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Published 20/01/2011 email E-MAIL print PRINT

10 Dialogues: Richard Demarco, Scotland And The European Avant Garde

Magdalena Abakanowicz (b 1930)
Gunther Uecker (b 1930)
Alastair Maclennan (b 1943)
David Mach (b 1956)
Ainslie Yule (b 1941)
Marina Abramovic (b 1946)
Rory McEwen (1932–1982)
Joseph Beuys (1921–1986)
Tadeusz Kantor  (1915–1990) 
Paul Neagu (1938–2004)

Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
27 November 2010–9 January 2011

by Dr JANET McKENZIE

10 Dialogues presents the innovative work of Richard Demarco from the late 1960s to the present day, in bringing European artists to Scotland and his promotion of Scottish artists in Europe. The exhibition takes place in the year of Richard Demarco’s 80th birthday and the 40th anniversary of Strategy: Get Arts, “the exhibition of artists from Düsseldorf that more than any other in the post-war period challenged the Scottish art-world and public with new currents in contemporary art”.1

Founded in 1966, the Demarco Gallery soon developed an international stance and a commitment to emerging developments in sculpture, installation, film and video, site-specific work, performance and theatre. Close collaborations with Joseph Beuys and other Düsseldorf artists, fuelled interest and dialogue with the avant gardes of Poland, Romania and (then) Yugoslavia. 10 Dialogues reveals the pivotal position that sculptural and (more broadly) object-based work, and the documentation of performance, assumed.

The exhibition also marks (in approximate terms) 20 years since the communist regimes of Eastern Europe began to fall. Demarco had worked tirelessly to overcome the cultural ramifications of the political divide, through artistic connection and exchange. “The physical challenges, bureaucratic obstacles and lack of information that he faced during the period from the late 1960s to the 1980s, especially in relation to eastern Europe, is daily becoming more remote, but in many ways the connections now sustained so easily in the digital world of the present rest on such histories of hard work, of face-to-face encounter and actual as opposed to virtual travel”.2

In his essay on Tadeusz Kantor, Wieslaw Borowski observed:

Demarco arrived in Poland in 1968, as one of the first emissaries from the West, driven by curiosity about what was going on in the countries cut off from the rest of Europe by the Iron Curtain. It appears that already at that time, after no more than a few days' stay, Demarco came in a flash to comprehend the situation of the artists and the character of the mentality typical of the Central European and Polish tradition of the mid 20th century. This tradition has such hallmarks as indecision, unsureness, unfulfilment; an existence somewhere 'in-between', 'on the brink', marginalised.3

Yugoslav contemporary art too, was an unknown phenomenon in Britain in the early 1970s when Richard Demarco first visited there in December 1972. The details of his nine-day trip can be found in the Demarco archive: “I realised I had merely scratched the surface of the art world in Yugoslavia, though I had been on four all night journeys by train, one jet flight, and I had visited five cities in nine days, and had been in twenty studios and met fifty one artists, and twenty five art critics and gallery directors….”.4  According to Jon Blackwood, “Richard Demarco was by some distance the best-informed British art professional, regarding contemporary developments in Yugoslav art in the 1970s, and the exhibitions Eight Yugoslav Artists, and ASPECT’75, are a significant part of his legacy. Reading through the catalogue of the latter show, one still strongly senses the powerful impact of some of that generation of Yugoslav artists, on today’s practitioners, operating in the radically changed post-Yugoslav present”.5

Strategy:Get Arts was the first major exhibition of Contemporary German art in Britain since 1938; housed at the Edinburgh College of Art, as part of the official Edinburgh International Festival in 1970. Richard Demarco Gallery and the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, collaborated to introduce Joseph Beuys to the English-speaking parts of Europe, (with 34 other artists, a number of whom were German). “Strategy:Get Arts proved to be an historic exhibition, contemporaneous with ‘When Attitudes become Form’ placing Richard Demarco in the same context as Harald Szeemann, as curators of exhibitions whose process of creation is now recognised as a work of art or re-invented the idea of the exhibition as an art form in itself.”6 It almost goes without saying today, that the curator’s role has since assumed a creative and intellectual role, but pre-1970, it was still iconoclastic.

The ten dialogues chosen from the prolific career of Demarco, are key points in a continuing network of individuals, ideas, places, where the encounter, dialogue or process is deemed of pivotal importance. The documentation of art that is in the large part, non-object art is always difficult and can easily become self-conscious or solipsistic. Where high quality documentation has been made at the time of the performance, installation, production, the significance, the moment can still often be lost when viewed on film or viewed in photographic archive material after the event. What makes Demarco’s position unique in the orchestration of art practice is his multi-faceted role. He is at once: artist, director, entrepreneur, and above all a passionate enthusiast. His generosity of spirit and the genuine excitement he experiences when “discovering” an artwork or an idea remains as effusive today at the age of 80 as it did 40 years ago.

