“Alas I am weary, weary-O” sings Ghetto Priest. The words of Graham Fagen’s four-screen video installation are taken from Robert Burns’ 1792 poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ and accompanied by a trio of musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. The music draws you upward through Hospitalfield house to the Cedar Room for a sound narrative that recounts a trip of no return from “sweet Senegal” to the lands of Virginia. The sofa, the soothing pluck of double bass and pleasing visual texture of the wooden instruments shown in HD against the wooden wall panelling of the room lull you into submission.
For the unfamiliar, Hospitalfield is a house and estate that started life as a hospital/refuge for pilgrims run by monks from nearby Arbroath Abbey. Fast forward to the mid 1840’s and it became the home, and life-project, of painter and architect Patrick Allan-Fraser. He conceived of Hospitalfield as a residential art school after his death, writing extensive rules that even specified what a student could talk about over collective mealtimes. Today Hospitalfields acts as a studio, creative conduit and temporary home to artists, writers, curators and students. The house itself has a certain kind of heaviness to it, pregnant with its own history, a sagginess like blotting paper soaked in water too long and dried – wrinkled and interesting. When full of people, there is a homely buzz - cake in the kitchen, shoes piled at the bottom of the stairs. Some of the magic of the house, however, is catching the silence. In these moments the its atmosphere gets into your bones like a chill and you feel the many eyes of the family, all those previous strangers who came, lived and worked over the years and indeed the eyes of the building itself, upon you.
This slight oppressiveness marries well with Fagen’s work. Presiding over the bass notes and burning eyes of Ghetto Priest in the Cedar Room installation, portraits of the Allan-Fraser family (with obligatory dog) loom large. We are guests, albeit invited ones, just as Fagen’s exhibition is also a guest. Yet in many crucial ways, this exhibition is also the work’s homecoming.
A brief contextual background - Fagen’s exhibition here is a reconfiguration of a body of work originally commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale. Hospitalfield were invited by Scotland + Venice (which aims to promote Scottish visibility at the Biennale) to curate the most recent Scottish iteration, and Fagen’s resulting work was exhibited in the Palazzo Fontana (a 16th Century raspberry cake of a building facing the Grand Canal) in 2015.
Rather than creating a focal exhibition space, and much like the layout at the Palazzo, Fagen’s work is dotted about the various public rooms of Hospitalfield. We find angular Menorah style drawings laid out on the dining table and sculpture nestled amongst the dining room dishes. In the drawing room, beneath the intricate ceiling carvings of plants and flowers the visitor encounters more Christmas tree/candle style cast works adorned with ‘decorations’ of fist squeezed plaster. The gold and silver have the look of foil wrapped Lindt animals squashed underfoot and each sculpture is crowned with melting, splat-faced masks or faces – all white teeth and distorted mess.
Hanging in the corridors, amongst the assorted landscapes and portraits, are a selection of Fagen’s tooth drawings. Fagen draws what the tongue is feeling, using pencil and Indian ink to manifest both the physical shape of the tooth and the consciousness of that tooth. The results are sometimes Pop-Art-y primitivism and sometimes, in their more abstract or monochrome forms, akin to a kind of automatic writing.
Installed in the largest room, the Picture Gallery, ‘Rope Tree’ - a sculpture of a tree formed in rope by Fagen and then cast in bronze, has some pleasing relation to the rope brocade decoration of the Hospitalfield house itself but somehow fails to make a significant impact as part of the show. There are too many other things in the Picture Gallery to look at – architectural quirks, sculpture, carving and painting – that the cumbersome, turdy rope tree simply takes its place in the hierarchy of ‘interesting’.
Oddly enough it is the brightest of works, a sign installed high on the landing that knits many of Fagens work at Hospitalfield together. “Come into the garden” it invites us, in green neon,
“forget about the war”. It references signs from a house and garden in Poperinge, Belgium (a few hours on foot from Ypres) where WWI soldiers were invited to spend a few days respite away from front-line action. Our collective cultural references for these words, like those Burns lyrics sung by Ghetto Priest, may have changed but we of course find our own, often deeply personal resonances.