Published  16/03/2013

Arthur Watson: poetic conceptualist

Arthur Watson: poetic conceptualist

The work of Arthur Watson plays an important role in contemporary Scottish art. Characterised by a 'poetic conceptualism', Watson draws from a range of idiosyncratic experiences and predilections, all of which seem to be linked to his intimate knowledge of Scottish literature, music and the land

Arthur Watson. Northing and Easting. Installing the exhibition ‘The Sea’. Left to right: Michael Spens (Studio International), Colin Greenslade (RSA Programme Director), Janet McKenzie (Studio International), with David Maclean and Arthur Watson.

by Dr Janet McKenzie

While he shares numerous interests and aims with his friend and collaborator on certain projects Will Maclean, Watson's personal iconography is drawn from the indigenous culture of the north-east of Scotland. Watson is particularly interested in the oral traditions of the fisher and traveller communities, 'cultures that seem on the periphery of conventional modern society yet whose traditions, rituals, beliefs resonate with aspects of contemporary art practice'.1 He has engaged with aspects of Scottish culture 'which are neither visible nor permanent; changing information orally transmitted - a creative continuum that is hard to pin down. Redundant processes that are described but not seen, meanings that are almost lost and resonances that are stranded within contemporary life provide material for tangible visual investigations'.2

Will Maclean and Arthur Watson. A Northern Viewpoint (work in progress). Part of the series Cairn Gorm: Reading a Landscape on Cairn Gorm Mountain, Speyside, 2004-2008

Watson was born and raised in Aberdeen. His work comes into being through emphasis on traditional processes such as those employed by Scotland's artisans: shipwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, engineers, toolmakers, printers and builders. The finished works have a dialogue not only with the history of art but with a social history and history of ideas. He gathers information from oral and textual sources, and then categorises and stores it in extensive card indexes. Journals are then created from this resource, 'part log, part laboratory - the platform on which seemingly endless rehearsals take place for the relatively few artworks that are eventually realised'.3 Watson finds inspiration from his local community and others like it, where communication is full of fabulous and erudite cross-references. He combines an innate joy of traditional language in Scotland with witty, private referencing, and combines sophisticated with superstitious belief. It represents a way of life that no longer exists, cultures that are becoming marginalised.

Collaboration is central to Watson works - he finds it a natural way to work and has always done so. This has its roots in village life, fishing communities and traveller communities - individual achievement is dependent upon other people's skills and contribution - just as much as the talent of one. Particular superstitions and traditions relate an individual's action to the existence of the whole. Watson points out that although traditional notions of hierarchy in the arts place the individual genius at the top, traditional artists' studios were in fact full of assistants. Printmaking studios and foundries are examples in contemporary art practice of a collaborative spirit, born of necessity, and dictated by traditional methods. Commenting on Watson's unique art, Richard Demarco has observed, '[It] derive[s] inspiration from the very stuff and substance of Scotland's landscape in relation to the unique characteristics of climate and the way in which the elemental forces of fire, earth, and water have conjoined'.4 When Watson's work was shown in Chicago (his American debut) the organiser, John David Mooney, made the observation that he was rather like the artist-monks who worked in Scotland from the fourth to the eighth centuries, but whose work reached a very wide audience. He cites the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels as two examples of such important works historically.5 Trained as a printmaker, and playing a pivotal role as the Director of the Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen, Watson's skill and productivity have involved him at the forefront of a number of important collaborative projects in Scotland in the past 25 years. He has served on numerous boards and panels, and has been involved in artist-run initiatives and organisations, which have themselves been a major force in art in Scotland since the early 1970s.

Arthur Watson. Northings and Eastings. Earlier version at the Pittenweem Festival, 2004, including the print A Selchie Swims beneath the Great Whirlpool from the series Verse and Verisimilitude

