Alan Grieve: ‘Cemetery’ (2015)

Workspace, Dunfermline, 5 December 2015

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

The public art rolls past the bus on the way from Glasgow to Dunfermline. Yellow metal gills appear on each side of the embankment along the gateway to Cumbernauld, mirrored in mint green on departure. Roundabouts, the 1980s’ plinths for stainless steel aberrations, proliferate like daisies.

One of the passengers is deep in monologue. “She shut the door of the kitchen down and knocked that wall down. See the stairs? Take that bit of the wall down – get me, right? …Naw, naw, Sandra has got a false wall back to the stairs, so then, get what I mean? Sandra’s doors at an angle and that’s right back and she’s got her kitchen door there – and then they’ve half shut the wall – do you understand where I’m coming from…. Yer still coming up the stair. The wall’s there and she’s got her door put back at an angle.”  

The woman is beginning to get exasperated. Her friend who is sitting next to her is not following the intricacies of Sandra’s door alterations that gained her extra inches in the house layout. “Oh we’re at the seaside, girls”, she says sarcastically as the bus goes over the Kincardine bridge, with Longannet Generating Station in the foreground and the chimneys of Grangemouth Refinery on the far shore. “It would look much nicer with the sunshine out. Oh there it is! Glittering on the water!” A pause and a mindful moment for all on the bus.

The woman begins again. “I mean I cannae do it any more, I ‘m tired of it! I’ve had my ceilings all lowered and it’s plastered now. I can’t take them out like Sandra has. I’m getting older, I cannae just…” We pass a bearded man in a red top standing in a lay-by. He is videoing a field with his camera arm aloft. The field doesn’t look too extraordinary. He is in his own mindful moment.

~

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

I am on a trip to see Alan Grieve and find out more about his own approach to mindfulness linked with his new work about a cemetery in Dunfermline. If mindfulness is focusing on the breath in the body, there is nothing like a graveyard to help someone keep breathing and present. Alan passes through the cemetery every day when walking his dogs or on his way to work. Like the nuanced altering of angles of Sandra’s doors, much of Alan’s work is about making small yet satisfying shifts in language, drawing and object making. The subject of the graveyard is proving to be highly conducive for moving meaning from one realm into the next. He shows me his sketchbook. A page is emblazoned in felt tip with the phrase “Who put the fun in funeral?” He explains that he has been considering this as the title for the book he is working on, but other people he had tested it out on thought it too much.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan is an adult man who has been thinking about colouring-in of late. He is not alone, as companies have re-spun kids’ colouring-in books for ‘grown-ups’, providing nostalgia to those who grew up in the sixties and seventies’ and are now stressed in the noughties. Mindfulness, a concept not readily known to most Scottish households before the Millennium is on the increase. Using his boys’ felt tip pens, Alan has been making drawings for the last two months, in the quiet time every morning before his kids and wife gets up.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

The drawings are multiplying- creating their own universe- and are a tour de force. A core of the work is dedicated to the graveyard operatives Raymond and Garry, with whom Alan speaks in passing every day. Bringing the two men centre stage is a key component, as this is a role which otherwise would normally fade into the background. In one drawing, Alan shows gravedigger as gladiator, riding the trailer around the huge graveyard as if it were a chariot. He also captures the more mundane moments such as the younger gravedigger nursing a Monday hangover. The veil between this life and the next is shown as the spirits stream behind the older grave digger who pushes a wheelbarrow in his council hi-vis vest.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015) million

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

The trees, the play of light on the leaves, the animals, the stonemasonry, the unusual names and stories. It can be quite easy for the brain to slide away from the real purpose of the cemetery. Mindfulness here is mortality, so Alan ensures fresh death is never too far away in the drawings. Some feathers litter the foreground of a pastoral scene with weeping willow and gravestones. A candle is lit for all the unborn babies. Alan’s drawing skills are a joy to behold, ranging from the juvenile with an adult’s knowing (like those drawn by bad boys on the back of girls’ school jotters), to technically excellent renditions of stained glass windows in three thicknesses of pen.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

