer), held in the National Gallery of Scotland's permanent collection. Would you agree that your work is subversive in spirit?

CC: I would, yes. I think art has become so mixed up with commerce that sometimes it is not possible to see anything other than the financial value and concomitant power structure attached when you gaze upon an 'old master'. In a sense I wanted to reclaim these images as creative works. I wanted to take the compositional structure of these paintings, play with/subvert the existing narrative, and create new narratives. As an art student, I was often told of the superiority of painting as a medium over other media such as photography. I found this puzzling and wanted to question these orthodoxies. I also enjoy the challenge involved in re-visiting historical works. 'The Seven Deadly Sins' series in 1993 was the first time I worked in-depth with the possibilities of digital imaging, and I wanted to see how far I could go in making a series of works (thirteen in all) that would hold together as a narrative. I took the all-seeing eye of God in the original tableau, and turned it into an eye of Nature, thus allowing me in the series to explore issues around environmental destruction and our unwilling participation in such processes. The 'Sacred and Profane' series was more concerned with investigating the structure and narrative of the original paintings. I wanted to impose other layers of meaning and personal narratives upon these works.

PR: You fight shy of people labelling your art as 'collage'. Can you describe the fusion of techniques that you press into service when producing an artwork?

CC: Sculpture, painting, photography. Itís that simple. A bit of digital stuff mixed in. Anamorphosis. Much painstaking painting over a three-dimensional set. Then photographing the finished set on a large-format camera, playing with lighting. Much photographing. They are not collage as such; the end result is usually a realistic photograph of a constructed scenario. More documentary photography. I use a computer to print the images on different surfaces.

PR: You made heavy use of digital imaging in your sequence "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" (1993). When did your interest in digital imaging and computer morphing actually begin?

CC: In the Eighties in London, where I experimented with a few pieces. I used it extensively in 1992 to make 'The Seven Deadly Sins' series. I saw the computer as a possible way to extend the narrative of my works, cross-referring them in a way. I made a few more shows in this manner, but increasingly I prefer the simple, paintbrush-and-camera route.

PR: A lot of your work is trompe-l'oeil. You have gone as far as to say that your work is completely about artifice, a homage to the artificial. I notice your use of anamorphic perspective and wonder whether you have been influenced by Hans Holbein's painting "The Ambassadors" in the National Gallery. Can you tell us more about the role of artifice in your oeuvre.

CC: Anamorphic perspective has been around for a long time, since the 16th C. I am interested in work that concerns this, as it presents a kind of other world, floating between reality and vision. Photography, with its monocular eye, ideally suits this technique, which I try to marry with cultural artifices.

PR: In your most recent major exhibition, "Ossian, Fragments of Ancient Poetry" (2002), a series of twenty-five large-scale digital prints based on James Macpherson's probably fictional "The Poems of Ossian and Related Works" of 1765, you started to present images as paintings. Did you adopt this approach to make the viewer decide for himself what is real and what is artificial and, narrowing this down, to what extent did you embark on this exhibition so as to unearth what is authentic and what is ersatz in Scottish culture?

CC: The 'authentic' and the 'ersatz' are both moveable feasts. In this area the questions are more interesting than the answers. I really wanted to try to make the viewer question what is good and what is bad in Scottish culture.

PR: Focusing on what you consider to be inherently bad in Scottish culture, you have gone on record as saying that you believe the Scots to be a fatalistic people. Do you still hold to this, and what virtues redeem our vices?

CC: The essence of the Scottish psyche is certainly a tough one to answer! It is difficult to discuss this without a "Whaís like us?" mentality (famous tea-towel poem extolling the achievements of Scots throughout the ages). What you say is true. I have said in the past that the Scots tend to be fatalistic, and sometimes quite negative. I still believe this, but I also think that we have a very good, surreal and dark sense of humour. Couple this with a certain tendency to argue, particularly in the pub, about politics, perhaps a remnant of "the flyting" (a precursor to freestyle battling) common in 16th century Scottish poetry, and the result is a good night out!

PR: And yet, in some of your work, this fatalism, that you berate, appears to creep in. I am thinking here of your work, "Crying in the Chapel" (1991) from "The Two Ways of Life", a series that you made for the Art Institute of Chicago.

CC: The vision in this case cites Jacob's Dream but drastically shifts the revelation of the House of God to a mournful secular site: that of a Scotland dispossessed. But this is not so much fatalism as a metaphor for a momentous, and indeed heart-rending, historical event.

PR: Does this, then, serve as a metaphor for the Highland Clearances? Calum, do you agree with me that, while we can debate ad infinitum whether Scotland is still haunted by its past, the haunting beauty of its landscapes is certainly beyond question?

