Rik Hammond and William Kirkness

23 Feb 2012 in Orkney, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, until 17 March 2011

THIS IS an intriguing pairing.

BOTH shows, in their different ways, are enigmatic, almost teasing. This can be delightful and also frustrating – I’ll try and explain why.

Rik Hammond had three weeks at the Ness of Brodgar site – yes, that one, the one you saw through a haze of holiday celebration on New Year’s Day on telly, the one in which yet another toothsome young man with a scarf walked backwards from the camera talking very enthusiastically and using his hands a lot.

It’s a major archaeological G-spot, and the theories about Life, Death and the Universe are orgasming out of it. So are finds – a Brodgar Boy, painted walls, all sorts of stuff. It’s been buzzing with volunteers, viewers, schoolchildren; you can buy NOBS woolly hats.

Trench Recording (Ness of Brodgar) Action 2011 -  Rik Hammond on site at the Ness of Brodgar as part of his short artist residency (photo Clare Gee)

Trench Recording (Ness of Brodgar) Action 2011 - Rik Hammond on site at the Ness of Brodgar as part of his short artist residency (photo Clare Gee)

Rik was ‘ exploring aspects of the heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site,’ ‘exploring ideas realating to the wider themes of identity, belonging, and place.’ First thing you hit in the Pier – appropriately, perhaps – are a corridor full of bullseyes. These field studies in pen and ink , with spoil heap dirt incorporated sometimes, are meditations on circles, suns, and searching for the truth, I think.  They may have to do with the precision archaeologists bring to their mapping of territory. They may also be suggesting that, no matter haw mathematically rigorous you may be, ancient truth will elude you.

‘I doot yun boy’s spent ower long in the pub’, said a lady, and it’s true, the targets do put you in mind of the occe and one-hundred-and-EIGHTY. But  move on, into the double height gallery. There on the wall is a spidery track – it’s a GPS walk, a collaboration between Rik and archaeologist James Moore. Beneath it there are two glass bottles, filled – no, layered – with stuff. There are cows heads in there, in the soil.

Next to this, Tool – an inky scrawl on graph paper – reminds you of the task in hand and the enormity of the mystery you’re trying to unravel. The video being and remembering – ‘miscellaneous action and digital works’, offers no explanations either. Turn round and there’s a 360 degree drawing – another collaboration – grimy, layered, scuffed – work in progress, trying to extract sense from layers and layers of ancient earth, stone, rubble.

Layers and circles, instruments and emptinesses – there are telling, pleasing spaces between the lines, and across the pages. Hammond has a strong sense of line and how to deploy it – and when to stop and merely suggest.

In the hall I hear the old mantra again – ‘but are you allowed to touch it?’ And then, even more pertinent to the subject in hand – ‘can I put it together?’ It’s a jigsaw, this art work. Called Tea Break, it’s a version of the information trailer which graces the Brodgar site, a witty riff on the whole business of what you do with broken bits when you are in the re-creation business.

Some lateral thinker has built some of the shapes into a sort of 3D Brodgar stone. By the time I’ve been round, someone else has demolished this and laid out all the straight edges, colour coded. I love this (there are as many archaeologists, and methods, as there are relics, rituals and middens), just as I love the rail of High Visibility jackets in the harbour view room.  This room is beloved by artists, I think, because you can make it an environment, a happening – which is what’s going on here.

The jackets  say daft things which are also deep. In-jokes for archaeologists  (who have their own vocabulary, like all trades)  – ‘What would Colin Renfrew do?’ or ‘Keep Calm and Dig a Test Pit’  hang next to ‘Intangible Heritage Warden’,  ‘Treasure Officer’ and ‘I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it.’ Ah, the power of the name emblazoned on your back. I love this subtle subversion of the whole business of Heritage Industry – uniforms, titles, structures which confer meaning in the midst of mystery.

Spoil (castles) & Spoilcastle (gold) with High Visibility (vests with text) in background

Spoil (castles) & Spoilcastle (gold) with High Visibility (vests with text) in background

Neatly counterpointing this sideways comment on the whole business of organised heritage is a fantastic floorshow. Sandcastles, made of spoil heap dirt and paint, scattered on the floor – and thus called Spoilcastles. Some are broken,  some have three towers, some two, some are just nubs – some suspiciously perfect, like replicas – they are layered and striated, and in the middle, waving a World Heritage Flag, is a gold one. Perfect and very pleased with itself. A gold mine. A painted bauble.

It’s great.

Beyond it is the closest thing in the show to a traditional landscape with a horizon – Untitled (Golden Landscape). I am very taken by this, though it looks for all the world like the Somme – mud, emptiness, a faint gold glimmer in the sky. It’s perfectly placed beside the Spoilcastles, the slightly desperate neon jackets wth their hopeful logos. It suggests (to me anyway) that no matter how far you dig, and how many bonny boys you put on camera to speculate about Circles of Life and Circles of Death and processional pathways – you’ll never crack the real mysteries of our golden landscape.

If this is just three weeks work, it seems to me a year long residency should be mandatory.

As you look beyond the bullseyes, you see a very Orkney face staring from a very traditional portrait –  perfectly illustrating the contrast between one kind of excavation and another.

Mirella Arcidiaacono is the Gallery and Museum Intern. She found a plaster bust and three straw cubbies made by the gentle-looking chap in the portrait, William Kirkness, in the Museum, and her exhibition is the result of some detective work into an Orcadian who really should be much better known.

William Kirkness watercolour by Hamish Paterson 1942 (on loan from Laura A Dutch)

William Kirkness watercolour by Hamish Paterson 1942 (on loan from Laura A Dutch)

Kirkness was the son of the Westray straw back chair maker David Kirkness, and inherited his father’s skill. The straw cubbie on show here is a perfect marriage of function and beauty – firm, assured, neat, rhythmic, like a perfect sonnet except useful in the kitchen. His life took him to Edinburgh, after a spell in the Royal Scots in World War 1. There he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, donating and contributing articles; he became an inspirational and inventive crafts teacher at Tynecastle School, and was made a fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland for his research into experimental psychology; he made films of rural life and archaeological digs and educational matters which won prizes (like the excellently named Lucidity Prize awarded for his observations of Sheep Dipping in Shetland.)

Had you heard of him? Me neither. Clearly he’s an important part of the flowering of craft and social activity which was so much a part of the Scottish renaissance. He lived near Stanley Cursitor and Eric Linklater knew him and consulted him. He was around at the same time as Margaret Tait was filming.

There are tantalising glimpses here – a page from the Tynecastle School Magazine (1929-31) tells us of his energy – he’s setting up a home cinema; there’s a studio with a camera for photographers; a jazz club, a reading room where ‘we spend many a happy night which usually terminates with a hearty supper’ … we see his girl pupils in their ankle socks and pinafores, doing woodwork, (it seems they’re making toy boxes, but still…).

Best of all are three films he made about excavations in Orkney – William Traill ‘the friendly gadfly’ is there in his plus fours and stout brogues, striding about in the bog cotton. Neatly printed information flashes up – these educational films would suit all ages and there’s no irritating music or glitzy presenter getting in the way. You just observe, read, observe, learn. It was far sighted of Kirkness to film the excavation of the Knap of Howar; and indeed, he seems to have been a man with an eye on both the past and how the future might deal with it.

I said these shows were both enigmatic – and the slight frustration here is that there’s not enough information about the subject. But as a taster, this exhibition should certainly encourage more research into Kirkness and his Edinburgh circle – and give him his proper place in Orkney’s archaeological hall of fame.

© Morag MacInnes, 2012