A Legacy Less Ordinary: How George Wyllie Helped Change Scotland – Column 18.5.12
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.5.12
IT COST ME £2, the little original George Wylie that sits on my living-room floor. It’s one of the hundreds of little wooden robins he made for the facade of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, one winter in the late 1980’s, and auctioned off to the passing public; and its small, jaunty presence in my house speaks volumes about the extraordinary relationship between Wyllie and the nation he has left grieving this week, with his death on Tuesday, at the age of 90.
It’s rare enough, after all, for any artist to be mourned so comprehensively, and with so much feeling, as Wyllie has been in the Scottish media this week; even rarer for that honour to be lavished on a sculptor – or scul?tor, as Wyllie preferred – who tangled fearlessly with the business of conceptual art, and was greatly influenced by the mighty German post-modernist, Joseph Beuys.
The truth about Wyliie, though, is that more than any other single figure, he embodied and expressed Scotland’s best efforts to reinvent itself, since the 1980’s, as a nation fit for the 21st century. When he hung his great straw locomotive from the Finnieston Crane in 1987, or floated his glowing paper boat on the Clyde a few years later, he spoke straight to the heart of a nation that had once been defined by its prowess in heavy industry, but now had to find another role in the world; he told us, playfully but truthfully, that art could not bring those industries back to us, but could help us to celebrate and mourn the past, and to look forward to a future where ingenuity, intelligence, and the power of reflection would not be negligible assets.
In the world of the arts, the legacy of the work done by George and others, in the 1980’s, has been incalculable. Today, Scotland’s global reputation and confidence in theatre, literature, music and the visual arts has never stood higher; on the morning after George’s death, for example, the culture minister Fiona Hyslop was in Edinburgh to announce this year’s Made In Scotland programme, another edition of the hugely successful Scottish-Government-funded Fringe showcase that has seen acclaimed Scottish companies touring to a score of countries worldwide since its launch five years ago.
And although the wider social impact of cultural phenonema like George’s work is always difficult to measure, it’s hard not to feel that the combination of wit, sophistication, and well-grounded realism brought to the job by that generation of artists – which also includes writers like Liz Lochhead and John Byrne, and a dazzling range of musicians – played a key role in freeing Scotland from a sense of itself as a country which belonged to the past, and was largely defined by the nostalgic image-making of those who had already left. Suddenly, Scotland was reimagining itself, from within, in ways that were as playful and creative as they were elegiac; and from that time, it seems to me, Scots began to feel more fearless in re-examining their political options, and less vulnerable to the negative argument that Scotland is some kind of backwater, incapable of shaping its own destiny.
So as the remarkable Mr. Wyllie is laid to rest, it’s worth considering some of the qualities that made him such an iconic artist for these times, in Scotland. The first, I think, was his trademark combination of sheer conceptual boldness and hands-on, down-to-earth practicality; he loved to think big, but also to shape metal with his own hands. In a contemporary art world riddled with false oppositions between conceptual art and practical craftsmanship, George offered both, as a matter of course; and in doing so, I think he honoured something deep in the engineering tradition of the west of Scotland, that was instinctively recognised by many of the thousands who loved his work.
Then there was the popularity of his work; because if the arts in Scotland have a particular strength, it lies in their tendency to reject the traditional dichotomy between “high” and “popular” culture, in favour of much more creative collisions between the two. From the 7:84 Theatre Company in the 1970’s, to the National Theatre Of Scotland today, the finest Scottish artists have always refused the idea that the best in culture is somehow exclusive; and although George Wyllie’s popular success may have cost him a prestigious prize or two, it brought with it the kind of fame and affection summed up by one Scottish newspaper this week, in a farewell cartoon of a middle-aged working man launching a little paper boat in George’s memory, while the straw locomotive hangs forlornly in the distance.
And then finally, George’s legacy to us is his legendary sense of playfulness and of freedom, ever more valuable in an age of obsessive surveillance, security and control. In George’s case, the sense of freedom came partly as a consequence of age. He was a sprightly 60-year-old retiree from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise in Gourock before the straw locomotive was ever built; and in an ageing society, his bold and insouciant career comes as a salutary reminder that those who have finished with the burdens of paid work are sometimes only at the start of something much bigger, and more creative.
In a sense, though, the freedom George won for himself, in his last three decades, reminds all of us, regardless of age, to the state of mind human beings must strive for, if we are to free ourselves from the bonds of systems that have failed, and “realities” that no longer ring true. As a species, we survive because of our power to question, to invent, to reject the specious and the self-interested, and to embrace the chance of new life. In that sense, George Wyllie, the “Whysman”, represented all that is most hopeful in humanity, most practical, most joyful, and most forward-looking. And if we mourn him this week, we also live in a Scotland much the better for having known him, and cherished his work; a Scotland – among other things – no longer weighed down by the past, since Wyllie’s genius showed us how to remake it in paper and straw, and how to let it go.