Editorial – Spring 2019

In welcoming you to Art North, I want to say something about what the magazine stands for and from where it emerged, as an idea. It is not my intention to contribute a long Editorial text to future issues of this magazine, but I think that our first issue merits a clear introduction concerning something of our vision for the future. Art North is a visual arts magazine from Scotland and the Far North, as it says on the cover, but it represents rather more than just that. Firstly it is founded on the belief that no artist should have to work in what amounts to a critical vacuum, and that the magazine should serve as a conduit for the passing on of information about the wealth of talent in even the most remote parts of Northern Scotland and the wider region of the Far North and Northern Europe, forging regional links where they do not already exist, and strengthening them where they do. 

In short, Art North is about fostering points of creative and critical contact internationally, then, recognising Scottish contemporary art and artists in a Far Northern context and reciprocating through the recognition of the art of our neighbours with whom we have much in common, whether they be neighbours close to home or more farther afield, as ‘neighbours of the mind’.

In explaining the arrival of Art North there are several ways of answering the question of how it came into being. The first is that, since I first started writing on the visual arts in the mid-1980s, I’ve seen a great many art magazines come and go, and the passing of some represented a great loss. The business of art criticism has changed dramatically over the past decade or so, however. Today, the mainstream art press is often more fixated upon the celebrity of the artist rather than the work they produce. It is ‘the work’ of artists that I am most interested in, not their standing in a hierarchy that has little to do with art, and has more to do with public relations. 

Over recent years I have found myself increasingly frustrated in seeing the art being made in our urban centres getting ever- wider coverage, and the art made in more remote locations, barely recognised at all. This is particularly true of that being made in the Far North of Scotland, though there are many venues and initiatives that do exceptional work to buck this trend and they are (and will be) applauded by this magazine.

Art North was conceived as a magazine that would better represent the art of what many think of as ‘the margins’, therefore, while also being about ‘internationalising’ the work of artists in the context of northern European art; in countries such as Norway, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, and further east to Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states, where artists can also be found working remotely, or without the widespread recognition they certainly deserve. 

If nothing else, Art North has been founded to address this issue and to redraw the map of where ‘centre’ and ‘margin’ actually are now. Indeed, in redrawing the map, that includes thinking transatlantically, too, taking in Greenland to the north, the Canadian maritime provinces, as well, and further inland to the Far North there, also.

If Art North is about anything, it is about giving due recognition to artists and makers who are truly deserving of it, yet simply do not have their work seen beyond what is sometimes a close-knit community. While there’s nothing wrong in that, and some hugely valuable contributions emerge from such communities precisely for those communities, every artist should enjoy recognition where it is due, and if Art North can cast light on such endeavours, then it will be doing some good in my view. 

In terms of the international perspective that I have referred to, there is some significant merit in thinking about what we do and the commonality that may exist between us all, of course. Some artists have already offered us some insight into this way of thinking and serve as exemplars of what I am alluding to here. Take, as just one example, the transatlantic collaborations of Shetland-based artist Vivian Ross-Smith and Newfoundland artist Jane Walker, whose collaborative work is revisited in this issue by the writer Matthew Hollett. Ross-Smith and Walkers’ islandness project is exactly the kind of initiative that I have in mind here, examining as it does not our differences, but the similarities and commonality of experiences among those living in locations far apart, yet relating to their ‘place’ in often similar ways. ‘Similarity and difference’, ‘centre and margin’, a sense of ‘connectedness and remoteness’ (whether geographically or theoretically) are all themes that will no doubt rise up from time to time in the pages of Art North. 

Another feature of the magazine will often be the perhaps unlikely pairing of writers, novelists, and poets with artists and makers as a means to offer up new or surprising perspectives that may not have been addressed before, or sometimes prove elusive in terms of the conventions of art criticism. These are the nuts and bolts of what Art North is about as will become clear over time.

Zooming out, however, there is another dimension to all of this. A quick glance at the contents of this first issue will quickly reveal that one of the themes for this issue relates to the Arctic. It won’t always be the case, but it seemed an apt topic to begin with, for the subject of climate change has been gaining traction and becoming etched into the psyche of many artists of the Far North over recent years, and here we may all have something significant in common.