There are some I wish I could un-see such as the skeleton locked in a carnal embrace with a human. The macabre is ever-present. A council skip overflows with dead bodies under the Pac Man motif ‘GAME OVER’. Other drawings are delightfully observational; a dignitary with a bad back uses the memorial headstone to bend down and place something on the ground. A beautiful old oak tree is captured in its glory, but look down to the right of its trunk and a Labrador is defecating. The scourge of pavements and graveyards it seems, is not picking up.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Even the animals of the graveyard are not always nice. Whilst some are sage, offering words of wisdom to the humans, others are plain ‘raj’. ’Fuckin’ mon then!’: a bat screams as it gives a full frontal to the viewer. Epitaphs are freed from celebrity gravestones. A hawk appears next to Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. There is a heightened sense of awareness in some of the drawings. Caught in an awkward cycle, a naked young man kneels amongst the toadstools, reaching out with an urn in his hand to catch the shite from a bird sitting above him on a branch, whilst a rabbit looks on. In another, the moon and sun explore their senses together, nestling in to kiss with no tongues. These are hallucinogenic scenes but contain their own sense of order.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Whilst order can also be found within the graveyard- the lines of graves and neat grass edges- there is no getting away from the disorder of death even down to the detail of who turns up at your funeral or how you get there. In one drawing, a man uses a Vauxhall Chevette estate to bring his wife’s coffin in to the cemetery. This was a story Alan heard from the gravedigger. In another, the Provost, Minister, and representatives of various community groups stand dignified at a Remembrance Day service. Alan has helpfully detailed each group with their nomenclature. In the back of the crowd one man is labelled with the title ‘random cunt’. There is definitely a contemporary gallows’ humour lurking within the work.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

In a second strand of work, scenes of old Dunfermline depicted on old black and white postcards are helped into a trance with Alan’s bold colouring in. Frater’s Hall window panes are treated to the full range of post-it note colours of orange, green, yellow and pink. This stained glass rendering for the modern day church enthusiast is emblazoned with the colloquial epitaph of ‘windaylicker’. In another postcard, Dunfermline Abbey is cast as a version of the Emerald City with rave neon headstones.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan gives mindfulness a reality check. The phrase, ‘I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me’, would perhaps be expected as an insight from the pages of Psychologies magazine, illustrated by a pensive blonde haired Nordic woman with her eyes on Nirvana. In Alan’s drawing however, it is accompanied by a cheerful man with a heightened fringe aided by hair product. He is denoted as a worker as he wears a high-vis jacket. I like this, for whilst being gently subversive it shifts the kind of person such a declaration could be associated with. It also firmly places philosophy in the domain of everyone, not just those that have the luxury of time. Death, as the old adage goes, is the greatest leveller.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan’s stream of drawings are like the thoughts and feelings that occur from one moment to the next. Given the sheer exuberance and cacophony of voices that inhabit Alan’s cosmos, this mayhem could defy the calmness of mindfulness. However, to look at the drawings such as ‘Man with head in his hands’ (2015) or ‘Life Drawing’ (2015) where the pen does not come off the paper, there is the same kind of perfection of focus and concentration on the line rather than the breath. Some may quake at the foul language or perceive that some of the imagery is disrespectful in its mash-up of beliefs, but this loss of control or undermining of order cannot be ignored. It is fully present in the lives that we lead and the manner of that which awaits us. Simon Critchley’s excellent ‘The Book of Dead Philosophers’ (2008, Granta Books) details what the great philosophers wrote about death next to how they actually died. For example, Roland Barthes got run over by a laundry truck.