CC: Indeed! As it happens, I have long had an interest in the Scottish landscape. This is tied to my interest in Scottish history and culture. It doesn't take long, when looking at Scottish history, to see the ways in which the country has been shaped, both politically and economically, by the soil. The intense attachment that the Highlanders felt for the land is well-documented, in poetry and song, from the time of Columba. After the Second Highland Rebellion in 1745, the clearance of land has been an emotive issue. Sir Walter Scott's literary exploration of the Scottish Highlands, together with the massive fame of Macpherson's "Ossian", reshaped the whole perception of the romantic wilderness. From all this we eventually end up with a thriving tourist industry selling Gonks and Nessie souvenirs to the tourists. There is a lot to explore visually in all of that!

PR: Developing the theme of Scottish identity, I believe that a journalist once described you as "an unrepentant Scot". Do you think that there was an element of veiled criticism here, an implication that your cultivation of Scottishness impeded the nurturing of a universal vision? Can you tell us more about the ten years that you spent in London and how they shaped your outlook? Also, as an "unrepentant Scot", are you surprised at the success that your art has had in Spain and South America? Do you think that this is due to the heavy photographic component in your work, photography being so popular in these countries, or because of the bright, symbolic, stained-glass colors, proper to Catholic religious art, which you achieve as a result of cibachrome prints?

CC: If you take the experience of James Macpherson and the phenomenon of his Ossianic publications, its massive popularity across the world and influence on the Romantic movement, these are truly astonishing achievements. Even Napoleon is rumoured to have said, while in St Helena, "I have even been accused of having my head filled with Ossian's clouds". It is notable that most of the vitriol heaped upon Macpherson came from England. It is natural to take your own culture and language as a basis for your art, you see it all the time in literature. I simply did this with photography. I can't remember who called me 'an unrepentant Scot', I think it was in "The Times". In jest, I presume! The time I spent in London was invaluable, and great fun. I was 21 when I arrived there, and was exhibiting internationally by the time I was 23, so it was very exciting. It was also strange, being in a country you know so well (from the shared world of the BBC) yet within which you always felt an outsider. I have never understood why my work would be popular anywhere! I try not to think about it.

PR: In 1989, while still living in London, you yourself gave your "Jock's Progress" series the sub-title, "the Rise and Fall of an Unrepentant Scotsman". Was your appropriation tongue-in-cheek or was it meant to connote some Calvinist fall from grace?

CC: The sub-title is a retrospective joke, though some truth in it. I suppose, at the time, I was a little bemused at the amount of attention me and my work were receiving. I thought that this would not last, and that if you are feted so much, then inevitably people would hope to see you fall ("I kent his Faither" kind of deal). I was realizing at the time that the intellectual enquiry I was pursuing would (at some point) lead to a division between the type of images that a gallery may be interested in, and the kind of images I wanted to make. I have always gone my own way in this respect. If you look at the series of images, there is a double-edged irony in there. Itís a sense of enquiring into your own culture, exploring its intellectual possibilities, and then the fallÖironically softened by a kailyard cushion, so to speak!

PR: Your worst fears never came to pass but, in any case, after a decade down south you headed home. Calum, can you tell us about the art scene in Scotland right now and, more specifically, in Edinburgh, where you live? How does the art scene there compare with that in England? Do you feel that devolution, and the sharper awareness of a national identity thereby engendered, have enriched the cultural scene? Do you believe that, in cultural terms, Scots felt colonized by England in the past?

CC: Scotland has, on some levels, a very vibrant art scene. More so in Glasgow than Edinburgh, which can be a little conservative. There are a lot of good young artists emerging (and staying) in Scotland. When I graduated in 1983 I went to London. This, or New York, was the normal route for artist 'Scotsmen on the make'. This route does not seem to be a necessity now. Scottish artists of course, do not have the established art- buying audience that English artists enjoy, nor the same level of support from the national institutions (not sure why). There are other difficulties. I would like very much to publish a book of my works (as opposed to catalogues, which I have plenty of). However, this is nigh-on impossible in Scotland. I think cultural awareness and national identity are areas that have been increasingly re-appraised in Scotland in recent years. I also think the citizens of North Britain (as it nearly became) have an interesting future.

PR: Reverting to the Ossian exhibition, you appear to be haunted by the destruction wrought by the inexorable march of time. In your cycle of images, "Blind Ossian I-IX", based on an 1807 engraving by the Scottish artist, Alexander Runciman, you gradually destroy the original form, ending up with a ruin. And, I can see from the artefacts here in your studio that you are working on a "Vanitas" series. As man and artist, now in your mid forties, would you say that you are more preoccupied than ever with "memento mori"?

CC: I think that, as you get older, you want to simplify your ideas and practices. You become aware of perception changing over time. When I was younger, I wanted to make images that were densely layered, echoing the 'noise of the world'. In 1989 in London I made a triptych over an intense three months called 'Deaf Man's Villa'. I became so obsessed with it that afterwards I felt like I had been living in a cave.

PR: It is in "Deaf Manís Villa" that birds first appear as a central motif. Later, in the mid 90ís, you went on to produce your "Ornithology" series. Can you tell us more about the symbolic significance of birds in your work.

