Published  21/10/2016

Arthur Watson: ‘What connected Nagoya and Chicago was the level of interest in the work. “Not bad,” is as good as it gets in north-east Scotland’

Arthur Watson: ‘What connected Nagoya and Chicago was the level of interest in the work. “Not bad,” is as good as it gets in north-east Scotland’

The artist talks about his current exhibition, Double Diablerie, in which he explores superstitions around the Devil, along with fellow Scottish artist Ian Howard and two Japanese artists


The Scottish artist and President of the Royal Scottish Academy, Arthur Watson (b 1951), studied at Grays School of Art, Aberdeen, after which, in 1974, he founded Peacock Printmakers, an artists’ print workshop, publisher and gallery. In 1990, he represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale. For more than 20 years has been the course director of fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee. His work is currently part of the show Double Diablerie, which is at the John David Mooney Foundation in Chicago until the end of this month. The exhibition presents the work of four internationally renowned artists, Watson and Ian Howard from Scotland, and Sotaro Ide and Hisashi Kurachi from Japan, in a project that connects Celtic Scotland, medieval Europe and ancient Japan.

Double Diablerie comprises 64 large-scale (91 x 61 cm / 3 x 2 ft) book pages – screenprints, lithographs and etchings – as well as four bound artist’s books in a limited edition. All four artists created work that addressed their culture’s interest in, and the folklore surrounding, the Devil. First shown in Nagoya, Japan, in June this year, the works reveal each artist’s relationship with the Devil. These ancient cultures reveal an extraordinary interest and fascination with the subject and its ethereal manifestations, which have existed for centuries. I spoke to Arthur Watson after the opening of the show in Chicago.

Janet McKenzie: Double Diablerie is a project that started nearly 10 years ago? How did you come to define this subject?

Arthur Watson: Ian [Howard] and I have long talked about doing something together on the Devil and superstition, and came to realise a connection between Japan and Scotland. We each used screenprints, both hand-printed and through a high-end automatic press, operated by Paul Harrison, at the Visual Research Centre, Dundee. In addition, we shared an interest in opposites: palindromic mirror images, the use of complementary colours, or the opposition of dark and light, good and evil. Alan Johnston, a major Scottish artist, a minimalist and emeritus professor at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), had started a consortium to work between Scotland and Japan. Nozomi, as it is called, was very much led by the ECA and Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in Nagoya, now the University of the Arts, 50 years old this year. Duncan of Jordanstone was a lesser partner in the project and many interactions took place under Nozomi’s umbrella: exhibitions in Japan and Scotland, particularly in Orkney where Alan Johnston had Japanese artists in residence brokered through the Pier Arts Centre. Teruo Isomi, president of the university in Nagoya, and now president of the Association of Printmakers in Japan, gave a keynote paper at the 2013 IMPACT conference [the biennial international multidisciplinary printmaking conference] in Dundee. There was also a significant Scottish input in to a major Patrick Geddes conference in Japan, so there was considerable artistic traffic and numerous student exchanges between Scotland and Japan.

Ian and I went there together in 2007 and were based in Nagoya; we also worked in Kyoto, and I went down to Yamaguchi where I did a number of performance-to-camera pieces in various Japanese locations. One near Kyoto was in a small Buddhist temple; in Nagoya, I performed in an odd area of their campus that had a window with trees outside, which was beautiful and then in the Sesshu Garden in Yamaguchi, to celebrate the great artist poet.

JMcK: I assumed that your relationship with Japan was precipitated through your mutual interest in printmaking.

AW: It developed greatly through printmaking. But I also gave a lecture to musicology students, Ritual, superstition, and oral culture in Scotland, at the University of the Arts. Considering that they all spoke Japanese and I only spoke English, it was extraordinary but the professor of musicology – who became a close friend – translated. What we were not prepared for was that, while in the west there are many people who were fixated on the Japanese culture, there were Japanese who are equally fixated on Scotland.