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

The exhibition ‘Cemetery’ and a mindful evening event were held at Workspace, a hairdressers and gallery that Alan set up with fellow hairdresser Emma McGarry in 2011, the same year as Hurricane Bawbag hit Scotland. Indeed, ‘Bawbag Memorial’ (2014-15) forms the centrepiece. It is a monument crafted from all the plastic flowers unmoored and blown amok in the Dunfermline cemetery during the winter hurricane that became an internet sensation due to its irreverent name. The plastic flowers will never die. This outsize floral tribute, reaches to the ceiling from its specially built platform. It is surrounded at its base by tea tree lights; that fragile marker of a departed soul, ubiquitous with church alters, make-shift street shrines and massage parlours. This is all set off by the saffron robe orange of the specially painted back wall and a single monochromatic collage called Deity, of Alan’s own young colleague James, who is angelic in his page boy haircut, nose ring and flesh tunnels. On the wall to the right, there is a huge mandala-like drawing completed in chunky black pen. It combines many of the images from the smaller drawings and is thoughtfully pinned up for the gallery goers to colour-in on the mindful night. Music by Dunfermline musician Dan Lyth permeates and amplifies the strange spiritual air in Workspace, encouraging the visitor to spiral into its repetitive groove.

'Cemetery', installation shot, Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

‘Cemetery’, installation shot, Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

The full range of doctored Dunfermline postcards hang within a grid network. Many stand out as an alternative reading of some of the town’s better known architecture. In a futile act of resistance to modernity and consumerism a Gothic turret from the city centre shouts ‘Fuck Primark!’ En masse, Dunfermline is definitely at the centre of the universe. Alan has also worked with recent curatorial graduate Kari Adams to make a wall hanging comprising of six of the postcards. With an all seeing eye at its apex, the borders of this piece have been edged with sequins and beads, and tasselled at the bottom. Fetishizing the postcards in this way as a worshipful artefact, works in this atmosphere of the retreat. Workspace is by no means the first retreat in Dunfermline. The glen that lies at the centre of town boasts Malcolm Canmore’s tower and his wife Margaret’s cave, where she took to for prayer.

'Cemetery', installation shot, Alan Grieve (2015), Workspace, Dunfermline

‘Cemetery’, installation shot, Alan Grieve (2015), Workspace, Dunfermline

'Cemetery', installation shot, Alan Grieve (with Kari Adams), Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

‘Cemetery’, installation shot, Alan Grieve (with Kari Adams), Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

Detail, 'Cemetery', Alan Grieve (with Kari Adams), Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

Detail, ‘Cemetery’, Alan Grieve (with Kari Adams), Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

Installation Shot, 'Cemetery', Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

Installation Shot, ‘Cemetery’, Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

 The most unavoidable piece in this exhibition, ‘Wee Willy  Windchimes’ (2015) is satisfyingly hung bang in front of a sewn patchwork of drawings which are enticingly detailed, thus making the viewer strain forward to view them. The obstructive positioning of these phallic windchimes makes them nigh on impossible to ignore. Their adult nature has freed them from the original reference. The historic and sad gravestone of Willie Dick lies in the cemetery and tells of a child who was killed by a shotgun mistakenly going off. These windchimes have been fashioned from a felled cherry tree from the cemetery and have been turned at a local workshop. If they had been painted pink they would have been too cartoonlike but in their unadorned state the viewer cannot but help admire the craftsmanship of the polished wood. As a piece of work it symbolizes Alan’s ability to mix both the poetic and prosaic with the profane.

'Cemetery', installation shot, Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

‘Cemetery’, installation shot, Alan Grieve, Workspace, Dunfermline (2015)

~

I’m back on the bus on this wintery day to return to Glasgow. It is pitch black outside and rush hour. The bus crawls its way back in a slow moving queue up to the Kincardine Bridge. Reflections from the car headlights from the other unclogged lane skite across the bus interior. The pristine bobbed woman in the seat front is talking at her mother down the phone, about whether a metal or plastic carrier would be better for her cat in the event of a crash (answer is metal). I require a mindful moment as this feels like it will be a long haul. As the cars in the other lane zip past they begin to sound like waves on a shore, regular and relaxing, with the trucks as the big breakers. The lights of the power station twinkle like tea tree lights through the petrified trunks of the forest.

