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Dalziel and Scullion on rurality, remoteness and environmental art

Dalziel + Scullion have had solo exhibitions at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, The Arnolfini, Bristol, The Ikon Gallery Birmingham, the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. They were included in the 3rd British Art Show and have shown internationally at the Venice Biennale. They are now based in Dundee where they teach at the University.



You first started working together in 1993. Were you living in St Combs (on the north-west coast of Scotland) then? What had influenced your decision to live in this remote fishing village at the time?
To answer this question it might be useful describe briefly a little bit about our background.

Matthew and I met when we were both selected for the 1990 British Art Show, when we each worked as individual artists. There were various talks connected with that show, and it was through these that we realised we had shared interests in ideas concerned with what can loosely be described as ‘mankind’s interaction with the ‘natural’ environment’. We got to know each other a bit during that year and in 1991 we made the decision to commence a period of working together, and part of this decision was to relocate to a location that we felt would better support and nurture our interests.

After some research we chose a location in Aberdeenshire, on the northeast shoulder of Scotland. Here there seemed to exist a raw expansive wilderness, juxtaposed with a number of hi-tech industries such as oil and gas production - hill top communication installations, together with the more traditional industries of farming and fishing. What interested us was that geography had played a part in why these disparate industries were located there.

From an artistic point of view this relocation was a bit of a gamble, as most of our contemporaries were moving to London and America – to be closer to the influence and power of the art world - we were moving north to be surrounded by our subject. We hoped of course that the gamble would pay off, and that we would be able to produce a body of work that could not be made anywhere else and that would have significance within the competitive atmosphere of the art world for that very reason.

We spent the next ten years working from the village of St Combs. There we were always considered ‘incomers’ – which isn’t quite as “Wicker Man-ish” as it might sound! But the landscape, the dialect and the people – felt new and different to us, affording an objectivity that fed the work. In tight knit communities, incomers are often permitted to do things that the locals themselves might not, unusual behaviour is excused in a ‘stranger’ that a local person might feel self conscious about.

In 2001 we relocated our practice to a studio within the University of Dundee where we are currently based.

Three of your films, and probably more than this, feature St Combs quite prominently. The obvious example is 'Another Place', in which inhabitants of the village are portrayed standing stationary in the landscape (picture above right). 'Water Falls Down' is a film using images of water and includes an amazing baptism in the sea (picture below left), and 'The Pressure of Spring' features young people growing up in the area and presumably facing an uncertain future. Have you made other works that are closely linked to place in this way, and can you describe them briefly?
Most of our works respond to a sense of dwelling in a place, but three that spring to mind are, 'Source' (picture below right) a film we made in 2007, about a young boys journey through a landscape, it was filmed in the Island of Mull. The film examined this location through the senses of the boy, his eyes and ears became portals that sights and sound flow through as he travelled across the landscape encountering different aspects of its ecology.

In 2006 we were commissioned to make a work for the reopening of a large civic gallery in Glasgow (The Kelvingrove) and we made a work called 'The Earth Turned To Bring Us Closer' where we used a telescope motor, converted to combine with a video camera, to film over two hundred portraits of the inhabitants of the city. We had both been students in this city and lived there on and off over the years. The filming was done over a period of six months. We filmed in a large variety of locations throughout Glasgow with the context being as important as the portraits themselves. The work observes the extraordinariness of human life against the often - unimaginable backdrop of the planet spinning in it’s vast orbit. A selection of a species briefly glimpsed in their habitat before they too drift out with our field of vision.

In 2005 we made 'Earthdom' where we looked at the landscape of the east Anglian fenlands. Our interest in the interconnectedness of life extends to our own human role within this - of the synthesis between biology and ideas, the tangible links between industrial and social advancements and the inevitable impact of these on local and global environments.

For human consciousness to exist at all on earth it must be sustained and nourished by a staggering array and continual flow of substances. Amidst the complex levels of zinc and iron, magnesium and calcium is water - an apparently benign yet crucial substance that finds its way into every minuscule part of us and into every other form of organic life. Our contemporary landscape is now crisscrossed with a network of often invisible conduits of water / energy  / communication etc. In this work we explored the notion of the interventions of mankind as being part of rhythms of the landscape - through which water, blood and electricity flow as complex and interconnected systems. In the works that we make we often seek to find new metaphors to interpret the carousel of activity and interdependent relationships that are present in the contemporary landscape.

Were any of St Combs works ever shown in St Combs? And if so what did the local residents make of the work?
The works were never shown in St Combs itself, but the residents have seen them. 'Another Place' was shown in Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum in Aberdeen - the nearest city to St Combs and all of the people in the work and a lot of the people from the village came to the opening and also visited at other times. Many people in the village saw 'The Pressure of Spring' (picture below left) when it was broadcast on Channel Four. And a few years ago 'Water Falls Down' was shown in a church in Catterline (the village Joan Eardley painted in) on the north east coast.