JMcK: Not Britain or Europe, but Scotland?

AW: To the point that they were recreational curlers! They had a curling rink and were experts on malt whisky. We were taken to the Nagoya branch of the Malt Whisky Society where not only were able to drink the whisky of our choice, but we could have it served with Deeside water, which at that time could not be bought in Scotland. They would come over to Scotland and be in seventh heaven in the landscape. It was the whole historic landscape that they loved.

JMcK: Traditionally, Japanese art and culture and spirituality are more conceptual than western art.

AW: It’s Japanese culture as a whole. One of the features of Teruo Isomi’s IMPACT conference paper was when he spoke about spirituality in printmaking, about Buddhist monks who took a wood block and then printed many hundreds of copies because each time they printed, it was a form of prayer. At the most conceptual end, they would take the block and print it on water so the prayer would flow down the river, and then they would print it on the smoke from burning incense that would permeate and enter the world.

JMcK: The obsession with process, which became integral to the conceptual art movement in the west in the 1960s, is automatically part of Japanese art and ritual religion and culture.

AW: And is a given, which is so refreshing. In my lecture, I was talking and illustrating largely Scottish traveller singing, for about an hour and a half, with translation by the professor of musicology, who, incidentally, is a master on the theremin, an electronic instrument activated by hand movement above the instrument giving an eerie glissading sound. The Scottish traveller singing style is based on portamento, sliding from note to note and often sung at the highest pitch. Because the singer was pushing the top register, it would carry more outdoors. That style has a kind of resonance with the theremin. Much of what I was talking about was the intertwining of song and superstition, with the Devil. Jump ahead to the next visit where I had a show in 2010 called Towards Double Diablerie, so this was a staging post before any formal work on the printed books.

Diablerie is just things devilish. The reason for it being double was, first, that it would be Ian and I, and then Japan and Scotland, and that show in their gallery – an amazing concrete bunker of a space, high ceilings but with a terracotta-tiled floor and everything else grey. There was a large projection and further films on three monitors, with mats so that people could recline and listen to the subtitled filmed recording. I also gave a lecture on superstition and landscape. There were obvious resonances with areas of superstition in Japan. I was looking at groups of trees in the east of Scotland in the middle of prime agricultural land: Goodman’s lands reserved for the Devil, but without mentioning his name There was a similar thing in Japan. I was taken to a kind of shrine where there was just a clearing in the wood. I was surprised that these edgy contemporary artists took this place very seriously. Much more so than if we who were not religious went into a church to look at the art. They were very serious in that place.

JMcK: So, it is more integrated into contemporary Japanese culture than here in Scotland. And yet, here, we live in a country where there are numerous references to ancient myths and superstitions, but below contemporary consciousness.

AW: Walter Scott wrote that Goodman’s lands were widespread when he was a boy, but had since died out. But research done by Emily Lyle shows that these were still being created in Aberdeenshire in the late-19th century. A lot of them are still there and, because they are on prime land, it would make good sense to do away with them and plough them over – but still they survive.

JMcK: But farmers are very mindful of past rituals in the way that fishermen are. To this day, they continue curious rituals.

AW: I did a lot of work on that about 20 years ago. I’m also interested in the mountains (through my Cairn Gorm project), particularly one called The Devil’s Point, changed by cartographers around the time that Queen Victoria started rambling around the Highlands, from Devil’s Prick (the literal translation from Gaelic). Part of the Cairn Gorm project was looking at the notion of “drawing dangerously”, looking at routes that climbers had drawn on these mountains. On one cliff, Hell’s Lum crag, all the subsequent climbs have similar devilish titles. In my work for Double Diablerie, there are two groups of pages, one that responds to Devil’s Point, one to Goodman’s Land.

JMcK: You and the other artists have produced books. What was the dominant medium?

