THE HOME GROUND
I hope to perform some kind of alchemy here. The theme of the 17th Sydney Biennale: The Beauty of Distance was the final ingredient in the mix. It began with hearing artist friends discuss the disadvantages of working away from London. The Beauty of Distance is about celebrating the uniqueness that is created by distance. In exploring Steven MacIver’s art can I conjure up a precious concept that a unique background is valuable to creativity?
(Image: Form II (Oita) © the artist)
For the past 5 years Steven MacIver has been drawn to arenas and stadia. While living in Italy he says he was particularly influenced by history and Rome’s Circus Maximus. The games of ancient times were often more ruthless than present day. I don’t think Steven would see where I’m going with this but let me flag up the grisly motif of the Be-Heading Game which appears in old Celtic tales. A person is decapitated; the head rolls into a crowd and is kicked around, and so begins a terrible game. Perhaps his experiences in Italy brought to the surface elements already present but dormant. I’m not saying Steven is directly influenced by his northern Orkney roots, but I think some aspects of it in his blood are trickling through to his art.
Orkney, where Steven grew up, has a traditional ball game played in the streets at Xmas and New Year. The legendary but incorrect origin of the Orkney Ba’ game is described as a macabre event when angry townsfolk kicked the severed head of the hated tyrant, Tusker, around the streets from the Mercat Cross.* We’ll get back to this later.
Witnessing thousands of fans spilling into Rome’s Circus Maximus to watch the 2006 world cup final on big screens inspired Steven’s Latitude project. Beginning in Rome, which lies at N41°, he set out in Feb 2009 to follow latitude 41° in an ambitious project. So began his search for evidence of a common language tied up in the concept of the “Home Ground” and its links to its community. The sea-faring traditions of Steven’s Orkney background might have encouraged him to look at lines of latitude in a world dominated by air travel.
With himself described as the drawing tool he traced the line of the globe, allowing latitude 41° to steer him; so he could encounter a broad cross-section of stadia and communities. His journey took him to the 91,000-seater Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing but also to small American towns and off- the- tourist- map places like Kazakhstan. Donning his artist/architect/anthropologist hats he examined the structures’ functionality, their relationship to their physical setting, what spaces are created – and of course what the structures mean to their communities.
(Images: Configuration 1 (Detail), Relegation I, Piazza San Pietro (Detail) © the artist)
An interest in language has also influenced Steven’s technique. Like artist Linda Karshan he believes in the superiority of drawing over painting. Steven believes it should be viewed as a complex language. The many examples of runic writing found at ancient sites in Orkney and in local contemporary design work might have encouraged this – even on a sub-conscious level. Karshan’s description of herself as “a carver” is taken even further by MacIver who likens his technique to almost an excavation; using a variety of tools, often a scalpel in the case of sharp lines, he removes wet paint to reveal the layers beneath. Underlying areas of colour have been carefully laid down ready to expose. His approach mainly sees him producing drawings in oil on canvas. The strong craft tradition of the islands comes through in his work: a skilful and painstaking process with freehand organic lines and later add-ons of colour which Steven describes as “jewels”.
Steven is attracted by places where people gather and includes squares and churches in his oeuvre. His approach has changed since the solitary figure in Relegation I. Piazza San Pietro, Rome is a square that attracts the greatest number of visitors in the world but Steven’s vision of the square is empty. Steven has realized that it is more powerful to allow our imaginations full reign leaving the spaces unpopulated. We can tap into past, future and present events – it is all held within the architecture. I liken it to standing in a deserted medieval church nave; we are expectant of footsteps – ghostly or yet to come.
Steven has lived in Orkney and later Rome; from a place of archaeology and Norse ancestry to the seat of the great Roman Empire. The importance of history already ingrained must have bitten in deeper while in Italy. Could this be behind his desire to place drawing at the top of the hierarchy – as it is the root of everything? He exerts that “all art can be considered the skilful rearrangement of matter and that everything that is man-made once existed as a drawing.”
His art looks to sport and football – a bit low-brow? Not only is Steven elevating drawing to a High Art, he might also be ennobling his subject matter. The emphasis on craft and detail, minimalistic colour sometimes suggesting a grisaille/marbled/faded quality, imposing architecture – there’s a touch of looking back to classical antiquity in his work. I think his Orkney background and time in Italy has taught him that a game is never just that. Anyone who has witnessed the Orkney Ba’ knows that it’s wrapped up in tradition. The Italians are known for their extreme passion in soccer and life. The Romans knew the power games could have over its subjects:
“...nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman,-because I have been among human beings.” [In reference to the degree of violence of the games]: “...now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder.” Seneca. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.
Steven is interested in the tribalism and fanaticism; the religiosity apparent at the stadia. Sportsmen hold an influential position, particularly among our youth – often from modest beginnings they rise to the top. Mere mortals can become heroes on the field – although the figures by Millet and Courbet are missing a sense of the grandeur of common man might be held within the stadia. To the ancient gods we were all pawns. Life is often described as a game. The game encompasses all of human emotions and often death is part of it.
For the charioteers who raced at the Circus Maximus, the factions they represented symbolized the seasons. Elements from Steven’s background appear to have directly shaped his art – in particular how he views the passage of time. In summarizing his Latitude journey he drew the important conclusion that it was an interlinked event with previous and future locations influencing his experiences. Omitting people from his work further supports this concept of not being fixed in time.
Going back to my opening comments on the legend of Tusker and the Orkney Ba’; the motif of the Be-Heading Game isn’t actually concerned with death but is thought to symbolize the passing of time – the death of the old year makes way for the triumphant New Year. Steven appears to recognize that the language and emotions of the home ground are not tied to the present but cross into the past and link to the future. Surging up from his roots perhaps, he has come to realize that time has a vital role and the entire timeline needs to be considered while working in the present.
(Image: Shibuya © the artist)
The Orkney Ba’ is the most significant games of the year in the Orkney Islands – so it is an incredible fact that the Orkney Ba’ has no separate Home Ground – it is played among the houses. At times it has even passed through them. As with the Be-Heading Game, time calls the shots as the town gives itself over for the games each year – there is no designated architecture. Therefore the universal language and what is held in the empty stadia must be contained within the streets all year around in Orkney. Perhaps this is the greatest contribution coming from his background; and what Steven has intuitively seized and transferred to his art.
In his exploration of the concept of the home ground I like to imagine that echoes of old voices whispering through the streets urged him on his voyage. So far this search has been vital to his art – like a skeleton underlying his body of work, it leads him by the hand on his own creative path. We each have our own unique starting point - even more important than knowing where a journey ends is to value how it began.
* Mercat Cross = a market cross - traditional structure (not always cruciform) found in many Scottish towns and cities and sometimes established overseas by Scottish immigrants . It was a meeting place for merchants and a focal point for other important local events.
Art is the means by which life reflects on, transforms and indeed creates its values; human life without it would not properly be human at all.Antony Gormley
You can see more examples of the artist's work at www.stevenmaciver.com
It's worth noting that he currently works on large-sized canvases, making the difficult and painstaking process of his art even harder.