CC: In "Deaf Man's Villa" representations of birds appear symbolically in various forms as victims of human conceit and neglect. In this way the bird symbol is one of innocent nature corrupted by human action. In a sense this occurs again and again in my photographs, but there are other layers of symbolism in the use of birds. It highlights the complexity of meaning I aimed at achieving through the simple technique of staged constructed scenarios orchestrated before and recorded in front of a large-format camera. It is a multi-layered and endlessly cross-referenced image touching on themes of optical illusion, corrupted nature, transformation, evolution and reproduction. Although "the Deaf Manís Villa" was titled after Goya's home near Madrid, the place where he painted his incredible "Black Paintings", the title became something more to me. I began to see the "Villa" as an emblem for the world as a whole and the "Deaf Man" as humankind. The general abuse of the planet by man coupled with the usually catastrophic attempts to interfere in the natural processes, for example, re-introducing extinct species, became an issue of some concern and I wanted to explore the consequences of this kind of behaviour. As you mentioned, the use of bird imagery became more central to the image in the mid 90's when I started work on an ongoing series of images under the collective title, "Ornithology", although in fact the works touched on many themes. I wanted to create a series of images which contained social commentary masked in a kind of urban Audobonesque visual style. These works include "The Magnificent Frigatebird", an image which meditates on Scottish working-class culture, and "Sacred Ibis", which looks at the destructive aspects of the lottery obsession.

PR: One critic has said that there is a quality of near madness in your constant weaving of pictorial images. This seems to me to be going too far but there is a startlingly surreal quality to your work with images such as Icarus falling into a set of bagpipes and St Anthony gazing at a lunatic procession of garden gnomes. And I often perceive an immanent darkness, for example in "Mundus Subterraneus 1" with its unsettling images such as coiled and dessicated snake-skins and distorted images of a cranium. I am hardly surprised that James Thomson's phantasmagoric poem, "The City of Dreadful Night" is one of your favourite poems. Can you give us some insights into your subterranean world? How crepuscular is it?

CC: I cannot help but dwell on the everyday ironies of contemporary life, coupled with a typically Scottish dark humour. The idea for my exhibition 'Pseudologica Fantastica' came when I was lying on a densely packed tourist beach in the Costa Brava in Spain in 1991. I was looking at newspaper images of the destruction of the Iraqi army on the road to Basra, and burning oil wells in Kuwait. I thought of both these worlds (with sand as the common denominator) and the images evolved from there. This sounds dark! I was also fascinated by the types of tattoo sported by the Scottish and German tourists. I like the idea of a twilit world, between day and night. It is worth bearing in mind that all the objects, props etc, which appear in my pictures, had a previous life in the Ďrealí world. Now that is worrying.

PR: You have promoted your work not only as an exploration of national identity and aspects of contemporary culture, but also sexuality. It seems to me that, with David Donaldson, you are alone among male Scottish artists in representing yourself in the nude, in your androgynous self-portrait "Narcissus". You have spoken of your wish to "sensualize the male". I wonder whether this is a tall artistic order in a country like Scotland which some people think still has an ethos of "machismo"? Do you feel that some aspects of sexuality are still taboo in Scotland, and can you tell us more about how Magnus Hirsch's ground-breaking studies of sexual perversion have influenced your work?

CC: I came across the Hirsch book in a second-hand bookshop in London, and was interested in the series of case histories, outlining real experiences and proclivities. I used part of the text in images such as 'Narcissus' (a case history of a person with narcissistic tendencies) to provide a commentary to the visual image. I have used this book through a number of images to provide a 'documentary' comment and as a metaphor for artistic obsession in contrast to sexual obsession. The notion of Scotland still being a 'macho' country is an interesting one, and hard to quantify. Certainly where I grew up, wearing a hat for any male under 60 was considered a challenge to the sexual status quo. But now (I hope) Scotland seems more relaxed, in parts anyway. When you consider the paintings I have re-worked, it would seem too tempting not to challenge the male/female power structures epitomized by these works.

PR: It isn't just the Hirsch book that has been important to you. You have said how much you were influenced by Robert Ferguson's book on Scottish national identity. You have also mentioned that Alasdair Gray's magnum opus, "Lanark", with its interplay of distinct genres, prompted you to find a visual equivalent through photographs. I am struck by how literary you are as, in your work, you quote Wittgenstein, Leibnitz, Descartes and Hegel as well as Shelley, nursery-books and medical treatises.

CC: I've read a lot since childhood, on account of the rain. My father was the first in his family to attend University in Glasgow, where he studied psychology. He kept a fairly large library and I dipped into it regularly, without pattern or method. I see the books, or fragments of books which appear throughout my works, as kind of stepping stones, literary colours which comment on the visual element. I look for texts that are ironic, funny, dark or mysterious in relation to the painted work. I like Hogg, Stevenson and Burns, and am fascinated by that period in Scotland's history.

PR You have said that in the future you want to incorporate "stereo photography" in your work-what advantages will this give you?

CC A direct access to the cerebral cortex of the unsuspecting viewer. This new work will be exhibited in the exhibition 'Natural Magic' in the Royal Scottish Academy 7th March-5th April 2009.

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