THE OTHER PLACE IS HERE TOO
By Michael Archer
The text is the same wherever we encounter it: ‘I love real life’. It has been made up as a number of neon signs in all of which, following what has become accepted, clichéd practice in the world of advertising, merchandising and general promotion, a heart shape has been substituted for the word 'love'. The rest of the lettering, though, is straightforward, so the overall effect is simply direct rather than cornily emotional. Part slogan, part exclamation, and part celebration, the words shine out invitingly while at the same time implicitly posing a number of questions: 'I love real life -' Don't you? What's that then? Where might we find such a thing? Placed on the walls of a hospital, a church, a police station and a fast food café, the signs shift aspect with chameleon-like ease. They accommodate themselves to their environments, drawing the features of each into the sense of the words. All these four locations into which Ross Sinclair introduced his neon signs in 1998 are dedicated to service of one kind or another. Those who work in them provide for the community's physical and spiritual well-being, for its protection and its sustenance. In every case, the stated desire for an engagement with authentic existence serves to highlight the distance that exists between what is wished for and the actual state of affairs: health, salvation, order and sensory fulfilment against fragility, fallibility, transgression and blandness. It is not that Sinclair is anxious to say something particular about law and order, for example, or to make pronouncements on the subject of religious belief. More significantly, these situations are specific contexts in which we can see the necessary entanglement of the ideal and the real. It is the tension that exists between the individual and the encompassing structures of society, the gap that separates the utopian model from lived experience that is of fundamental concern.
One thing that must be said is that there is no irony in Sinclair's work. At least, it would be wrong in approaching it to assume that he was proposing schemes, building structures, making installations, performing, or selling merchandise with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The primary aim is certainly not to have a laugh at his own, our, or the world's expense. It may be that 'I love real life' aspires to the status of a truism, but it remains true for all that. It operates, functions in the world, and has an effect. Likewise, standing on the street busking the same song over and over again for an hour is less an elaborate, cynical comment on a culture of sameness than it is an attempt to put a value on a cultural product through work. If you want to know what 'Anarchy in the UK' or a number of other protest songs are worth, then I Never Felt More Like Singin' the Blues will tell you exactly how much they can earn per hour. The interesting thing, of course, is that we end up no nearer being able to separate out use value and exchange value from aesthetic or emotional significance. Reality is not just that realm of existential activity to which the music - art - refers, it is that which arises out of the living out of individual desires in that realm of activity.
All those t-shirts in the early 1990s painted with slogans made a colourful display of tempting consumer goods when they were hung all over a gallery wall, but they were not, in fact, mass-produced items. Although there were lots of them, they were each an individual painting. The fact that we are not looking at nicely stretched canvases such as, for example, the ones Christopher Wool has made, should not blind us to this. Like the signs, in which the neon writing of a brief but dense mix of word and symbol serves to reveal the poetic aspect of the world, the arrangement of texts on the t-shirts - the juxtaposition of ideas, the breaking up of words across lines, and so on - worked as a form of concrete poetry. One of the best known of these t-shirts connected Kurt Cobain with Clement Greenberg. By coincidence they died a short time apart in 1994, and this proximity of their deaths was taken by Sinclair as an outward sign - if only an accidental one - of the conjunction of his own major concerns. For all that cultural life in recent decades has seen the devaluation of progress as an overarching idea, the concept of 'utopia' continues to occupy a central position in Sinclair's thinking and activity. It remains important because, rather than being an abstract 'end' towards which a thought process is directed, it is understood as a force within the day-to-day existence of each individual. Speaking of music, Sinclair enthusiastically insists upon its direct ability to infuse one with, if not the will to live rather than die, at least the desire to get up in the morning. This stimulus is unmediated. It travels straight to the core of one's sense of self, activating it. Although it acts directly in this way, it is not pure if being pure implies an unworldly detachment. It is true that the two phases of Sinclair's art school career were separated by a spell in which he played drums in a band, and that that period ended in the usual stagnant lack of collective creativity and squabbles with managers over contracts and money, but what persists beyond that professional moment is something raw, almost ingenuous. The video tape playing in the installation, We Don't Love You Anymore, shows Sinclair in his bedroom playing fragments of any song he can recall trying to learn as a teenager. One aspect of the excitement that such songs elicit in Sinclair is the fact of their accessibility. They are known to thousands, millions of other people. By their very existence they provide a focus for the coming together of a community of like-minded individuals, just as much as they constitute a means by which the aspirations of that community can be made public. It might sound banal, but Sinclair is not afraid to make something of the fact that pop music is popular, which is to say it is of, as much as it is for, the people: it speaks the people. The fragmentary way in which the music is played is testimony to that same demotic quality. Expression is not rounded, complete, coherent, but the opposite. It is partial, fractured and refractory. The bedroom in which we see the songs being played is a transitional space. Moving between adolescence and adulthood, between the stuttered fragment and mature speech, it also provides the uncertain ground upon which art might take place. As one of Sinclair's constant slogans has it, bedroom playing of this kind speaks to us not of things as they are, but 'as they could be.'