Its unusual these days to see high-profile art that is so embedded in a specific place. Many - in the art world particularly - talk about the fact that we live in a global culture, and that artists borrow influences from all sorts of unlikely transnational sources. How do you feel your work - particularly the St Combs work - relates to a notion of global culture? Is it, for example, purposely resistive of the seemingly unstoppable and corrosive forces of globalization?
Perhaps part of being an artist is to challenge orthodoxy in society and also in the art world. There are actually very few ideas out there that challenge the predominant ideas that govern our everyday existence or offer alternatives for us to consider. For instance it seems to be a catastrophe if there is a slow down in economic growth and yet the scientists keep telling us that this constant growth is linked to global warming, pollution, the depletion of habit etc. It should be no surprise that the art world functions in a similar manner to the rest of society, it is also governed by the international market economy and the art business also relies on the ideology of continuous growth and in that respect it is very consensual.

Art made in a very specific location can of course have a universal impact and there are strengths and weaknesses in being embedded in a specific place. It is natural and logical that you will get to know a subject or place a lot deeper if you dwell within it; it will release its complexities.

To be a professional artist means your work is competing against a lot of other artists for shows in galleries or for commissions and therefore it is necessary for you to know what is happening in the art world and be able to make the highest quality of work you possibly can. This can be difficult from a rural location, as it is difficult to continually see good work and to develop a network of colleagues who are making work at a high level. Most art is shown in the big urban centers and curators are not the best at visiting outside the big cities - but of course there are some notable exceptions to this.

And their perceptions of work made in a very rural setting will be different. I mean many still think of landscape-inspired work as being sentimental: at the height of the yBa movement hardly anyone in London seemed to be making this kind of work, for example. But if you’re a Scottish artist working in the highlands you surely have a different relationship to the landscape. One that is much more immediate and direct. Is this true? Were you aware of other Scottish artists that have been inspired by the landscape in a comparable way in the last 20 years? Perhaps your own peers?
The art world is part of the global economic system and is driven by the very same principals of taking a product to market and trading with this product. The bigger private dealers/galleries have a powerful influence and reciprocal relationship with the public art galleries and museums and they can determine through their patronage whole movements in art and culture. Although we do need to use the mechanisms of the art world like galleries etc we also feel we have never really fitted in or been a part of a group or movement. The modernist idea that art can have very little influence on society so therefore artists are best to stick to making art about art is not something we are persuaded by. We are very focused on what we believe is important and that is our relationship with the earth and how we interact with it and devote all our energies towards. Both of us are lecturers at Dundee Art College and would like to think we have some influence on a new generation of younger artists.


Sculptures like Sargassum (1995) (above right) and Voyager (2000) (below left): the former an installation using lights that creates a sea-like aura in the gallery space, and the latter comprising tents made out of aluminum, seem different from the St Combs work. Rather than being a response to a specific place, these seem to be more about our relationship with the natural world in a more general sense. These pieces often refer, ironically perhaps, to our need for oneness with nature. Would you like to comment on this?
Our generation is undoubtedly witnessing a great period of change, our ideological and economic goals will all have to shift some as natural resources, that were once plentiful and in inexpensive, become more costly and scarce. How we adapt to these changes will be both a great human opportunity and a test not only of our ingenuity, but also of our ethical responsibilities to the others with whom we share our environment. As artists we feel we have a role in examining and interpreting this situation, in persuading people to look at and value thing differently and rekindle our enchantment with our place in the world.

Of your most recent work, 'Catalyst' (2008), another large sculpture, particularly catches the eye. Can you describe the properties of the cement that was used in the sculpture?
This is a new type of concrete material that performs a strange alchemy, hidden within its make up is a catalytic material (nano-crystalline grade of titanium dioxide) that reacts with light to trigger the molecules of air borne pollutants, such as nitric oxides, carbon monoxide and sulphur monoxide to break apart. Daylight initiates a reaction where the active concrete surface converts harmful nitrogen oxides into oxygen which is released back into the air, and nitrate this in turn reacts with the calcium hydroxide of the concrete surface and drains off with the next rainfall into soils where plants can use it.

Lastly I notice on your website you use the term 'environmental art'. This is one of those words that is used by different people in different ways. In some ways all art is environmental. What does it mean in relation to your work? Is it something to do with its having a particular ethical stance, for example?
As you say the word environmental has a lot of connotations and that lack of specificity suits us, artists are nothing if not great generalists who graze on an abundance of subjects from which they can draw relationships and meaning from, I guess it quickly gets to the point of ring fencing the general (albeit enormous) subject we are interested in.