Reaching the age of 80, for anyone else, would quite reasonably signal a time for reflection on the past, but for Richard Demarco the past is the reservoir from which he draws the energy he needs to pursue the completion of his life’s work. The essence of Demarco’s interactions with artists (and their audiences) has always been one-to-one, face-to-face, discursive and conversational. Fed by his appetite for travel, he has never ceased to visit studios and exhibitions to discover new work and engage with its makers. This exhibition roots itself in ten of these dialogues, current and remembered, both for their own sake and for their creative potential for the future.7

The case of Romanian artist Paul Neagu reflects Demarco’s attitudes to individual artists and the manner in which he refused to accept the status quo or received wisdom about anyone. Born in Bucharest Neagu was brought up, after the age of nine in Timisoara, a city close to the Yugoslav border. His family were devout Christians - his father a shoemaker. According to Demarco, “you can see evidence of Paul Neagu’s own boyhood apprenticeship in shoemaking in his love of making small objects out of wood and nails and leather”8. His interest in both drawing and philosophy found the Bucharest Academy of Art the ideal place to study, and to embark on the “task of making art relevant to his experience of and particular aptitude for scientific endeavour as well as philosophy and religion and his love of literature.”9 Neagu recalled that in 1968, there was significant political pressure “of the Russian sort which meant the Romanian culture had to toe the line of whatever happened in Russia in arts, in particular in the visual arts….Socialist Realist work, in order to please the working class”.10

Aware of Neagu’s integrity and also his vulnerability, Demarco chose him to be included in a major exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a turning point in Neagu’s life and career. 

The acknowledgement in the press of Paul Neagu as an artist who deserved to be placed among those representing Romania abroad gave him the credentials he required despite the fact that he had graduated from the Bucharest Art Academy only three years before. This enabled him to be awarded a much coveted travelling scholarship to other East European countries and eventually led to exhibitions of his work in Prague, Paris, Turin, Hamburg, and to my personal delight, in Edinburgh at the Richard Demarco Gallery, in 1969, as part of a group exhibition.

Neagu’s contribution to the exhibition was a roomful of objects, which transcended any concept I might have then had of how sculpture can be differentiated from painting or drawing.11

The following year Paul Neagu moved to Edinburgh to live, and subsequently spent the rest of his life in London. He soon was regarded by critics as the most important Romanian artist since Constantin Brancusi.

Demarco’s enthusiasm typically precipitated what would become an obsessive taking of photographs. They would capture the magic of seeing long-standing artist friends again, discovering a new path, connecting and reconnecting. On funded projects, he commissioned George Oliver, who with his wife Cordelia played an important part in Demarco’s enterprises, but as a professional photographer Oliver took a more controlled approach. His photographs are important in the Demarco Archive, but they played a different role to the literally hundreds of thousands taken by Demarco himself. Where an exhibition of paintings might only elicit six photographs, a performance might produce hundreds of images. Arthur Watson points out that he photographed a tremendous amount of material (theatre performances, installations, meetings) that few thought was important at the time. Twenty years ago much of the work that was considered to be peripheral, can today be accorded a much higher status.12

Demarco did not in the early days, realise the major work he was creating, in the form of a vast photographic archive. Some half a million photographs have recently been viewed, with 10,000 being and digitalised and captioned by a team at the University of Dundee from 2006–2009 (an AHRC funded project) and this project rationalised the huge volume of material accrued over 40–50 years, to the extent that the Royal Scottish Academy exhibition could be assembled in its present form. Arthur Watson, Secretary of the RSA and himself a distinguished artist, and co-curator with Euan McArthur at the University of Dundee, worked on the digitalization project over a period of three years. It has required a Herculean effort and great vision. Watson says there is still a great deal more to be done with the resource, although further funding on a scale to make it possible is as yet unlikely. However, what has actually been achieved is indeed remarkable, the achievement of fixing the ephemeral. 10 Dialogues serves to present those who were not fortunate enough to be there when the original dialogues took place, to take part now in a dialogue, which is essentially an open-ended one. The catalogue, which accompanies the RSA show, is quite exceptional containing a range of essays, a vast plethora of images of people, performances and works of art, in an A3 format with buff cover. Alisa Lindsay (with Watson and McArthur) is to be commended for compiling such a valuable research document, which marks the occasion most appropriately.