Here, then, is the kind of utopia that is of account: a direct and urgent want that finds its concrete realisation in the lives of people. In this light, it is not the newness of pop music that is most important so much as its wide appeal. Pop is contemporary folk music and as such sits at the end of a long tradition, the full sweep of which was made evident in Real Life Rocky Mountain. There, sitting on a patch of constructed, artificial mountainside, Sinclair sang a medley of Scottish folk songs from the past 300 years. What Sinclair's live presence accomplishes in a setting such as this is the breaking open of the ersatz, pretend world of stuffed animals and fake grass, to reveal the equally constructed worlds of the songs he sings to be necessary orientation points that allow us to function adequately in the real world. Insofar as this music exists as the popular voice, then, Sinclair cannot be seen as offering anything like a simple solution to our dissatisfactions with life. The yearnings he voices are the shared dreams of a society in which we, too, find ourselves having to exist. It is our utopia as well.
In Sinclair's early work he was seen in a conventional manner, facing his audience. This was true whether he was present as an image on video, or as a live performer within a constructed setting or tableau. The 'public' nature of our encounters with Sinclair in these works was always made ambiguous by the hybrid nature of the setting. Whether in For Those About to Rock - We Salute You, We Don't Love You Anymore, Real Life Moby Dick, or elsewhere, the installation appeared to hover between the expansive openness of the stage and the introvert privacy of the bedroom. From the mid-1990s onwards, following the tattooing of the words REAL LIFE from shoulder to shoulder, he has appeared naked from the waist up with his back turned to the viewer. This tattoo signifies in complex ways. Its scale and its stark clarity in contrast to the vast majority of indistinct, heart-and-dagger confections usually seen on arms and chests speaks of a major commitment on the artist's part. The decision to carry this message was, we understand on seeing it, not one that could have been taken lightly. In this sense, the marking of the flesh is evidence of an experience which must have given access to an awareness of the body, an awareness of the body's presence to itself, which was as real as one could hope to get. The effect of this on the way in which Sinclair has subsequently engaged with his audience, however, has been, paradoxically, to establish his body as an image of itself or, insofar as it is a banner carrying a text, as a messenger bearing news of some other, distant reality. Real life is an aspiration rather than a presently existing actuality. Because he has his back to us we share a point of view - he sees what we see - but for all that he may be singing a song for us to listen to, his position in relation to us makes the possibility of communication that much more remote. He does not speak 'to' us, he speaks with us.
Carrying the tattoo is unquestionably an aspect of Sinclair's everyday life, but it is equally a sign that we can choose to recognise in that life a representation of other possible existences. It is not life consumed by art, as we might see with Gilbert and George, but a dialogue between life and art as an essential part of the attempt to make sense of either. 'Real Life' was also, of course, the title of a magazine, one of whose editors was the Scottish artist Tom Lawson. These words, therefore, do something else besides testifying to Sinclair's commitment to his own expressive desires. They refer beyond his own person to the larger discourse of art, a discourse to which he is a contributor, and into which he is drawn through making this gesture of reference. The discourse is an international one. Sinclair has his own cultural place, for sure, but the particular features of this location are not in themselves important. Any play with something like ‘Scottishness’ serves in the main to stress that to be ‘situated’, and to struggle from within such a situation, is the usual set of circumstances for us all.
