The Archaeology of Memory
MEMORIALS can offer a kind of consolation.
The art of Scottish artist Will Maclean - a combination of assemblage and painting, with etching also as a potent means of expression - draws deeply on the tradition of the memorial.
Windows, niches, reliquaries, and icons in the form of statues or pictures are among the many forms that memorials take in old churches. Maclean adapts such ecclesiastical imagery to his own special use. He retains some of the calm dignity of such precedents - and some of their symbolism of long-suffering acceptance, too - so that emblems of remembrance are elevated into objects of contemplation.
Maclean's art is heavy with folk memory and instilled with sympathy for the past and its people: for ways of life that have gone, particularly those connected with the sea and fishing, for old crafts and skills no longer apt, for lost myths, for the people of the Scottish Highlands and their traumas of dispossession and displacement. His art is in mourning for history, its changes and tragedies, but it is not morbid or self-consciously nostalgic. As art historian Duncan Macmillan writes in his excellent book, "Symbols of Survival, The Art of Will Maclean": "... [his art] draws strength from the qualities and the continuity of Highland culture, while seeking universal and contemporary metaphors from it...."
Maclean's art is also closely connected with his own history and the Highland background from which he springs: His father was harbormaster in Inverness; other close family members were fishermen, and he himself spent some time at sea as a young man. Art, indeed, was his second choice of career. His first was to serve in the Merchant Navy.
As a young artist, Maclean found it necessary, for financial support, to teach school - not an occupation he remembers with relish. But in the early 1970s he had the opportunity to escape for a year and make a thorough study of ring-net fishing, a method developed on the west coast of Scotland.
Maclean treated this research project as an exercise in documentation, making hundreds of detailed drawings of fishing equipment, concerned with accuracy and facts rather than subjective response. This was in line with the depersonalized approach of some so-called conceptual artists at that time. Something documentary stayed on in Maclean's art after that, though it was not the work's overall concern. His work is extremely subjective, however much it may be concerned with facts.
Another, obviously related interest to feed Maclean's growing vision was his love of museums. A museum is - as an old church may be - a place where the past is not allowed to be entirely lost, where memory is considered sacrosanct, where cultures, localities, and even individuals' lives and achievements are invested with a degree of perpetuity by the careful display or storage of associated objects. Thus memorial becomes celebration; what hasn't been lost becomes life-enhancing.
This love of museums was deepened for Maclean when, on a traveling scholarship in 1966, he studied art for a while at the British School in Rome. Here he found the company of archaeologists vitally interesting. The discovery and preservation of artifacts as evidence of past peoples is paralleled by his way of presenting objects as evidence of memories in his art.
IS art is a kind of archaeology of memory. It is - like a museum - a gathering of things valued, of images, objects, tools, and fragments, which the indifferent present might wash away as so much redundant flotsam, yet which his art sympathetically saves and shows.
Maclean also draws on the display-case presentation employed in museums and the peculiar power such presentation has over people's sense of value. The objects in the case may be quite domestic and ordinary; in their time they would have had little worth, perhaps.
But rescued and arranged, they are not only admired as survivals and discoveries, but they also become symbols of lives that might have been drowned in the sea of time, miscellaneous items washed up after the wrecks of centuries.
Nevertheless, the functions and meanings of objects dug up by archaeologists and placed in museums can often be mysterious and obscure. We would like to know more about them; so would the archaeologists, often enough.
But what in archaeology may be an infuriating unknown, in art - particularly modern art - may carry the kind of implicit nuance the artist wants.
It is a question to what extent explication is necessary, or even helps viewers of Maclean's assemblages to grasp the meaning of what they are looking at. Maclean does not resort to written text. I suspect he thinks writing is for art historians, critics - but above all for poets, from whom he has unquestionably received great inspiration.
His own words are confined to little more than titles, and these act as laconic, code-like messages which may actually mean more to the artist than to the uninformed spectator. Some examples of titles indicate the feel of his work, but they hardly seem intended as explanatory: "Interior Wester Ross," "Memorial for a Clearance Village," "Emigrant's Voyage," "Leviathan Elegy," "Abigail's Apron." Without further words, the viewer must respond as he or she will.
HAT Maclean's work does elicit quite definite feelings in people with little or no knowledge of such things as whaling past and present, or of the geography of Scotland, the history of the Highland Clearances (when people on the land in the 19th century were forced out of their homes and often made to emigrate), or personal acquaintance with the artist's aunt (Abigail), shows how far the artist has lifted the particular and subjective into the universal. The enigma is that without the particular, however
hidden its meanings may be, the "universal" character of these strange, haunting constructions of the imagination would certainly be absent.
It's natural, after all, to want as much explanation of the puzzling as we can get. Obligingly, Duncan Macmillan's book on Maclean sets the artist's work in context and demonstrates a considerable sensitivity to the motives of Maclean's art, as well as its place in relation to Gaelic poets, other modern Scottish artists, and to European and American art.
Yet usefulness of Maclean's work remains a paradoxical question. At one point Macmillan writes: "... the symbols that [Maclean] uses function at a level of suggestion that is intended to be less precise than conscious meaning...." And then he immediately adds: "... but each also has its own set of references and so repays separate exegesis."
As the author of this book about Maclean, Macmillan is almost bound to want it both ways; talking about "Abigail's Apron," for example, he launches into five paragraphs of background information that sound as if they came from conversations with Maclean. Yet it is not certain whether the image itself, as made and presented by the artist, is enhanced by any of this background.
"Abigail's Apron" is a strong image in and of itself, and what is clear and plain about it is unlikely to be missed by any viewer. What is not at the level of "conscious meaning" is surely best left as it is. To give it conscious meaning actually destroys what it is and how it operates as art.
Later in his book Macmillan reiterates: "... Maclean is deeply interested in the symbolic value of imagery and its ability to resonate in the unconscious areas of the mind."
Precisely. So let's not try to reason things out, but let the art be what it is: window-openings onto dreams and memories both experienced and inherited.
Maclean may indeed be a socially conscious and an ecologically concerned artist, but the one thing he mercifully isn't is a preacher with a program.
His art is at the level of imagination. That's where it very effectively works.