Jenny Brownrigg, Dec 2015

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

Alan Grieve (2015)

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Research Note 3: M.E.M. Donaldson – Inverness research visit, November 2015

Into the landscape, M.E.M. Donaldson

M.E.M. Donaldson Collection, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

M.E.M. Donaldson Collection, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Over one thousand photographs by author and photographer Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson [1876-1958] are held by Inverness Museum and Art Gallery as part of the Highland Photographic Archive . The collection was gifted by the widow of Donaldson’s biographer and custodian John Telfer Dunbar.  Inverness Museum and Art Gallery holds Donaldson’s landscape photography, whilst National Museums Scotland has the original negatives and prints of the portraits she took of the people she encountered over the Scottish Highlands and islands.[2]

For the purposes of this post, I would like to concentrate on the Inverness part of the collection. Out of the three women I am researching- M.E.M. Donaldson, Margaret Fay Shaw and Jenny Gilbertson – Donaldson covered the widest range of Scottish landscapes and locations. Donaldson wrote guides, for which her photographs often illustrated, including ‘Wandering in the Western Highlands and Islands‘ (1921) and ‘Further Wanderings-Mainly in Argyll’ (1926).  In the Inverness collection, island locations include Eigg, Skye, Oransay, Colonsay, Islay, Jura and Iona. From the Highlands there are photographs of Kintyre, Kintail, Wester Ross, Appin, Arisaig, Glen Affric, Lochaline, Loch Linnhe, Ballachuilish, Kingussie, Glen Affric, Roy Bridge, Knapdale, Morvern, down into the Trossachs. The collection also has a focus on Ardnamurchan, in particular at Sanna, where Donaldson built her house in 1927, complete with photography studio, and lived there until 1947. [3]

Whilst looking through the Inverness Collection, at landscape after landscape, I began to think of Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] who wrote about the experience of the landscape being a physical and psychological journey ‘into’ (in Shepherd’s case, the Cairngorms) rather than merely a simple passage over on the way to an endpoint. Using this reading, Donaldson’s landscapes are not composed as passive views to be looked at; they are to be journeyed into. The photographs circle lochans, dip into glens and cross plateaus. In particular ‘In Glen Carrich’ has a sequence of photographs that show the terrain unfolding. The eye traces the route in front of the camera, spotting the gap in the stones in the foreground, cutting round the corner of a rocky mound, tracking left around the hill with the three trees to the hidden landscape beyond. In others, a device such as a meandering burn, an intermittent path or rough track takes you further into the photograph. Donaldson wrote:

‘Certainly to a lover of the wild, the monotony a level stretch of high road, with its dull, even surface, doubles the distance, while the interest of a constantly varied and often ill-defined track, full of surprises and with a  marked individuality, seems actually to halve the distance.’[P.142]

The sharpness of Donaldson’s photographs also encourages this level of active looking. From her photographs in the Cuillins, the lines of the ravines on the flanks of the mountains in the background are as precise as the sheen of the wet stones of the plateau that gently coruscate in the foreground. Shepherd describes a changing the focus of the eye, and the ego, to see the landscape anew: ‘As I watch, it arches its back and each layer of landscape bristles… Details are no longer part of a grouping of a picture around which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere… This is how the earth must see itself.’[5]

Shepherd talks in ‘The Living Mountain’ [6] of the mountains having an ‘inside’. Throughout the Inverness collection of Donaldson’s photographs there is a series of studies of cave mouths including Cathedral Cave and St Francis’ Cave on Eigg, Fingal’s Cave in Staffa and Prince Charlie’s Cave , at Ceannacroc, Glenmoriston. Whilst Donaldson undoubtedly visited the caves for their history and associated stories for her books, the photographs themselves, freed of titles and any references again suggest the desire to go ‘into’ the landscape. Indeed, one portrait of MEM Donaldson, shows her with just head and shoulders remaining above ground. The other people who are in these photographs really inhabit the landscape too. Caught in the middle distance or far distance, any figure that appears in the Inverness collection is part of the landscape that surrounds them. A tall, thin man stands in the empty ‘o’ created by a rock formation. Two people are mysteriously held in the deep channel created by two massive boulders.