What does it mean to belong? Where does one belong, and how does one go about recognising such a place? In addition to the model 'land' of Real Life/Rocky Mountain, Sinclair has built several structures in recent years, each of which, in its simplicity of form and design, offers an image of one or other of the basic ordering principles of a society: Religion (Dead Church/Real Life), Money (International Bank of Real Life/Spiritual Gold), Law (Real Life Death/Red Gallows Sleep, Red Gallows Awaken), Politics (Real Life vs The World), Domesticity (Aggressive Utopian Crofting Model). In addressing these systems he has pitched their necessary, effective and useful characteristics against the inevitable way in which they act restrictively upon the individual who attempts to function within them. What we recognise as this tension plays itself out is that the real and the possible are both realms suffused with fiction and fantasy, dream and desire. Inside the red Dead church that lies on its side on the gallery floor is a video monitor on which we witness Sinclair, sitting naked on the floor, singing a sequence of hymns. He sings with verve and involvement, and yet in talking about the work he has been quick to point to his lack of religious conviction. Just as the model church suggests vernacular forms, those internalised common sense notions of functional building types - it is almost off the peg architecture with its stylised nave and steeple shapes - the music posits a social space that is populated. It is not, however, a closed space. Those who circulate within it are not strictly bounded by its particular set of conventions. That is, it is not necessary to adhere to the requirements of religious observation in order to feel oneself to be part of the social order that is informed and shaped by that doctrine. Nor is such observance necessary in order for others to accept one as part of that same order. In the same way as a member of this or that society. Real Life vs The World presents us with a ping pong table surrounded on three sides by simple banked seating. We might be in a stadium or sports hall, but equally, in view of the monochrome versions of flags of the world covering walls and floor, we could be in a parliamentary arena. Here, once more, the confrontational game of democratic politics pits the individual against the possibilities and restrictions of the world. Real Life is a task to be undertaken, not a given to be contemplated.
Sinclair has never been content to make art to be viewed in an uncontentious space. Moving between the gallery and the world outside the white cube - the contrast between non-site and site articulated by Robert Smithson - what occurs more often is that space is itself rendered contentious. Sometimes the content seems to make this clear, as with the early poster works referring to the Brazilian activist Chico Mendes and to the Baader-Meinhof group. At other times it is accomplished through the adoption of mass-marketing techniques within the territory of fine art. This has persisted through ventures such as the Museum of Despair in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, in which work was offered for sale at affordable prices, into the present with market stalls offering ‘I Love Real Life’ t-shirts, pens, mugs and key rings. Sinclair’s work has a polemical edge. It is always agitating for something better, even while it acknowledges in its heart that such yearning is almost certainly doomed to remain unrequited. The gambits it uses are often drawn from those instances in the recent past where the two realms of life and art have seemed to move close together. There are instances in which everyday reality, for which read politics, has entered art - Situationism, Fluxus, the adoption of 'public art' tactics such as the use of neon signs, billboards and fly posting - and there are reverse situations in which political activity has been shaped by the operation of a powerful collective fantasy - 60s student protest, or the urban terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof group. What unsettles us is that Sinclair never allows the faded romanticism and dissipated excitement of these movements and tendencies to be used as an excuse to cordon them off and render them anodyne. Part of the installation Hamnavoe Free State a headquarters and training centre for a putative guerrilla movement, is a library. It contains a jumble of books on most of the above-mentioned artistic and political phenomena, and the suggestion is that one could quite easily become inducted into the idea of guerrilla activity. What, though, would such commitment serve? The name ‘Hamnavoe’ is taken from the poet George Mackay Brown’s version and vision of his native Orkneys. It is not, therefore, this or that place that matters so much as the recognition that the reality of any place is as much idea and myth as it is brute physical presence. Along with the library there is a well-equipped 'camp site' covered in camouflage netting. Perhaps the netting makes a hide rather than a command post; perhaps the occupants are there to observe and preserve the wildlife, or life itself, rather than to endanger and threaten other members of their own species. In addition, anyway, there are other modes of dreaming and hoping evident in the work. We are still, to some extent, in the bedroom, and then there is also the huge ramp, named after Sinclair’s young daughter, that leads the eye off towards the heavens. One might be tempted to view the ambitions of the Hamnavoe Free State activists as nothing more than idle daydreaming, were it not for the way in which Sinclair uncovers similar sentiment at the heart of all modern states. The ‘black flag’ installations in which, variously, the flags of US states, Swiss cantons, European countries, and UK territories were painted as monochrome images, reveal just this practical utopianism at work within the move to constitute a viable community.
And now there is St Kilda, an island west of the Outer Hebrides whose inhabitants once conducted daily meetings of their community’s parliament. Formerly the most remote outpost of the United Kingdom, the island was completely evacuated seventy years ago when it became impossible for the population there to sustain itself independently. In putting forward the possibility of a New Republic of St Kilda, Sinclair is drawing together many of the individual strands that have been pursued in his work of the last several years. There are, of course, utterly fantastic elements to the plan in its full version - the island resited in the middle of what is now London, for example - but the scale of ambition is in tune with Sinclair’s overall aim of revaluing all values, of challenging the givens of the everyday with the potential offered by alternative approaches, of confronting those things that are assumed to be central with everything that is thereby rendered peripheral or marginal, and of engaging, in that idealistic way we tend to, with real life. The fantasy is crucial because it is both closest to us, insofar as we are passionate about ideas, and it is furthest from us in its unattainability. 'The important thing’, as Sinclair says, ‘is the distance between the individual viewer and this strange 'other place'. The other place is here, too.