Controlled Burn – a curator’s notes

“Part Seen, Imagined Part: GSA in Dunoon 2014”. Installation view featuring work by Melissa Maloco, Romy Galloway and Lin Chau.

Almost two months ago, the Glasgow School of Art was ravaged by a fire. At about the same time, I was asked to co-curate an exhibition featuring selected works by this year’s graduating artists and designers to be shown at the Burgh Hall in Dunoon. As a graduate myself in 2012, I had been chosen to show work at the same venue, so it was exciting to be the one on the other side of the fence, looking at work and deciding what to exhibit. Due to the fire,the curation process faced particular challenges, which I outlined in the initial rationale that accompanied the press release and the interpretation sheet for the exhibition:

The title of this year’s GSA in Dunoon show is borrowed from one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s watercolour drawings made in 1896. It reflects the unique process involved in selecting this year’s graduates for the exhibition due to the fire that damaged and destroyed a significant part of the Mackintosh Building and the Fine Art degree show on the 23rd of May 2014. Some works we were able to view physically, some survived only as photographic representations, some were lost entirely, while others had to be described to us verbally by department tutors or the artists themselves. By partly seeing existing work and partly imagining what the selected artists would be able to present, we worked diligently to curate a show that provides a visual and mental space for reflection on the events that have affected the entire GSA community over the past weeks. At the same time, it is a show that celebrates the resilient spirit of the graduates as they continue to make their mark beyond the physical boundaries of the art school itself.

However, there was a deeper resonance for me as co-curator of this year’s show that extended to my own degree show and my current practice, one that very much influenced the way I selected the works. Some people commented on media articles about the fire that it wasn’t a significant tragedy and that there are more important tragedies in the world to write about. I don’t disagree, but every experience is relative. The fire in a domestic home in, say, a Newcastle suburb might not garner much media attention nationwide, but the feelings of grief experienced by the people involved would still be palpable and valid. Friends, colleagues and people I don’t know were affected by the GSA fire in different ways. Some lost 25 years worth of artwork and personal belongings, some lost their physical work space, others their degree show and as a library staff member I know only too well that the loss of the book collections and the historical Mackintosh library itself felt, and still feels, like having lost a friend or relative.

When something devastating happens on a public scale, and it becomes a big media story that people are interested in, it’s not about belittling the grief or suffering of others. The reason these stories are read is that they resonate deeply within us. We don’t mourn solely the loss of the Mackintosh building, but rather the history it harboured, loved ones we have lost in the past, for nostalgic reasons, for fear of seemingly solid things disappearing. It’s a memento mori that pokes at our vulnerability as human beings. We never know when disaster will strike in our own lives. When something like the Mackintosh fire happens, it helps us exorcise and express our personal fears and our melancholy in a communal way. If everyone else is crying, it’s more acceptable for us to cry, too. Even if we’re not directly affected by the incident, and even if we’re thousands of miles away. Similarly, the exhibition in Dunoon, “Part Seen, Imagined Part” is intended as a space for people to reflect not only on the tragedy the art school community has faced but on trying times in our own private worlds.

The following is a piece I wrote immediately before the opening of the exhibition. And, like most of the artists and designers featured in the exhibition, I’m also inspired by the fire and allowing new things to sprout from its ashes.

A note on the exhibition

In 2012 I graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. My degree show was housed in the former women’s studio above the library, at the very top of the west wing. Incidentally my work was inspired by a fire in my tenement building. Apart from brick walls and some blackened broken windows, the space, Studio 58, is now gone. For myself and others in the wider GSA community, Friday the 23rd May was a heartbreaking day. As someone poignantly noted afterwards, it was “like watching a dear friend die”.

It may seem irrational to have such a strong emotional attachment to a piece of architecture, and it’s hard to explain why that’s the case to people outside the GSA bubble. But there is just something about that building. Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed it in the name of art, and it has remained the beating heart of the art school that every GSA student has passed through during their time there, whether it was years spent in a studio, an hour in an art history lecture, twenty minutes of quiet contemplation in the library poring over books, or even a brief trip to the finance counter. We all remember the heavy swing and creak of the doors, the air of dark wood and turpentine, the exquisite patterns of light that moved and merged throughout the day.

On a warm and sunny afternoon, the fire tore through the Mackintosh Building turning most of the west tower and second floor into a memory. Fire doesn’t discriminate; it consumes what it can. And so rare books, historic architecture, offices and artwork by both staff and students were all lost or damaged in the blaze. Devastating on several levels, for the city of Glasgow and the GSA community in particular, many immediately predicted it was the end of something once so grand. But as destructive as fire is, it is a natural element that can both stifle and revive. There is an expression called ‘controlled burn’ that denotes a type of farming in which fields are set ablaze to destroy weeds and fertilize the soil. This ensures that new crops will grow.

A new ‘crop’ of students graduates every year from GSA, but this year’s graduates had to stand a tougher test than the rest of us. What happens when you lose your dream, everything you’ve worked towards in the past many years? While one might worry that a devastating event such as the GSA fire would crush the desire to make new work, in actual fact a large number of students climbed right back up on the proverbial horse. If you read the statements of the artists and designers, it will become apparent how many of them were already inspired by themes of fragility, loss, memory, survival and regeneration.

At first glance, the works selected for this exhibition are modest and quiet works, small islands in a sea of white. But if you take your time with them and lean in close, you’ll realize that they’re screaming out loud. None of the works have been shown in public before, and they have either survived the fire, been recreated after the fact, or were made immediately before and after the tragic event. Each work bears testament to the fact that when artists hit a brick wall, they wince for a while, then dust themselves off and find innovative ways to climb over it. Dunoon Burgh Hall has kindly provided a stepladder to make that journey a little easier, and we are all grateful to be there. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such inspiring makers – without their resilience and hard work, there would be no exhibition. A friend of mine noted that the show looks like “a complete triumph over adversity”. I couldn’t agree more.

– Theresa Moerman Ib, July 2014

GSA in Dunoon photo gallery

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