In 2018, Kenny Taylor, editor of the literary paper Northwords Now wrote that, ‘as befits its links to the magnetism of the whole planet, north is a word with powerful attractions.’ Regardless of whether one might feel distant from it, or, conversely, consider oneself intrinsically northern: ‘there’s a sense of something wider and further; beyond immediate grasp, but worth striving to approach.’ In Taylor’s words, what resonates most strongly (for me anyway), is his additional observation that, for artists and writers, the theme of northerliness can often result in journeys being taken both ‘in person or in mind’, and from this, ‘writing and wider art’ may often be the result. In my experience, this is true.

By way of introduction to Art North, I think there is something further to be gained in examining precisely how Taylor came to write his own Editorial that I quote from here, for the thinking behind it can be traced back to the Scottish Government’s hosting of the Arctic Circle Forum in November 2017 in
Edinburgh: ‘Scotland – Arctic?’ he began,

...at first, the connection seems tenuous. But as delegates from across much of the upper part of the hemisphere – from Alaska, Canada, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scandinavia, and Scotland – shared information, the linkage began to make more sense. [...] In both geopolitical and environmental terms, the northern world is changing very fast. Melting of ice means that the Northwest Passage will soon readily be navigable by large vessels for much of the year. Goods will ship faster from China to Europe by this route. Norway and Finland are already cooperating on major infrastructure projects to receive Chinese containers. In just a handful of years, Iceland has become a global communications hub. From the growing disaster of global warming, entrepreneurs across the wider north are plucking business opportunities. It’s an uneasy combination. But like it or loathe it, this is the reality of the new north.

It is indeed an uneasy combination that Taylor summarises, and not least because, as Scott Minnerd, Chief Investment Officer at Guggenheim Partners has highlighted, just fifteen large cargo ships produce more sulphur and nitrogen oxides than all the automobiles in use globally each day. The opening of northern trade routes may well lead to an abundance of trade opportunities, but the environmental impact of black carbon produced by transportation of this kind will be beyond catastrophic. 

That said, there may be a connection between trade and the arts as was recently explained by former NYC Mayor and dedicated environmentalist, the philanthropist Michael Bloomberg who, just last November, announced the $1 million funding of a public art project for Anchorage, Alaska, with climate change as its topic. ‘I’ve always believed from a business point of view that art is a very smart investment for cities [because] culture brings capital faster that capital brings culture,’ he said. 

Can these two perspectives be linked? Do artists of the north have a vital role to play in not just attracting capital, but in informing and educating others on the responsible growth in investment, trade, and business opportunities? Can the arts play a part in the regeneration of such a vast northerly region while encouraging a responsible attitude to the expansion and development that is to come? Or does this seem far-fetched? 

Whatever your take on this is, it is not just the global trade operators who are responding to the opportunities opening up as the Arctic region undergoes irreversible changes, both culturally and industrially. Visual artists, writers, poets, and filmmakers, many of whom recognise their connectedness via a shared cultural vocabulary are also seizing the moment, too, and so they should! 

And yet... the cultural connections across the fields of visual art, craft, literature, that I refer to here, often appear to be considered secondary to the development of new trade opportunities and the growth of ‘sustainable tourism’ (much of which takes the form of ‘eco-chic’ vacations on the rich-list’s pick-list): At the event in Edinburgh that Taylor attended, the arts did not feature at all – though that may be about to change, about which I hope that Art North will have more news in our next issue.

While the impact of climate change is a concern for all right-thinking people and affects every one of us, I genuinely believe that the arts and culture industries have a crucial part to play in articulating something of the grave situation that awaits through a common language and committed engagement with the issues I address here. Indeed, When Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, told the Arctic Assembly convened in Reykjavík last year that, ‘Scotland is no longer peripheral at the northwest corner of Europe – we find ourselves in a key position, closer to the central Arctic, linking the region with the rest of Europe and the wider world,’ she signalled what could, if managed in the right way, become a renaissance in the arts of northern Europe. 

With this in mind, then, Art North is thus a magazine that is also about seizing that moment and, where appropriate, internationalising the arts of Scotland’s Northern Highlands and Islands, subjecting them to critical appraisal and scrutiny of a kind that is befitting the quality of work being produced, and measuring the achievements of artists and craftmakers with those of our neighbours with whom we have so much in common, and to whom Art North reaches out to here.

Who we are now and how we fare in the future may well be determined not by the stating of our differences, but in the commonality of our experiences and how we articulate those experiences in the art that we make today; that is, as we move forward into a future that at present may seem so uncertain from where we stand now. 


Ian McKay
Art North, Spring 2019