|text by Andy Fairgrieve
I have always thought of swallows as being rather remarkable creatures. Every year these intrepid little birds make the long migration from the southern hemisphere to the cooler climes of northern Europe where they are welcomed as the heralds of summer. Across Europe there is a good body of folklore attached to swallows. This embedding into human culture suggests swallows have been making their trips north for some time now. So in all probability, generations of swallows would have spent their summers above the land to the north of Dufftown long before William Grant chose the same spot to build his distillery in 1886. Today the summer skies above The Glenfiddich Distillery are still pierced with the shrill cries of a throng of swallows. Their presence gives the changes of time a sense of continuity. They are part of the rhythm of the year.
Of course, over the past six years at Glenfiddich, The Artists in Residence programme has given this annual rhythm an additional vibrancy. For each year, not long after the arrival of the first swallows, we prepare to welcome visual artists from around the world. First to arrive in 2007 was Godfrey Majadibodu, whose journey had started in the same country as our swallows had a few weeks earlier. Of course, Godfrey's flight from South Africa took considerably less time than that of the swallows and despite having to endure a change-over at Heathrow, I am sure it was also somewhat less arduous.
However, just like swallows, one artist a summer does not make. Arriving a few days later was Luis Bisbe. Luis had chosen to make the journey from his home in Barcelona by road rather than air. He was accompanied by his partner Christina and their ever-smiling baby boy, David. Another early arrival was John Kenny, an Edinburgh based composer / musician. John was the first Glenfiddich resident not to be a visual artist. This expansion to the programme was designed to add a new dynamic to the mix and over the course of the summer John played his part in helping to achieve this. Without delay the gallery was rapidly transformed in to a rehearsal / recording studio and, with assistance from guitarist and recording engineer Jim Brooks, John composed, performed and recorded a number of musical movements in his first week. By mid-June two more artists had arrived from opposite corners of the globe. Romeo Alaeff from New York and Yao Jui-chung with his partner Maggie from Taipei. Both settled down to life at the distillery quickly. Romeo researching materials for a planned series of Rorschach style prints while Yao, who had brought some basic materials with him, immediately began work on the first of his ‘golden drawings’. By the end of the month the group had been joined by Canadian Jonathan Kaiser and shortly afterwards was completed with the arrival of Ding Jie (Ding Ding) from Beijing.
Swallows fly high, sure to stay dry…
The summer of 2007 will be remembered in Scotland as one of the wettest on record. For some of our residents, such as Romeo whose initial creative requirements were little more than a fast computer, good scanner and a warm kitchen with a big table, the rain was of little inconvenience. For Godfrey on the other hand whose normal practice was to observe and sketch the daily hustle and bustle of his township’s street markets, the constant torrents were slightly more bothersome. His plan had been to transfer his artistic voyeurism to the daily activities of the distillery and Dufftown, but setting up outside was out of the question. Preferring oil and acrylic to water colours Godfrey wisely turned his attention to indoor activities, capturing the social interaction of Dufftown’s public houses in his sketches. He also became a regular at the weekly whisky nosing and tasting sessions held over the summer in the town's Whisky Museum. This led to a series of sketches entitled ‘The Sense of Whisky’ celebrating enjoyment of the spirit through its aroma and appearance as much as from its flavour. Eminently a practical man, Godfrey was also drawn to the distillery's cooperage as a source of inspiration. However, rather than simply passively observing the coopers building and rejuvenating the casks that imbue so much to the spirit, he rolled up his sleeves and took a turn at barrel assembly himself. One day he asked me if he could have some staves and a drill. I obliged, and a few days later Godfrey had constructed his own easel. This he set up with a canvas in the bay window of his house overlooking the distillery allowing him to capture the scene regardless of the weather.
The rain also affected some of the plans Yao had made. As well as a series of drawings to be known as ‘Wonderful’ he had planned to undertake a photographic study of local flora and fauna to be used in a future work. While these plans were not entirely abandoned, the weather forced him to concentrate on his drawings. Sheet after sheet of hand made paper disappeared under acres of gold leaf and ink. Yao's rate of production was phenomenal, with over thirty large works being completed during his stay. Having had the good fortune to witness for myself the sheer level of activity that is Taipei city later on in 2007, I can well acknowledge Yao's comments that the calm of the residency acted as a sabbatical for him retuning his body's energy, allowing him to put himself back in touch with the inner artist. The low tech, almost meditative aspect of his drawing was also a direct contrast to the technologically related stresses that often accompanied his other, more digital practices.
With both Yao and Godfrey producing at such a rate I was able to start planning the first show of work for the start of August. A new wall was built, partially dividing the gallery to allow additional hanging space. The main body of the exhibition was to be provided by the aforementioned artists with work-in-progress inputs from the others.
Working closely with the print shop at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Romeo finally managed to drag his first print ‘William Wallace an'aw that’ screaming on to paper. This first work had been a difficult birth, as Romeo agonized over the different visual ciphers to be incorporated into his overall final image. The resultant piece was possibly the most intricate of the five works he would produce over the course of the summer. Layered with almost subconscious imagery suggesting a hidden symbolism, Romeo even managed to weave in the silhouette of one of the swallows that had nested in the eaves of his house.
