Ross Sinclair

The Agency

As part of Ross Sinclair’s recent show, he ran a stall in one of London’s street markets for a day. You could buy T-shirts, mugs, key rings, and pens, all bearing the legend “I ♥ Real Life.” For Sinclair, “real life” is not something that exists but something dreamed of or longed for, something that exerts itself as an idealized possibility out of the more immediate situation of cultural uncertainty.

At the gallery hung seven photographs of Sinclair lying face down like a corpse in a variety of otherwise idyllic natural settings: on a woodland path, in a river, at the water’s edge. In each image he is dressed in tartan shorts. Sinclair is Scottish, but what that term means, either to us or to him, is always up for discussion. The words “REAL LIFE,” tattooed across his bare upper back, are clearly visible, especially as each scene is lit so starkly that the heightened colors make nature itself seem almost artificial. Turned away from his audience in what has now become a familiar pose, Sinclair makes a show of his sincerity to the world. We, in turn, accept the gesture as a legitimate gambit, a stance adopted in the artist’s search for an answer to the puzzle of identity and cultural location. In that he and we are facing in the same direction, there is a possibility that something might be shared, but the consequent inability to acknowledge us is a mark of introspection, solipsism, and the inevitable failure of communication.

Part of a larger installation, the photographs hung on a wall painted in three broad horizontal bands that bore the text “Not as it is/ but as it/ could be.” One imagining of what “could be” formed a major component of the show. Titled The Hamnavoe Free State [Free State London], the installation reappropriated Sinclair’s exhibition last year at the Pier Arts Center in Stromness, on the main island of Orkney. Part of Scotland, the Orkneys are near the mainland, but they are also geologically and socially distinct; in terms of folklore, culture, and history they are perhaps closer to Scandinavia. Hamnavoe is the old Scottish name for Orkney, and what Sinclair constructed in London was a center of operations for a putative guerrilla movement fighting for independence and self-determination. Camouflage netting covered a neatly arranged assortment of necessary equipment—sleeping bags, boots, crossbow and arrows, cooking gear, etc.—all painted in a pseudo-camouflage. Suspended in the middle was a red-and-blue neon sign advertising the aspirant movement and a handbill for the Sex Pistols’ 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks. While Sinclair has used pop music in previous work as an index of identity formation, here the Pistols reference alerted us to the play within the work of a kind of bogus Situationism. Sinclair looks to strategies of subversion and counter-institutional activity as a means to realize a state of longed-for autonomy and completeness, all the while accepting their anachronistic, played-out risibility.

This was confirmed by The Hamnavoe Free State [Library], 1999, which featured a low table heaped with books covering relevant subjects, among them student activism, urban guerrilla movements, and Orkney mythology. There was also a copy of Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle, while on the wall above, two posters covered in another camouflage pattern bore the words “REAL LIFE” and “SPECTACULAR LIFE. ” By now the two were becoming hard to distinguish.

Another work comprised a neon sign and four photos, including one of the huge yellow ramp Sinclair built on the quayside in Stromness for his show there. We saw it here alongside other images of Hamnavoe and the nearby island of Hoy, all framed under glass so that the London show was reflected back into the earlier exhibition. Originally attached to the ramp, on the floor nearby was the neon sign “GRACE,” made by the artist at the time of his eponymous daughter’s birth. Some things are real.

Michael Archer