The ten dialogues chosen by Watson and McArthur for the RSA exhibition are, “points in an extending network of creative connections and encounters, between people and with artworks. Each artist is the centre of their own network, some first connected to others in this exhibition through Demarco, the uniting figure at the centre. His contacts with Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930), Gunther Uecker (b. 1930), Alastair Maclennan (b. 1943), David Mach (b. 1956) and Ainslie Yule (b. 1941) have been sustained for up to five decades. With Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) and Rory McEwen (1932–1982) his most productive connections were concentrated within particular, even crucial, periods in these artists’ lives. The remaining three associations, with Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), Tadeusz Kantor  (1915–1990) and Paul Neagu (1938–2004), each a close friend, were terminated only by the artists’ deaths, although his dialogue with their work and legacy of ideas has never stopped”.13

Demarco organised a very great number of exhibitions and performances and related expeditions, yet he cannot simply be described as a curator. There is a consistent imperative, to change the terms of public discourse about art, society and politics in both post-war and post-Cold War Europe. The foundations of this ambitious project lie in his ethical and political commitments, but also in the relationships that he forged and sustained with individual artists, which clarified his commitment to ideas above aesthetics, to cultural pluralism, and the need to overcome the political and other forms of division that have disfigured Europe in his lifetime. For that reason, the idea of an endless unfolding dialogue stands at the heart of this exhibition.14

What perhaps amalgamates his wide interests is his religious faith, through which he seeks to unify individuals, nations and ideas with the unwavering belief that the horror of the Second World War should never ravage Europe again, to be allowed to destroy civilisation, and respect for fellow human beings. It is through art that Demarco brings Catholicism to life. McArthur observes, “It has occurred to me that Richard’s attitude to art is rooted in his religious faith. He is a religious man, but it is never discussed”. Watson agrees, “It is there when you travel with him. The Catholic network opens up. In America with John David Mooney, who is also a Catholic; in Poland it is very obvious; it is quite an important way of opening doors”.15

Even Demarco’s approach to Latin Christendom does not fully explain how he managed to take such a multicultural stance 40 years ago. Language barriers, awkward travel conditions did not deter him from exploring ideas with a rare passion. The key perhaps lies in the Edinburgh Festival, which although presenting a completely international music programme presented a visual programme that was almost entirely Scottish or British. Watson points out, “You realise how incredibly insular it was. Yet that was when everybody pulled out the stops precisely because there was an international audience in town for the festival”.16 The RSA had established a link with the Edinburgh Festival to organise major exhibitions but still it took someone of Demarco’s vision to use the established festival as a pretext for an independent visual programme, which would over many years bring the European avant-garde to Scotland. Watson continues, “One of Richard’s needs has been a huge venue for a month of the year and a small one for the rest of the year. Spreading out into all of these alternative venues for the festival has been very difficult. A further problem with the Edinburgh Festival, as opposed to visual arts biennales for example, is that every alternative venue – church hall, school, is rented for high prices to theatre groups, whose entry paying programmes run from 10am to 2am”.17 McArthur is quick to add, however, that the Edinburgh Festival is the central organisation or event against which Demarco defines himself: “He is constantly criticising the Festival and the city of course. Yet as antagonist, he often presents himself in relation to the festival.”18

His emphasis changed from being a quasi Bond Street gallery director in the New Town of Edinburgh, which is really how he started out – although there was an international aspect to it from the beginning – to being more and more interested in the avant-garde. But there was just no audience for it in Scotland. There was a hard core of informed people but the only time that you could show these exhibitions with any major audience was during the festival because there was a international audience there already.19

From an international point of view, Scotland has in historic terms been viewed as a wilderness of great beauty. It was the sublime associations that Demarco chose to offer to artists from abroad, as he described his first meeting with Beuys in 1970 at the artist’s studio in Düsseldorf in his review of the Joseph Beuys exhibition at Tate Modern “Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments,” (February–May, 2005) for Studio International.

When I eventually met Beuys, … I wondered what I could offer that would make him concentrate his attention upon Scotland … I decided not to ask him to make a new and special artwork, but to concentrate instead upon the physical reality of Scotland, the stuff and substance of its landscape and its cultural heritage …Three months later, Joseph Beuys arrived in Edinburgh … I decided to take Beuys on “The Road to the Isles” – the road celebrated in song and legend, to the world of Tir N’ An Og, the Celtic “Land of the Ever Young”. …Beuys’s commitment to the Celtic world changed the course of his life’s work.20

Last year (2010) Studio International also published: “Joseph Beuys 40th anniversary journey to The Moor of Rannoch and the Road to the Isles”. David Gibson was keen to point out that, “The journey was not a nostalgia trip but a reinvigorated “Edinburgh Arts” expedition.  “Edinburgh Arts” is Demarco’s experimental summer school modelled on the Black Mountain College and the Free International University that included Joseph Beuys as teacher between 1972 and 1981”.21 Bringing Beuys to Scotland is the best-known project by Demarco, perhaps to the point where other projects or the impact of his networking and cultural dialogue with others have been marginalised. The exhibition 10 Dialogues has sought to redress the imbalance and has done so with great skill and alacrity.

