Helmsdale is an even smaller and more remote community than Huntly. Nestled way up in the North of Scotland with a population in the high hundreds and a history dating back to the early AD years, Helmsdale has a heritage focus on genealogy and geology, and the past is undeniable in this region of the Sutherland.
As it goes, a museum and art gallery was built in the mid 80s and in 2009, Timespan began shifting towards bridging the past with the present. Commissioning GSA’s Jenny Brownrigg along with Deveron Art’s Claudia Zieske to write a research report for the 2010 - 2013 period, the first set of artists in residence commissioned included Julia Douglas and Jo Roberts, working in contemporary modes of knitting and commentariographing, respectively.
Currently under guest curator Kirsteen Macdonald’s stewardship, the artists from this past weekend of events included artists in residence Graham Fagen and Corin Sworn, along with screenings and performances by Luke Fowler and Wounded Knee (Drew Wright). Notably more high profile in terms of art world credibility, the programme certainly brought in members of Scotland’s art community up for a packed weekend, with many visiting Helmsdale for the first time.
Still from Graham Fagen’s Baile An Or, 2011
The main exhibition was Fagen’s new work, Baile An Or, and the short film certainly captured his first impressions of the place by its focus on time spanning (excuse the pun) through a series of still shots capturing the fall and rise of the tides along the bonnie river. Moving from morning light to moon light while offering meditations on the legacies of war, the film is controlled by its mood editing, which received a short reprieve from its subdued pace for an almost spirited focus on the motions of gold panning. The HD work was crisp and clean, showing no betrayal of a trained eye, but it also exists very much on the surface of Helmsdale’s purported identity that left nothing complicated to unravel. In comparison to The Summer Walkers (1977) ( a documentary about the life and culture of travellers by Hamish Henderson and Timothy Neat which was also shown as part of the arts weekend), Baile An Or clearly balked at going any deeper or closer to the subject of human history as any sense of personality was stripped from the land. While The Summer Walkers was complicated by various ethical and formal issues in its anthropological narrative of the travellers, that work as a whole left a far greater impression of a story being spun and told about a people and the places they inhabited, while Baile An Or read more as a postcard snapshot.
Not surprisingly, while the weekend audience roamed the town like a pack, the number of locals in attendance were few and far between. The void of local engagement in this particular exhibition drags up the persistent question of whether showing contemporary art in remote locations is actually for those living there or if these exercises are simply a field trip for the art hounds?
I visited Helmsdale during my first week in Scotland, and I was appalled by the Ed Ruscha exhibition that was touring through as there was not an iota of connection to the place it was being shown. The Fagen exhibition and accompanying short works by community members was of course far better by comparison, and I don’t know if these type of issues ever get resolved or even reach a consensus, but it’s refreshing to see Timespan juggling these conundrums through an ongoing experiment of trying out different strategies and formulas in connecting contemporary art everywhere and anywhere.
*First published on The Huntly Review