Another difficult first birth was also experienced by Luis Bisbe. Luis's original concept had been to examine the maturation process for Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Specifically he wanted to look at how the maturing spirit not only develops its character but also increases in monetary value during this period. With all the technicalities for such a proposal far from being worked out, Luis had to turn his attention elsewhere for his input to the first exhibition. This thought-process was not unlike the art of distilling where volume is decreased to provide pure essence and out of this process came one overriding concept which would eventually link together the three works Luis would go on to produce during his stay. This concept involved the arrangement of everyday objects that would not seem out of place with one another. In fact, they would seem so everyday and normal that all but the most observant or pre-informed would pass by completely unaware of the subversion taking place. The first of these works ‘Not a Bike’ was to be situated by the railings outside the gallery where artists and visitors often leave their bicycles. A trip to the company archives provided all the inspiration required for Jonathan Kaiser. It was here he came across a story concerning Ella and Meta Grant, daughters of William. On New Year's Eve 1887, the girls had been assisting their older brother in the tun room of the distillery when a switcher was accidentally dropped into one of the fermentation vats. Fearful this would spoil the brew, the girls ran up the hill to Dufftown in order to inform their father of the calamity. The tale contained many elements that appealed to Jonathan, the child-like innocence, the snow on the ground, and the moonlit landscape gave the story an almost fairy tale like atmosphere. As such, it provided the perfect blend of fact and fantasy, which served as a departure point for the development of a highly intricate series of cut and folded paper assemblages. These sculptural pieces took on the form of pop-up books, which Jonathan would teasingly unveil chapter by chapter over the course of his residency.
With the first exhibition installed and open to the public there was barely enough time to draw breath before beginning the preparations for the second show planned for a few weeks later. Romeo spent a good proportion of this time in Dundee overseeing the printing of four further works in his ‘War on the Brain’ series. Jonathan continued to cut and fold paper into the most delicate of forms, pausing only to bake mouth wateringly delicious chocolate cookies. With assistance from the distilleries maintenance team, work began on the second of Luis's projects, ‘Not a Car’. During this period it was becoming obvious that for technical and legal reasons, Luis's original plan was struggling to get off the ground. However, pleased with the result of his first work and the strengthening of the overall concept with ‘Not a Car’, Luis changed tack. For his third work Luis looked to combine two objects one might expect to find in any distillery warehouse: a barrel of maturing spirit and a long-handled floor brush. However, the integrity of Scotch whisky is protected by acts of law. Any insert of wood into the maturing cask can affect the rate of maturation by altering the wood to spirit ratio. To do as Luis wished and pass a brush shaft made of the oak through a barrel would, in fact, lead to the spirit inside not being classified as Scotch whisky. This not only reinforced his underlying concept that these new arrangements of objects destroyed the original use and corrupted their meaning. It also provided a title for this work (Not Scotch Whisky) which could be adapted and extended to the other two works.
Meanwhile the last of the artists to arrive, Ding Ding, who because of the short lead time was unable to contribute to the first show, was putting the finishing touches to her exquisite pencil drawings ‘Dark Voice’ and ‘Bright Feeling’.
Into this buzz of creative activity we began to welcome visitors, including members of the Carnyx Youth Brass – an ensemble formed by John Kenny and drawn from the very best young composers and performers from St. Mary's School of Music in Edinburgh who treated us to an evening’s performance in the distillery's Malt Barn whisky bar. We also received an old friend in the shape of former resident, Taipei artist Chen Hui-chaio who brought with her several writers and journalists keen to review the efforts of this year's residents. This influx provided a good excuse for dinner parties, BBQs and day trips out. Of course, the second opening itself also provided another first class night of socialising.
As August turned to September I was reminded by the sight of the swallows gathering on the telegraph wires that the summer was drawing to a close. With both Godfrey and Yao already away this feeling intensified - but the summer was to provide one final flourish. Overlooking the distillery stand the mighty ruins of Balvenie Castle. Over the past five summers, this imposing structure has often been the source of inspiration for our residents. John had already composed a piece entitled Balvenie Castle which he had performed at the Proms in the Park concert held in Edinburgh earlier in the summer. However it was Ding Ding for whom the castle held the deepest fascination. Aware that its ruinous state gave the structure a forlorn appearance, she desired to breathe some life back into its fabric - where an imagined past could be entwined into a fantasy dreamscape. Working closely with Historic Scotland. the windows of the castle were dressed with billowing fabrics and streams of reflective materials. In costumes designed and made by Ding Ding, John, his son Patrick (also an accomplished trombonist) and dance artist Eric Tessier Lavigne provided a theatrical element combining live performance with the amplified recording of the compositions John had recorded back in June. The evening event was held to coincide with the Autumn Speyside Whisky Festival, the falling dusk of late September only adding to the almost supernatural atmosphere. By this point the second exhibition had run its course so the gallery was given over to Ding Ding who filled the space with yards of carefully scripted calligraphy and arrangements of found objects, creating an installation that celebrated the life and friendship of Du Fu and Li Bai, two of the Tang dynasty's most respected poets.
By early October it was all over. The gallery, like the leafless trees outside, was stripped bare. The houses used to accommodate the artists along with the swallow nests in the eaves were empty and Luis's now filled barrel of not Scotch whisky settled down to its long period of maturation in the distillery's warehouse 8. However, the rhythm of the annual cycle continues for, as I write, the swallows have now returned to Glenfiddich and the selection of residents for 2008 is almost complete. There is no beginning, no end, but still - every year counts.