The exhibition contains a number of marvelous surprises, such as the recently discovered photographs of Marina Abramovic’s first performance piece outside of her native Yugoslavia, Rhythm 10 (1973). In the process of the digitalisation of the Demarco archive, photos from her 1973 work, which had almost been written out of history, as her second performance in Belgrade a year later was has often been mistaken to be her first. The photograph, taken by Demarco of the Abramovic’s performance with Joseph Beuys in the audience, smiling, is testament to the remarkable connections he made.

10 Dialogues shows the sculpture of Ainslie Yule born in North Berwick, whose work has been championed by Demarco and shown in numerous venues, including a villa outside of Venice, at the time of the Venice Biennale. The RSA exhibition commissioned a room full of new sculptures, works of exquisite quality and sensibility that should receive much wider recognition.

Although very well documented in Poland in the form of DVDs of all his theatre productions and performances, and numerous books on his work, the career and cultural significance of Tadeusz Kantor is surprisingly little known in Britain. Kantor’s name has become synonymous with the Polish post-war avant-garde. His productions - in particular The Waterhen, Lovelies and Dowdies and Let the Artist Die – are considered as artistic works in a league of their own. In aesthetic terms, as The Great Emballage of the End of the 20th Century (1988) shown in 10 Dialogues has shown, his works are haunting in the rare combination of discarded materials  employed, redolent of humanity. Wrapped forms are a fitting image as the twentieth century drew to a close, a century that saw cataclysmic change and the horror of war played out on European soil. Included in the RSA installation is the filmed performance of I Shall Never Return (1988) female figure walks across and around the stage with check-lists, evoking a grim finality. As author of a biography of Kantor, Borowski establishes the importance of Demarco’s role in introducing Kantor to western audiences:

After Tadeusz Kantor's The Dead Class, shown in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London in 1976, the world of the West became wide open to direct exposure to Kantor's 'degraded reality', with its figures of actors, never before seen in the theatre, for whom the model was 'the dead man'; with its characters of old people who had just gone back to their destitute classroom after their 'life of failure'. Burdened with a forgotten memory of childhood, enchanted in the effigies of children, they come to life on hearing the melody of the waltz, to freeze dead again. Their hallucinatory play amongst the benches of an old classroom enraptured British audiences. Kantor's Theatre of Death turned out to be an extraordinary event and a challenge to the still-prevalent modernist optimism, with its edict that the world and art are on the right course. It was an important marker of the turbulence and resetting of the value system, which were to take place in the world at the end of the 20th century.22

Against an historic preference in Edinburgh for French art, to which the artists who became known as the Scottish colourists, aspired, the art that Demarco introduced belonged to a different cultural milieu. Yet there are complex strands in Scottish culture, which exist perhaps more in literature than in the visual arts. A serious art, borne of necessity, a language that is serious and sometimes difficult to grasp; that speaks to what Arthur Watson calls “a deeper Scotland”. Many artists in Scotland have been nourished and sustained by Demarco’s alternative to a modernist optimism, and many artists from Scotland have been exported to Eastern Europe where the dialogue there has enriched their ways of seeing, beyond measure.

References

1. Euan McArthur and Arthur Watson, “Introduction”, 10 Dialogues: Richard Demarco, Scotland and the European Avant-Garde, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 2010, no pagination. 

2. Ibid.

3. Wieslaw Borowski, “Tadeusz Kantor”, ibid.

4. Richard Demarco, quoted by Jon Blackwood, “Marina Abramovic, Richard Demarco and the Yugoslav Art World in the 1970s”, ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. David Gibson, “Joseph Beuys 40th anniversary journey “to The Moor of Rannoch and the Road to the Isles, 8 May 2010” Studio International, June 2010.

7. McArthur and Watson, “Foreword”, 10 Dialogues, op.cit.

8. Richard Demarco, “Paul Neagu: Such is the Dance”, ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Paul Neagu, in interview with Mel Gooding for: Artists’ Lives, British Library, ibid.

11. Demarco, Paul Neagu, op.cit.

12. Arthur Watson and Euan McArthur in interview with Janet McKenzie, Dundee, December 2010.

13. McArthur and Watson, “Introduction”, op.cit.

14. Ibid.

15. Interview, December 2010.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Richard Demarco, “Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments,” Tate Modern (February-May, 2005) for Studio International. 24 March 2005,
www.studio-international.co.uk

21. Gibson, op.cit.

22. Borowski, op.cit.



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