AW: Ian and I have used screenprinting, while the Japanese employed etching and lithography. The bound books are in a second gallery and can only be viewed by appointment. The main part of the exhibition is shown on tilted board, each artist exhibiting 16 pages, giving 64 altogether, with a double page of almost four feet wide. One of the great things about showing with John David Mooney is that he is a sculptor and light artist and still insists that he personally lights each exhibition – not just with standard wall washers, but with spots that emphasise aspects that even we had not noticed. It’s a great place to show, with interns – Niaz and Tyler – to help, and take charge of our project, amazingly supportive.

The two Japanese artists are print masters, whereas Ian and I use printmaking as part of a wider practice. What is interesting is that, when you think of Japanese printmaking, you would expect coloured woodcuts, but Tereo Isomi made woodcuts on a large scale almost entirely black and white, printed with a baren, not a press. Hisashi Kurachi is a plate lithographer, again using mainly black and white with an astounding level of detail. Ide speaks no English and makes etchings. I’m not sure exactly how they are made; plants are embedded either in soft ground or transferred on to the copper plate. He often uses traditional Japanese room dividing screens with part of an image on each, so that the images jump from one to another; the result is a 16-foot wide plant. It is breathtakingly beautiful. In their universities, there is not anything like the British system of research funding, but tutors all have studios and are serious practising artists in their centre of the campus with a high level of support and student access.

JMcK: And, of course, art and design and culture are integrated in Japan.

AW: In the university, studios are open all night and because the winter Olympics were held in Nagoya, there is a monorail train that carries the students from the city centre to the campus.

JMcK: You are taken by all the aspects of the Japanese art school system, which implies that it is very different from the art school system here in Britain and, indeed, how the art world there functions compared with the west.

AW: It is very different in many respects and then, in some aspects, very similar. What was evident was that all the staff had studios in the art school so that students could wander in and out and see how they were working. On one visit, I led a master class. I picked five locations on the campus and sang five songs, one in each. They made a body of work in response to my performances, in a day. The senior students prepare all the materials for the junior students; they prepare all the paper, with great skill. We went from my singing one day to an exhibition the next, the students all helping each other.

JMcK: How many students?

AW: About 20.

JMcK: Funding aside, if you tried to do the same here, how would you fare? The way the students work together is particularly impressive.

AW: On this one project, it worked very well. It was like a small military operation. Here, it would be like herding cats. In Japan, students were used to taking instructions, which we don’t really do. Our teaching here is based on responding to students’ ideas and helping them to realise the idea. Both have advantages: it’s a very different culture, where respect for anybody older is far greater than here. In both Japan and Chicago, there was a great enthusiasm for our project. People were intensely interested in the work. I don’t go to many private views here, where people stand with their backs to the art while talking about their social lives; it’s just not something I’m very interested in. There, people go to the exhibition to talk about the work and to hear about it. That was what connected Nagoya and Chicago – the level of interest in the work and both were really joyful occasions, which is not something you are prepared for as a Scottish artist. “Not bad,” is as good as it gets in north-east Scotland.

JMcK: All things considered, has it been a very life-enhancing experience?

AW: Working with two artists, with whom we had very little contact in the course of preparing for the show, while making the work (there had been a small “Works in Progress” exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy). We worried to an extent about whether they would understand the things we were sending, or that perhaps it wasn’t quite going to happen, so that when we arrived in Japan and saw the work, it was amazing. All the works were mixed together (not in sequence for each artist). There might be three together; then in Chicago, it was done in sequences of, say, eight works, beside another of the four artists. But being able to take people to the back room to look at the books as a whole, page by page was also a very different experience.

JMcK: It is interesting to see how images appear in different sequences, depending on what there are viewed next to. It changes the impact considerably.

AW: There was a great sense of surprise, nerve-racking, too, but in a good way.

• Double Diablerie: Ian Howard, Arthur Watson, Sotaro Ide and Hisashi Kurachi is at the John David Mooney Foundation, Chicago, until 30 October 2016.

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