Open Windows: 45 Artists in 45 Windows

16 Jun 2011 in Orkney, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Pierhead to Museum, Stromness, Orkney, until 26 June 2011

WELL, this is a jolly wheeze. I remember reading somewhere about a community project in Wales  I think, which did the same thing in a village; and I’m just back from Brighton, where, on a totally different scale, enormous Regency piles gave themselves over to Art for the week of the festival there, with remarkable results, some good, some self indulgent, some bizarrely pointless.

It does what it says on the tin. Walk along the street and your eye will be caught by banners, Orkney flag-coloured, adorning those buildings whose windows are displaying work.

The opening night in Stromness

The opening night in Stromness (photo courtesy Rebecca Marr)

The flagstones and cobbles on Stromness street are being restored to their former glory, using stone from the quarry the original c19 ones came from, and that means there are pedestrian walkways which demand single file and slow progress; as usual, too, there are cars parked wherever they can bag a legal space, and trippers searching for food, photo opps, presents from Orkney; there are cats sprawling, as well. Round the Pier, there’s hubbub, along to the nearly – closing Post Office: after that it’s increasingly quiet.

‘There’s nothing along there’ said one tourist, gesturing to the other half of the town which stretches beyond Tam’s bookshop to the Museum, Library, G M B’s house and garden, the Napoleonic cannon…but let that go.

This initiative is not really the kind of thing you can walk through like a gallery, and not meant to be. It is an unusual and pretty effective way of introducing the casual wanderer to the artists who work here. Their contact numbers and price ranges are displayed, and I came across new names, which is always interesting.

There are problems, of course – the sun plays havoc, reflecting; steamed up windows obscure things; seagulls make no distinction between art and commerce when they crap; peering into domestic space can seem intrusive, and climbing behind white vans full of men On a Hard Earned Twix Break to peer into said windows can be alarming. Plus I saw 44 out of the 45 and realised belatedly that I had missed one.

The larger problem perhaps isn’t a problem at all, because the essence of this event I suspect is its spontaneity – people got enthused and pulled it together fairly quickly. But art, whatever its quality or quantity, needs to be thoughtfully, sensitively, wittily hung. The hidden business of putting an exhibition on is like the duck’s legs paddling like mad under water, the 7\8ths of the iceberg.

Ask any exhibitions organiser. It takes time. And in an outside space, full of street geometry, unusual window dressings, high, low, deep, shallow viewing areas, you have to match art and situation very niftily.

A legitimate chance to peer into someone's windows

A legitimate chance to peer into someone's windows (photo courtesy Rebecca Marr)

Sometimes this works stunningly well. Sylvia Hays’ ‘Windowblind’ full of eyes, some shifting, some gazing directly back, works well as a riff on the whole idea of who is gazing at whom; the blind, literally, blinds us to the light beyond – but the eyes offer a second sight. That’s clever.

Mike Henderson’s thoughtful photos of Stromness windows works cleverly too, though it’s hard to see well, set rather low. Jeremy Baster’s tight, elegant Japanese woodcut of two cyclists, ‘Sprint’, blazes out, bouncing with energy, from a domestic window, outside which is parked an enormous gleaming motorbike. That’s serendipidy.

Crispin Worthington’s pretty watercolour postcards, demure, nostalgic, summery, empty of toil, deliver an enticing picturesque vision, situated as they are in his house, which has one of the best harbour and pier views, much snapped by the tourists.

Interestingly though, these works are at the empty end of town, the bit where ‘ there’s nothing there.’ There’s more space in which to gaze and think – it’s quiet, so that the lady with the loud heels talking loudly into her mobile hand is a real irritant, and seems to be somehow being rude to the street and the raw souls of the artists she’s marching past.

A pause for reflection

A pause for reflection (photo courtesy Rebecca Marr)

Where there’s more hubbub, there are also larger works, and very abstract meditations on shape, or colour. These don’t fare so well, I think. The setting does these artists few favours. Who needs Mondrian in a window  in raw primary shades, when the street itself yields such enticing geometry and subtle tones?

Who needs standing stones in a raucous sunset when there are stones – real ones – abounding, and the play of light on water? Who needs the bits of rusted trawler from the boat which has been slowly decaying for forty years untouched on the beach, detatched and put in a display, when you can go and see them returning to their own wreckage just down the road at the beach?

Narrative, on the other hand, draws the eye in. We are after all, looking in at someone’s life when we look into domestic space, as Vermeer knew well – so Mark Scadding’s ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ is a real joy. It’s nostalgic and elegiac yes,  – the tilly, the teapot, the ship-in-a-bottle, the gauges – and none the worse for that : it’s sited near enough the old Lighthouse pier to be meaningful in real time.

Shona Firth’s ‘Tooteroo’ has the same enticing presence – there’s a story behind this child with its toy trumpet, this Orkney wifie braced for the photograph; endowing it with colour, painting the photographic image back into something warm, turns the piece into something you want to go back to again and again. It too, talks to us about the importance of the looked – at and the looker.

I’m frustrated that Sandra Knight’s eerie, seductive display case ‘True\Untrue’ (another clever riff on who’s gazing in at what through how many windows and how deeply, at which version of Orkney and its place in a body’s life) is so low down you really can’t stoop safely to enjoy it at leisure – and there’s lots to mull over, china budgies and tellytubbies, good luck pots and plaited hair. – it’s on a narrow bit of street, through which cars are wont to career.

Calum Morrison’s ‘The Brilliant’ is a fine celebration of a hard working boat at the end of its days – but that was the misty window and I really wanted to enjoy this artist’s subtle use of colour.

Faces matter; Robin Bownass’ portrait of ‘Diana’ stops us in our tracks – strong, confident work, great brush skill; that window’s alive with presence; as is the window which houses a quiet photograph which sums a lot of stuff up – a view of Hoy with kirkyard stones rising beyond a field of ripe corn. Birth, death, renewal, all in a wee window; pretty good – that’s Alistair Peebles typically unshowy, sensitive photography.

There have been headshakings about this way of using the street. To turn it into an art gallery seems to seal its fate; there will no longer be horses heaving carts through mud, which is why the flags and cobbles were put there in the first place; nobody thought then that they were quaint and pretty, and would be re-made at great expense in a horseless world.

These empty business windows are just that – failed businesses, dusty. The accommodating domestic windows aren’t the base, any more, for working fishermen, trawlermen, lighthousemen. They have plaques on them commemorating what they used to be. I wonder how many of the (very few) working businesses on the street were unwilling to give up their window space, the showcase for their own kind of work.

But there’s no use refusing to embrace the real. There’s an information superhighway, not a street, these days, and Renewable is the new mantra, buzzing away like the bees in Rebecca Marr’s hypnotising photo. The challenge for artists is to reflect this crossroads Orkney is facing, as perhaps Frances Pelly does best, in her elegant meditations on nature’s  fragility, cut through with something tough and eternal. ‘Rune Boats’ is not sentimental in the least.

Too many to mention – and I know why I missed that one – because a couple were eating their sandwiches under it. Plenty to think about. Perfect timing, just at St Magnus Festival. The cultural tourist will, I hope, find someone whose work they want to see more of, and buy, and will certainly not think, ‘ there’s nothing there.’

© Morag MacInnes, 2011