GraffitiRip it up and start again

With the National Portrait Gallery about to undergo a major renovation, what better time to let a bunch of guerilla artists lose in this historic space?


WHEN A DOZEN young people stormed into Edinburgh’s magnificent Scottish National Portrait Gallery armed with saws and spray paint, it really did seem that the inmates had taken over the asylum – or rather that vandals had invaded one of Scotland’s most historic buildings. Were the likes of Machismo, Elph, Paco and Skint about to commit the ultimate crime of the art world?

On the one hand, yes. On the other, not so, because these urban artists, influenced by street art and graffiti, have banded together to create Rough Cut Nation, a collaborative installation especially for the Edinburgh Festival.

Cutting, pasting, spray painting and projecting images directly on to the blank walls of the empty gallery, which is currently closed for a major redevelopment, these iconoclasts from all over Scotland were actually remixing Scottish history and giving it a unique twist.

The show is curated by 28-year-old Richie Cumming, National Galleries outreach officer, who has organised a number of Paint Jams across Scotland, particularly in Dundee, encouraging “guerrilla” artists to daub their handiwork on our streets and derelict buildings.

So are they doing a Banksy? Cumming replies: “Not quite. We don’t really like that comparison because he gets tagged on to everything that’s street art. By the way, he’s really good and has influenced many young artists, but the use of materials, for instance, the content and the interventionist nature of the work in Rough Cut Nation isn’t really based on what Banksy does – even if he, too, has just taken over Bristol museum and art gallery.

”The thing is the moment street art is sanctioned and moves indoors it’s no longer ‘street’.”

Nonetheless, with the blessing of James Holloway, the flamboyant director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Cumming suggested some time ago that before major building work started on the interior of the Queen Street building, they should invite cutting-edge artists, including painters Kirsty Whiten and Fraser Gray, to update William Hole’s decorative mural scheme, painted between 1889 and 1898, and which is one of the most famous features of the gallery.

“The Hole murals allegedly depict scenes from Scottish history, but they are all imagined events, fantasised versions of the past and very sentimentalised, although beautifully painted,” says Cumming, adding that he hopes Rough Cut Nation will subvert high cultural expectations, mocking sensibilities as well as making some serious points about the dark nature of the Scottish psyche.

So, in order to present their own skewed version of Scottish history – “but a much more truthful one” — the artists first destroyed the gallery’s big exhibition space, with artists, such as Mike Inglis, Peter Martin, Jason Nelson and DUFI, painting directly onto the gallery walls.

“It’s just too pristine for us. We’re used to spraying work onto crumbling brick walls in old factories or on demolition sites,” reveals Cumming who is also a street artist, but an elusive one since he and his co-conspirators specialise in site-specific graffiti and have to maintain anonymity for “legal” reasons.

“The room is divvied up into bays, so we knocked holes in some and chopped others in half, leaving the detritus lying on the floor.

“We were going to pour paint all over the carpet, too, but we decided to pull it up. In true outlaw fashion, we also poured paint over each other — and wee wars broke out,” explains Cumming, adding that there will be a cafe-bar throughout the exhibition, which runs from August 7-30, with live DJs and music from bands on the Avalanche label.
“It’s going to be Edinburgh’s most fun and interesting space in August.”

Rough Cut Nation, National Portrait Gallery, 7-30 August times vary Free 0131 624 6200

If you like this, try MaoArtLand at 24 Lochrin Buildings, 31 July – 31 August

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