Robert Burns Reggae: Interview with Graham Fagen

Graham Fagen discusses his new body of work, set to be exhibited in the 2015 Venice Biennale

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf and Franchesca Hashemi | 30 Apr 2015

Multidisciplinary Glasgow artist Graham Fagen has been commissioned by curators Hospitalfield House as this year's representative for Scotland+Venice. He'll be presenting a new solo show in the Palazzo Fontana, a new exhibition space for the Scottish Pavilion after several years' residence in the Palazzo Pisani. This is Fagen's second time showing for Scotland in the international art bonanza, his first being 2003's Zenomap group exhibition programme.

Graham Fagen’s interests and the variety of media he uses don’t conform to the concept of a circumscribed artist’s practice. Recent projects across the Briggait, the GENERATION art festival and the Glasgow School of Art gallery, have seen Fagen engaging variously with the Jamaican identity, the distinction of audience and participant in theatrical and artistic contexts, and the watercolours of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Dealing with these variegated interests, Fagen works across music production, film, drawing, sculpture, and writing.

Happily, Fagen’s presentation in the Palazzo Fontana – opening on the 9th of this month – makes full advantage of the richness of his multifarious practice. Across the entrance and four rooms of the venue, Fagen will showcase bronze sculpture, ink drawings of his teeth and a five-channel video work in which he completely reimagines Robert Burns’ The Slave’s Lament. Although the works exhibited have been recently produced especially for Venice, most are reworkings or new versions of previous works. For example, the work that will be situated at the entrance is a neon sign which will read 'Come into the Garden, And forget about the War.' Though this will be in Italian in Venice, it is a work Fagen has also produced at different exhibitions in French, English and German.

"Why did no one ever tell me that Robert Burns was going to go to Jamaica to work on a plantation?" – Graham Fagen

Although the exhibition in Venice will showcase the range of Fagen’s practice, it is the work featured in the final room that will be heard throughout the exhibition. In the work itself Fagen sought  “to combine some kind of element of classical composition with the Scottish folk tradition, along with the culture of Jamaican reggae.” This particular intersection of Scottish and reggae culture sees Fagen revisiting a question that has interested him since he was a teenager. Namely, “Why dub reggae and its lyrics of suffrage meant much more to me and my peer group in our Irvine council housing scheme [than conventional Scottish cultural history].”

One oblique answer came in the discovery that Burns himself had booked three passages to go and live and work in Jamaica. This led Fagen to question, “When I was at school being taught my cultural heritage, why did no one ever tell me that Robert Burns was going to go to Jamaica to work on a plantation?”  

This particular piece of Robert Burns trivia is what gave Fagen what he describes as the “conceptual bridge” to recontextualise The Slave’s Lament within reggae music. One specific inspiration to begin this complex collaborative work started with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's version of My Heart’s in the Highlands. Fagen describes how Pärt “totally changed the way I was able to understand that lyric, by the sounds he was able to put around it.” To produce his audio work, Fagen enlisted composer Sally Beamish, instrumentalists the Scottish Ensemble, singer-songwriter Ghetto Priest and producer Adrian Sherwood. In the final room of the Palazzo Fontana, four monitors will display a cellist, violinist and double bassist, along with Ghetto Priest, performing the composition.

With Fagen’s presentation as part of Scotland+Venice, he continues to broaden his already challenging and consistently surprising body of work. Despite being at the height of his artistic career, Fagen can’t help but remember his childhood ambition – “To play football for Scotland.” But, after considering “the odds between representing Scotland in football and Scotland at Venice,” he concludes: “I'm happy to settle for representing Scotland in Venice.”

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Graham Fagen, Scotland+Venice, Palazzo Fontana, Venice, 9 May-22 Nov, free