Edinburgh’s chance to join the big league

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One British newspaper described it as “blank, empty, brainless”, and declared that “if you like this, you need to get out more”. A second found it “frankly corny”, a third “unpleasantly voyeuristic, unrelentingly kitsch”. Yet another voice in the same publication dubbed it “calmly brilliant sculpture”, and ended by saying “we are dealing with greatness here – no question”.

The artist who has inspired these extremes of critical opinion is the
Australian-born Ron Mueck, whose exhibition is currently running at
the Scottish Royal Academy in
Edinburgh. One of the commentators above – it was the critic Adrian Searle, writing about Mueck’s show at
London’s National Gallery in 2003 – ended his hatchet-job with prim disapproval, “The display, I note, is hugely popular.”

This was something of an understatement. That show’s curator, Colin Wiggins, reported an “utterly unprecedented” public response. And so it has proved again, in Edinburgh three years later. The new show is the brainchild of Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who tells me that visitor numbers are running at about 2,500 a day – “beating even Monet, and way beyond Titian and Degas. And yet even though Mueck’s work is accessible and attractive and appealing, he isn’t a household name. I think it proves that there is a real surge of interest in contemporary art here.”

Mueck spent his early working life making models and props for films
and advertising (significantly, perhaps, his German-born parents were toy-
makers). His mother-in-law is the artist Paula Rego, who became fascinated by his craft and asked him to make a small silicone figure of Pinocchio for one of her shows. It was spotted by the collector Charles Saatchi, who then included a single small work by Mueck in the legendary Sensation exhibition of 1997. “Dead Dad” was a tiny figure
of his father’s naked corpse, in Mueck’s signature style: hyper-perfect in every physical detail, from pores to eyeballs, moles to toenails, eyelashes to pubic hair, the only distortion being that
of scale. In the middle of all the
hullabaloo about the Young British Artists, “Ron Mueck gatecrashed the Sensation party and stole the show”,
to quote the critic Sean O’Hagan.

That same trick – of making a bafflingly perfect recreation of a human figure and then baffling us all over again with its monstrous size or its tiny reduced proportion – is what Mueck does again and again. The London gallerist Anthony d’Offay gave Mueck his first solo show a year later, and in 2003 after a residency at the National Gallery the artist produced four new works on the theme of mother and child.

The current show in Edinburgh has only 10 pieces, including one new figure – a vast newborn baby girl, flecks of blood and mucus still streaked across her, distended blue umbilical cord sprouting from her navel like the trunk of a baby elephant, her old-man face screwed in fury against the world, her feet the size of my head. The whole point is the distortion of scale, and the bizarre sensations that gives us. The works are coolly installed in the high-classical cubic rooms of the newly refurbished Scottish Royal Academy building – severe spaces that perfectly suit work that challenges our perceptions of space itself.

Mueck’s hyper-realist figures, the commentators tell us, are so powerful because they make us feel the surge and tug of common humanity. I disagree. These figures, in themselves, mean little more to me than the doll counter at Toys R Us. But what they do, with great power, is to make us realise just what happens to us when we look at art. The ordinary is made strange; the very pores of our skin look different, the very life in the streets around us is altered.

Whether anyone else agrees with this matters not a bit. What is indisputable, according to Calvocoressi, is that the rush of public acclaim for the Mueck show has altered the Edinburgh landscape as far as contemporary art is concerned. “In the 50s and 60s Edinburgh put on important shows of new work at Festival time,” he explains. “The visual arts were very much part of the original vision when the Festival began in 1947, and in those years the mission was to educate. It was all about high culture. Important foreign artists were brought here, funded by the Arts Council. The shows would then transfer to London.”

Edinburgh’s decline as a centre for contemporary art began in the 1970s, he tells me. More recently, this has been underlined by the growth of other centres – such as Glasgow and Newcastle – and for the past 15 years, while Sir Brian McMaster has been director of the Edinburgh International festival, he has excluded the visual arts from the programme. Three years ago, as a late response to this poor-relation status, the Art Festival in Edinburgh began, but this – as Calvocoressi points out – is a loose association that is about marketing, not programming.

But, he believes, a new era could
and should be on the horizon.
The National Galleries of Scotland have a recently arrived supremo, John Leighton, for whom contemporary art is high on the agenda. And a glittering prize is dangling before him: it is almost a year now since d’Offay, who abruptly announced the closing of his £35m business in 2002, publicly expressed the wish that his contemporary collection, one of the very finest in private hands, should find a home
in Scotland. The reported price is £100m – which, for some 700 pieces by a who’s who of artists of the past 50 years (Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Gerhardt Richter, Rachel Whiteread and Richard Long among them) sounds very good value indeed.

Calvocoressi – like Leighton – is passionately keen on the plan. Since 2002 d’Offay has been lending parts of his collection to Edinburgh, under Calvocoressi’s close curatorial eye, and has made gifts of work by Bill Viola and Richard Long. It is no coincidence that Mueck is the only artist d’Offay still actively represents. He, and his show, are a beacon of the future for contemporary art in Scotland.

What’s more, for some time there has been talk of acquiring a huge industrial building by the docks in Leith, an industrial area on Edinburgh’s outskirts: the former VA Tech factory, known half-affectionately as the Blue Shed. Surely the Blue Shed would make a fine home for the d’Offay collection? On the model of London’s Tate Modern, the arguments for local economic regeneration as well as a breath of life for the city’s art scene are now firmly established in cities around Europe.

But an ominous silence seems to have settled over all these plans. Only a few years back, Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell explicitly put
culture high on his list of priorities. Last week, however, the eminent Scottish journalist Magnus Linklater was thundering away in print against a “scandalous lack of focus” in “the
vacuum that is cultural leadership
in Scotland”.

“We watch in wonder,” he wrote, “as the world beats a path to Scotland every August, then wait in vain for evidence that anyone in power understands why they do so. Where is the investment in the buildings, the institutions and the ideas . . . ?”

The great ironist Jonathan Swift, who loved and loathed humanity just about equally and who memorably created Brobdingnagian babies and Lilliputian loving couples, just like Mueck, would have been entertained by this power-play flickering around the Scottish capital’s marvellous Enlightenment buildings. As the Festival crowds recede, Scotland’s current administration will have to decide what it wants to have on its record, in terms of its professed devotion to the arts, in its last few months of office.

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