The art of printmaking - of multiple images distributed into the collections of many - has a parallel in the cultural diaspora of the late nineteenth century in Scotland, which saw the Highland clearances and economic failure lead to hundreds of thousands of Scots migrate to America, Canada and Australia. To those new and often inhospitable lands, the Scots took with them place names and traditions; whole communities often moved as one entity. One only has to travel around Scotland now to see the names of tiny hamlets, estates, villages and towns and recognise them as places in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, settled in the 1860s through to the end of the nineteenth century. The same can be said of other countries where significant Scottish migration took place. House plans were even replicated there, paced out by those leaving and rebuilt in the new world.6 The determination to keep their own culture alive was a vital part of the preservation of identity; even four generations later rituals are maintained. The making of art and artefacts is a natural extension of the need to understand one's heritage, especially where a global culture overpowers and destroys indigenous ways. Arthur Watson addresses the issues that relate to cultural identity and survival in a personal and unique manner, through collaborative methods and organisational means that capture the very spirit of a peripheral culture in the twenty-first century. Scottish culture per se does not face extinction; Watson is concerned with the aspects of culture that are by their very nature are ephemeral, particularly the oral traditions of music and storytelling. Far from limiting his communication to a British audience, he has shown in other parts of Europe: Venice, Sarajevo, Tidaholm, Leiden and Dubrovnik. Last year he showed in Sibiu, Romania, the European capital of culture. He is currently working towards a major exhibition for Bucharest with Demarco, which will re-emphasise the links formed between Scotland and Romania 40 years ago.

Arthur Watson. By-name Register (boxed and cased), at the DeMarco European Art Foundation, East Lothian

As a student, Watson came into contact in Europe with the Romanian avant-garde through the exhibitions organised by Richard Demarco in the late 1960s. His lecturer at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, Fred Stiven (who was also an important influence on Will Maclean), was particularly enthusiastic about the work of the late Paul Neagu (1938-2004), who in fact relocated to London where he lived for some 20 years, only returning to Romania after the fall of the Communist regime in December 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu was executed. Stiven and Neagu exhibited together. Boxed constructions by Stiven were of particular importance to Watson and Maclean in their development as two of Scotland's most important conceptual and performance artists. Watson's subsequent 'theatres of memory' owe some of their inspiration to the Romanian work. Watson exhibited with Paul Neagu in Sarajevo in 1986, where both created works in situ. Watson later showed Neagu's work at the Peacock Printmakers.

Arthur Watson. Singing for Dead Singers. Aberdeen Art Gallery, 2000

Watson has a unique range of talent: he is an artist with exceptional skills in printmaking and sculpture, and he is also an accomplished singer. His family background is in the crafts. His 1997/2000 work, 'Six Skies, some Family Stereotypes', at Scottish Sculpture Open 9, installed at Kildrummy Castle, is a tribute to them. The work is a workbench in oak, pine, mahogany, leather and steel, cast type-metal blocks and cast paper pulp:

Several generations back, both sides of my family came from Upper Donside, some west and some east of Kildrummy Castle: from Glenbuchat and Honeybarrel and more recently Tillyduke and Kemnay. On my mother's side were engineers and blacksmiths; while her father was a stained glass artist. Among my earliest memories were regular visits to Nicol's Vulcan Works to watch my uncle welding and forging metal.

This workbench for an imaginary artisan was conceived to carry out the manufacture of cast printing blocks - stereotypes - in the Upper Donside landscape. The blocks then cast in typemetal showed formalised skies with mirror-image place names. These blocks were then themselves cast in paper pulp.7

Watson grew up in a street in Aberdeen where a number of settled travellers lived. He absorbed many aspects of their language and ways, as well as an intimate knowledge of east coast fishing communities, the poetry and literature of which he shares with John Bellany.8 His life is informed by the powerful mix of religion, and folklore that has inspired authors such as, George Mackay Brown and Christopher Rush. He has an inventive and original ability to link different aspects of the arts. As a singer, he imbues his work with the candour and beauty of much folk art that is at risk of being lost. No physical score exists: these pieces are handed down from one generation to the next. Like the making of prints even in an edition, no rendition of the same song, can ever emerge identically. And so with experience and the passing of emotions and insights there is a rare beauty of the fleeting moment brought to performance art. In 'A History of Scottish Performance Art' (2000) Watson reveals his inveterate searching for order - to collect, curate, rehearse and perform. No aspect is left to chance and yet the emotion of the moment, the reinterpretation of the inherited wisdom, is constantly reinvented. The physical manifestation of the work, created with computer printed text with screen print, clipboards, found objects and multiples on plywood shelves, is described by the artist as, 'An initial attempt to organise research material relating to fishers' customs and superstitions as an artwork while also drawing parallels with contemporary performance art, its documentation and residual evidence'.9