How does Donaldson’s photographic treatment of the highlander or islander differ in the Inverness part of the collection from the portraits in Edinburgh? In one Edinburgh example, there is a close up in profile view of a seaweed gatherer, bent with the weight of the load he carries in a basket on his back. In another photograph from the Inverness collection, Donaldson has zoomed out, placing this figure in the landscape. His figure can been made out on the beach, framed by rocks in the foreground, and showing the contours of the island of Rum beyond. By reducing the scale of the figure and placing him within the landscape, as the viewer we see how far he must walk, and therefore the physicality and difficulty of his labour.

Shepherd writes of an embodied knowledge, where touch, taste and experience are the agents of her understanding the environment. Donaldson also placed an emphasis on a physical sense of her body, and often mind, in the landscape. Her books ‘Wanderings of the Western Isles’ and ‘‘Further Wanderings-Mainly in Argyll’ are full of descriptions of how she traverses different terrain.  In her fictional book ‘Islesmen of Bride’ (1922, Alexander Gardner, Paisley), the unnamed narrator who is the main protagonist could be read as intriguingly genderless, with other characters never refer to the narrator as a man or woman. The narrator takes on the rowing of the boat to the island ferry for a summer, is involved in heavy labour and crosses great stretches of the islands on foot.  Donaldson’s own desire to walk and be active can be directly aligned with her own sense of freedom, which was thwarted in her childhood as she was a female. In 1929, she wrote to Marion Lochhead:

‘I have always had a hard life, for I never was one who could fall into any sort of conventional moulds… My fervent desire in those days was to be a boy who could run away and be a gypsy always living in the open.‘ [7]

Her landscape photography therefore takes on poignancy, as a place where Donaldson felt closest to her ‘founding spirits’. [8] Again in ‘Wanderings of the Western Isles’ Donaldson writes:

‘The mountain lover finds solely amongst the mountains what the sailor finds alone upon the sea – that sense of limitless freedom so essential to the well-being of the free spirit – life in its purest, simplest, physical sense.’ [9]

It should be noted that whereas Shepherd referred to a more ambiguous presence in the landscape, Donaldson attributed all to ‘the Creator’ [10]. A deeply religious person, the landscape was, for her, the place she could experience and be closer to God.

Donaldson corrects Marion Lochhead at the conclusion of a follow-up letter, dated 18 June 1929, having read a draft of an article for ‘Bulletin’ that Lochhead had wrote on her:

“I who have never left these shores, have never thought of myself as a ‘traveler’, but having looked it up in the dictionary and see one definition to be ‘a wayfarer’, in that sense the description is correct“.

Shepherd’s journeying was to return to the mountain’s foot hills time and time again, rather than to aim only for the summit, in order to continue her deep reading and connection with her surroundings. Through Donaldson’s wayfaring, her landscape photography communicates the physicality of the walk, of carrying her camera out and above all, her sense of freedom.

Footnotes

[1] ‘Herself’, DUNBAR, J.T. (1980) 2nd Ed, Ticknor & Fields, New Haven and New York.

[2] National Library of Scotland also holds copies of the portraits as part of the John Telfer Dunbar Collection.

[3] Donaldson lived at Sanna Bheag until 1947, when a fire destroyed her home.

[4] P. 142, ‘Wanderings of the Western Isles’, DONALDSON, M.E.M. (1921), Alexander Gardner, Paisley.

[5] P.10-11, ‘The Living Mountain’, SHEPHERD, N. (2011) 3rd Edition Canongate Books

[6] Ibid. Shepherd wrote ‘The Living Mountain’ in 1945, but it was not published until 1977 by Aberdeen University Press.

[7] Letter from M.E.M. Donaldson, to Marion Lochhead, dated ‘St Columba’s Day, 1929’. Letter held by National Library of Scotland.

[8] Ibid.

[9] P. 141, ‘Wanderings of the Western Isles’, DONALDSON, M.E.M. (1921), Alexander Gardner, Paisley.

[10] P.141, Ibid.