Ash to Art

Ash to Art at Christies King St , 8 March 2017

Today, 25 truly remarkable artworks – all made with or from burnt fragments of the Mackintosh Library – will be auctioned at Christie’s for the benefit our campus appeal.

Having seen the works in the catalogue, the emotional response I had upon entering the small preview exhibition was rather unexpected. I was reminded of walking into the library for the first time post-fire: the punch in the gut, the lump in the throat, the tearing eyes. And perhaps most surprisingly, while standing in front of GSA alumni Martin Boyce’s wonderful ‘Spook School’ piece, a faint scent of smoke. A smell mostly long-vanished from the Mack, yet those of us who frequent its halls for the project still catch the occasional unexpected whiff.

Rachael Purse contemplates Martin Boyce’s work.

This was an experience shared by some of the contributing artists, as GSA alumni Chantal Joffe noted:

“Receiving the box was quite upsetting, like receiving the ashes of a dead friend. The charcoal was softer than I’m used to, it was hard to get an edge. As I drew, it released the smell of the fire.”

Rachael and I are in London for research, but we timed the trip to take in the auction, which will no doubt be very exciting. But from an academic perspective, it is bittersweet as this will be the only time this collection will be exhibited together before dispersed to fortunate private collectors – though there is always the hope that a savvy public collection will bid on some of these pieces, which are all rather reasonably priced, if you’ve got that kind of budget. My own lottery ticket didn’t come in, so sadly the Grayson Perry urn, poignantly preserving a bit of library-charcoal, won’t be coming home with me.

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Grayson Perry, ‘Art is dead Long live Art’. Charcoal from the Mackintosh Library in glazed ceramic. 21 x 10cm.

As a body of work, the lot is worth a much more considered analysis than I’ll offer in this quick post, but the range of responses is truly impressive. From Anish Kapoor‘s minimal encasement of an unaltered fragment in rich red Perspex to Tacita Dean‘s dreamy charcoal drawings, the variation in approaches is reflective of the manifold artistic practices taught at the Glasgow School of Art.

One GSA alumni, Alison Watt, offered and exquisitely minimalist canvas that to my eye looks very like an elegant detail from a piece of Mackintosh furniture. The work reflects the loss Watt felt, as many of us did, at the fire:

“I cried when I heard of the fire. The Glasgow School of Art has a particular hold over those who studied there, not only through its remarkable physical presence, but also as an idea. The idea of creativity coming from the wreckage resonated with me. I delicately shaved small slivers from the charred wood and ground them to a powder mixed with Payne’s Grey and Burnt Sienna oil colour, creating a particularly intense black. It’s a darkness which is hard to define.”

Alison Watt ‘Deep Within the Heart of Me’. Oil & charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on canvas. 46 x 46cm.

Some pieces are not such emotional responses, even irreverent, and I was particularly delighted by Joseph Kosuth’s ‘O.M.C.’ – of which he said:

The title ‘O.M.C’ signifies ‘One Mackintosh Chair’, which is a semi-ironic reference to that well-known early work of mine. So, potentially, the charcoal used in the drawing is the remains of the chair being depicted.”

Joseph Kosuth ‘O.M.C’. Charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on paper. 92.5 x 79.5cm.

Referencing his iconic 1965 ‘One and Three Chairs‘, a piece that opened my young art student mind to semiotics and conceptual art, it rang a doubly personal note.
But perhaps my most favourite piece – and surely I am biased here – is Sir Peter Blake’s velvety composite image of the library before and after the fire. The classic Annan photo hovers at the surface, in which the artist has employed his charcoal.

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Sir Peter Blake, ‘Untitled’. Inkjet graphite and charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on paper. 57.7 x 71cm.

The caption reads:

“Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the Library at Glasgow School of Art, both before and after the fire (his cravat is drawn in charcoal from the burnt Library).”

While my fingers are crossed for a massive return on the time and heart these artists invested and gave us, I confess a bit of sadness thinking these pieces will not be seen together again. Perhaps they might be gathered once more in another 100 years, when even the reconstructed areas of the Mack will again be viewed as historic cultural icons.

And here we go…

EDIT: What an exciting event! The final results can be viewed by clicking here (lots 240-264), but a quick & dirty calculation shows that the auction realised just under £570,000 for us! Deepest thanks to all the artists who gave time, care, and effort to support the Glasgow School of Art.

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