The work of art that has gotten the strongest reaction from my visitors is a piece called ‘Fish Can’t Cry, Sea Can’t Dry’. It is by a young British artist, Hannah Reilly. By scale, it is quite a big piece, and ambitious. Reilly herself is quite young – a recent graduate of Glasgow School of Art. In fact it was at the school’s final year show in 2012 that I saw and bought the piece now installed on a bench in my flat. Many are those who have stepped over the threshold, ascended the stairs, turned around in the hallway only to see the oversized doll sitting meekly on her bench, clutched their hearts and screamed bloody murder.
The extreme reaction does not displease me. I have always been a fan of art that asserts itself, even aggressively – an admirer of art that is not content to remain as background, merely an adornment on the wall, or sometimes even receding from it. To produce the kind of art that does not care whether it is seen or not seems to me an act of bad faith. [Maybe it is for this reason that I’m not often drawn to landscape art, for what is more ‘background’ than that?]
Hannah Reilly’s piece does more than just ask you to look at it. At times it seems to also look at you. This is terribly disconcerting – for art to escape its safe passivity and to not only turn on you, but to effectively turn you, the viewer, into an object that is also being viewed. My good friend Tanya Shirley who once saw a picture of ‘Fish Can’t Cry’ complained that it was the kind of piece you might expect to come alive at night, walk over to your bed and glare down at you. I think she means to say, the thing looks like a big voodoo doll. Even the title takes on a slightly macabre tone: Reilly explains that she lifts it from a sidewalk. It was a memorial scribbled onto the urban landscape of Glasgow, an elegy for someone who had recently passed, which probably makes the piece especially haunting after last Friday’s tragedy.
Hannah Reilly identifies as a painter, but in this piece her surface is not the typical canvas. Neither does this particular composition draw our attention to work as done by paint or paintbrush (though it is all over!). Rather, our attention is drawn to the use of needle and thread. If on one hand it is a life-size doll – a sculpture of sorts – on the other hand, it is a quilt.
Quilt. Tapestry. These are words which have long been mobilized as metaphors for mixed and multicultural societies. Reilly seems to find her inspiration through the process of working backwards: start with the metaphor and then make it into something real, and therefore surreal – perhaps in the way that a thunderstorm in which cats and dogs were raining down from the sky, would be surreal.
The specific tapestry that Reilly seems to be examining is Scotland. We see the saltire flag; we read a letter (I don’t know whether imagined or real) from a Syrian immigrant who has left Glasgow because he couldn’t fit in.
This is not Scotland as we might imagine it, or even like to imagine – one that is slowly becoming multiracial, but one that can be hostile and unfriendly to its newest citizens. You see, it is important, in this series of work by Reilly, that the faces are always black.
This darker imagining of Scotland seems particularly poignant now as the talk all around is of Scottish independence . It is a discussion I’ve mostly stayed out of. The truth is, I am torn on the matter. I feel if Scottish people want their independence then it should be given to them and that most of the arguments against this seem, at least to me, to come either from a place of fear or from a failure of imagination.
But still I waiver. My reticence comes from a few places:
1) I grew up in a country that fought valiantly for its own independence from Britain. As sobering and as controversial as it is to say this, I think many have lived to regret it.
2) I have always held a deep suspicion of nationalism. Nationalism can talk a good and inspiring talk, but it too has a darker face, and not the good kind of dark. Cut it whichever way you want, the debate on Scottish Independence is a discourse on nationalism and while there are mostly very sensible people who are carrying on this discourse, I have certainly encountered those people for whom nationalism takes on a racist tint.[ I’ve explained elsewhere why I don’t much talk about my experiences of racism in Scotland. It always prompts a defensive kneejerk reaction – and spend emotional energy telling someone the story of two boys who shouted at me ‘Go home, nigger!’ or the story of the drunk man who barked in my face, or of the woman who told me sorry, she had no money when I was only trying to ask for directions – to have these stories dismissed or trivialized with: ‘Yes, but are you sure there were being racist?’ or ‘Yes, they might have been racist but surely most people are NOT like that.’ is a little to much for me]
3) Perhaps, because of the above, the label British has always been the most comfortable one for me. As something of an outsider, a newly dual-citizen, I find I can claim Britishness much more easily than I could ever claim the more specific national identities of Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish. ‘British’ in all its amorphousness seems to allow for a multiplicity of accents, colours, races, ways of being. The very fact of its non-specificity means it spreads wide arms, and to some us such wide arms are as close as we might get to an embrace.
I’m not convinced that all the talk of Independent Scotland sufficiently imagines someone like me within it. Hannah Reilly’s work, however, certainly does, and for the eloquence of this work of art alone, I might well vote YES.
It may not be imagined often enough, but there are of course darker faces in Scotland. And maybe it is natural that in the slow process of growing comfortable with that, it should feel a little uncomfortable at times, even a little scary – as if ascending stairs, turning a corner, and seeing a big voodoo doll. Yes, it might even cause a few people to scream. But I can testify to this fact – that the longer you live with it, it is incredible how beautiful you realize it is. How beautiful it always has been.