Emphasising the ephemeral nature of the culture of traditional communities, the work, 'Singing for Dead Singers' (2000) addresses the necessity of preserving the oral tradition of folk music. 'Singers Working' (2000) is a songscape with Aberdeen storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson. It is the antithesis of the conventional staged performance. The product of a 30-year friendship, Watson recognises Robertson as, 'a singer, story-teller and piper and an acknowledged source of information on the culture and customs of lowland Scots travellers'.10 Watson, describing 'Singing for Dead Singers', says:

Oral transmission is the essence of traditional song. A creative continuum with each singer adding part of themselves, to the accumulation of all the earlier generations of singers through whose lips the song has passed. Here each recording is made of a current singer, singing unaccompanied, a song learned from someone now dead. The steel wooden sculpture has its roots in early anatomical lecture theatres. Here is part-stage, part-auditorium where singer and listener can share a platform.11

During his childhood, Watson stayed in the summer months with family friends in the Highlands who farmed in the upper Donside hill country. Walking in those areas he acquired an intimate knowledge of the land to which his current site-specific work in the Cairngorms relates. Arthur Watson's installations 'require the evocation of both words and sounds'. They connect the audience to the spirit of place, through rituals performed and executed centuries ago. In this regard the work is a spiritual bridge to mystery and meaning, which seeks by implication to shed light on contemporary dilemmas.

The story of Arthur's art must be approached like Joyce's Ulysses. Scottish folk music relies on idioms of the ancient work ethic, and Arthur's tales are translated into visual form with multiple layers of meaning, as well as many layered acts of creation. A fisherman's oar is not a manufactured item, but an oar that the artist whittles and carves out of a plank of wood using the same tools that were used by fishermen hundreds of years ago and in the same location.12

Arthur Watson. An Cranghal, 2006. Isle of Skye.

'An Crannghal', a sculpture by Watson and fellow artist Will Maclean was unveiled in November 2006 on the Isle of Skye. It reveals Watson's affinity with place and time in the Scottish landscape. Like Watson, Maclean draws exclusively on aspects of Scottish sculpture - they worked together on 'The Great Book of Gaelic' (2002). The 4.5 metre sculpture is a bronze cast of a willow frame in the form of a seagoing currach such as those used by the seventh-century sailor priests who brought the teachings of the early Celtic church to the Western Isles. The work stands on a granite base overlooking the Sound of Sleat. It was cast with Eden Jolly, at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at Lumsden in Aberdeenshire, and commissioned for the site of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the national centre for Gaelic at the University of the Highlands and Islands on the Isle of Skye. It was opened by theologian and former episcopalian Bishop Richard Holloway, also Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council. The artists took the early written descriptions of the boats that that travelled from Ireland to Iona; the sculpture reflects the framework of one of these early vessels under construction or reconstruction. The bronze reflects the changing light effects. The tools used in the making of the major work were also cast - they lie on the granite base as if they have just been put down - giving the impression of a work in progress, a metaphor for the ongoing resurgence in gaelic culture epitomised by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The process here is emphasised, just as process and technique are an integral part of printmaking. Hand tools and simple materials were used to emphasis the nature of making. In his address, Richard Holloway gave a spiritual interpretation of the work:

Will Maclean and Arthur Watson have captured both the daring and the fragility of the Columban adventure, what St Paul would have described as a strength that was made perfect through weakness. Those ribs and struts speak of the determination and defiance of the men who pitted themselves against the huge sea. Finally, it calls us all to the building of bridges: what are boats if not bridges that float, objects that bring together what is separated either by sea or by prejudice. Each us of will see different things in this work. For me, supremely, it speaks of the indomitable fragility of human hope.13

Sabhal Mòr Director of Development Donnie Munro, himself a visual arts graduate of Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen, observed:

This work is an important symbol on the journey towards recognising the place of the visual within the culture of the Gael. In the past, it has tended to have been left outside the equation, despite our visual culture having a powerful place in our history, finding expression through the work of contemporary artists like Will MacLean, Arthur Watson, Francis Walker, Helen MacAllister, Calum Colvin, Donald Urquhart and many others, down a line through Cadell and the Colourists, the Gaelic speaking MacTaggart, Horatio MacCulloch, Turner, the West Highland School of Sculpture, the Book of Kells and beyond to the monolithic interventions of our early ancestors.14

Arthur Watson continues to work on the major project in the Highlands, 'Cairngorm: Reading a Landscape', with Will Maclean, Lei Cox, Andy Rice, architect Fergus Purdie, Norman Shaw and Stanley Robertson. A centre for visitors to the area, the project includes the architecture of the visitor's centre in which works have been made. In the landscape itself there are installations, sculptures and a landscapes environment. The structure of the path created there, ties the external works together.

