Of Literature, Art, Canons and Constitutions
Bella Caledonia introduces a visually stunning new work by Scottish artist Helen MacAlister/Eilidh Nic Alasdair, based on Alan Riach’s “open canon” of Scottish literature.
“It’s a drawing. It’s one piece made up of 6 sheets. The basis of it, in simple terms, brings together a list and a word. The list is an open canon of Scottish literature and the word is honeysuckle. The Gaelic word for honeysuckle also covers education, instruction etc. I therefore broke it down to the fractions HONE / Y / SUCKLE, i.e. hone and suckle.”
– Eilidh Nic Alasdair
(Extract from sheet 5 of 6)
Planets form, tectonic plates shift, continents collide, and there is a tendency in Scotland – almost a self-perpetuating tradition – that we view the affairs of humankind as inconsequential in some bigger picture, one that is either non-existent or at the very least not chosen by the artists and writers who live and work here.
Artists’ endeavours, along with their confidence and artistic freedom, are often undermined by the peculiarly British notion that better fish are always waiting to be fried elsewhere. Somehow, themes that emanate from Scotland – unlike any other country in the world – are parochial. Not before time, this lack of self-respect, wrestled with long ago by figures such as Hugh MacDiarmid, is being widely addressed in 2014.
By any definition of the term, these are historic times. Writers, artists and ordinary citizens are all struggling to find their own voice, to work out what it means to be a part of this living, dynamic entity and polity we call Scotland and where we are going with it. Clear voices and vision are at a premium. Contemporary art and culture need to engage with the great political debate of the day and help forge the national culture of the future, irrespective of the outcome of the September 2014 referendum.
(Extract from sheet 6 of 6)
Eilidh Nic Alasdair is one such seeker in a nation mapping out a future for itself – and hopefully by itself – for the first time in centuries. A returnee from European climes, languages, visual idioms and imagery, Eilidh explores and fuses the art, languages and literature of Scotland. Acutely aware of their wider European context and the extent to which language forges our sense of identity, she also recognises that Gaelic, although long-since a minority language, has forged much of the identity that passes as Scottish.
“… we, as artists and writers, scientists and philosophers, the inheritors of Scottish culture, the inheritors of the democratic intellect, must move away from a situation of eternally recurrent renaissance in which we are continually surprised by our past achievements in art and literature, towards a situation in which we can take them for granted. We must realise the significance of artists like Helen MacAlister in that process.”
Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee
As a traveller in language as a means of understanding subtleties and complexities, Eilidh reminds us that a multilingual society is one rich in culture. Her fusion of the visual and the linguistic reflects the political and cultural context of the day – a nation struggling with its identity and an artistic community playing its part in the great affairs of state and most definitely not leaving it all up to the full-time politicians.
“Helen MacAlister’s creation of a visual experience where this list of works and authors of Scottish literature across millennia, from pre-Christian times to now, is an invitation to explore, learn, find out more about the world, but more than that – it is an invitation to appreciate this in an immediate visual act of apprehension, to pause on that, before going to the archive, and to defend ourselves against our most terrible tendency towards self-destruction.”
Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature, Glasgow University
Expanding on Alan Riach’s “Scottish Literature: An Open Canon”, Eilidh helps propel Scottish art, culture, society and – yes, the bad word again – politics in a positive direction. Hers is a unique and beautiful contribution at a unique and beautiful juncture in our collective history.
Tam McTurk (email@example.com), Citadel Translations, a fellow traveller in languages
(Sheet 4 of 6)