This structure will link the key elements allowing the visitor to progress from one end of the linear site to the other. It will give an opportunity to shelter from the wind, read short texts, listen to soundtracks, and engage with a video work. Each piece is conceived as adding a further layer of meaning to the landscape while not being unnecessarily intrusive. These structures will utilize traditional processes of masonry, drystone walling, lettercutting and metalcasting bringing these cultural resonances to the site. A series of artistic inputs will be enhanced through the equivalent parcel of artisanal skills.15

Professor Gavin Renwick, a colleague of Watson's at Dundee, describes the democratising nature of Watson's work in the landscape, set against the new legislation in Scotland that overturns centuries of feudalism:

This provides a convenient metaphor for Watson's practice, placing it in a post-colonial context through its parallel redefinition of an appropriated and romanticized countryside. This aspect of his practice challenges the nature of modernity and its polarization of centre and periphery … Watson's ecumenical language challenges dichotomies like agrarian and industrial, rural and urban. Watson shows us that legitimate cultural continuity is possible: the provision of a hearth in a cosmos of metropolitan ambiguity.16

Underpinning all of Watson's work is the collaborative nature of his working methods. He was the leading figure in the establishment of the Peacock Print Studios in Aberdeen in 1974; he was Director there for 20 years. There he had massive etching presses made using local tradesmen and 'found' recycled parts. He pushed the boundaries and scale of conventional printmaking with techniques such as making woodcuts with a chainsaw, in the manner of Georg Baselitz. In his large woodcuts, often made and printed in a day, he also strove to de-skill methods, in contrast to the silk-screen printing for other artists that involved a wide technical repertoire. Watson's work is an ongoing, organic process in which he moves quite seamlessly from one series of work to another. Content challenges style, and the manner in which culture is created within communities, resonates with what Joseph Beuys liked to call, 'a social organism as a work of art'. Watson is a highly skilled printmaker and woodworker whose work is informed by a reference to indigenous culture and the history of art. From a profuse and varied working practice he produces volumes of work, in the landscape, in performance, in exquisitely produced handmade books, prints, sculptures and installations. In all his media he produces ideas of great originality and finesse, open-ended in their dialogue questioning cultural structures and individual memory. His recent appointment in December 2007 to Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy, where he has been actively involved in their exhibition programme is due recognition of his increasing contribution.

1. Arthur Watson. 'Introduction'. In: Singing for Dead Singers. Aberdeen: Aberdeen Gallery and Museum, 2002: 5.
2. Arthur Watson. 'Artist's Statement'. School of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, University of Dundee.
3. Arthur Watson. Singing for Dead Singers: 5.
4. Richard Demarco. 'Foreword'. In: Leaving Jericho. Chicago: John David Mooney Foundation, 2003: 5.
5. JD Mooney. Ibid.: 7.
6. The case of Elizabeth Campbell of Airds (1778-1835), wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie is a case in point - she took the measurements of her 18th century family house in Argyll to Australia, where the architect Francis Greenway had it built in duplicate in Parramatta, west of Sydney.
7. Arthur Watson. 'Six Skies, Some Family Stereotypes'. In: Dead Singers: 24.
8. Bellany and Watson worked together on The Scottish Bestiary, at Peacock. Poetry and prose were by George Mackay Brown, with images by seven artists: John Bellany, Steven Campbell, Peter Howson, Jack Knox, Bruce McLean, June Redfern and Adrian Wiszniewski, 1986.
9. Arthur Watson. Dead Singers: 32.
10. Ibid.: 47.
11. Ibid.: 54.
12. JD Mooney. Op. cit.: 7.
13. Dr Richard Holloway. Address at the unveiling at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, 2006.
14. Ibid.
15. Arthur Watson. Cairngorm: Reading a Landscape. Artist's Book Proposal, 2007.
16. Gavin Renwick. In: Leaving Jericho: 74.


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