Irish trickster Peter McCaughey’s situationist art is more important now than ever before, says Rory Olcayto
Nearly two decades have passed and it’s still one of the most powerful works of art I’ve been lucky enough to see. I met the artist who created it last week - the first time in years. Talk about a Proustian rush… The venue for the artwork was the old Partick Marine police station in Glasgow’s west end. The building contained cells - quite a few of them - on two floors, arranged around a central atrium, and there was a courtroom in the complex, too.
Its back story was rich and more than a little creepy. In the 60s, during the biggest manhunt in Scotland’s history (for the killer dubbed Bible John - Glasgow’s Jack the Ripper and, like him, never caught) ‘the Marine’ had been the investigations HQ. Now it was sad, tired, almost forgotten, a B-Listed shell, haunted by its failure to aid the capture of Scotland’s most notorious serial killer. And it was ours to use as we pleased.
It was 1994. My friends and I, recent architecture graduates of Strathclyde University, had organised the Winterschool, which in true 90s style we described to the Glasgow Herald as ‘an alternative multi-media forum’. (One of the workshops, run by Julian Ellison, who would establish the BBC’s first editorial website later that year, was simply arranged around connecting to the internet - a novelty then.) Our goal, the Herald reported, was to ‘shake architecture off its pedestal’. By the time we got our hands on it, the student-run event had been held in different cities for 14 years. Winterschool had always been about politics and we were determined to build on that tradition. (Brian Anson had joined our cause, but walked out on us when we told him we’d be in charge, not him.) But, this being Glasgow, a city of dreamers, chancers, tall story tellers and fanciful, melancholic thinkers, we wanted art to play a major role: we would champion collaborations between artists and architects.
The Winterschool had run in the first week of January in Glasgow’s Arches, the vaulted art space beneath Central Station. More than 600 students attended, coming from as far away as Serbia, with workshop leaders from Canada, California, London and Greece, as well as Glasgow. One workshop, called ‘The City as a Living Room’, run by Greenock artists and former Clydeside welder George Wylie, saw students build two giant ‘wally dugs’, 14-foot versions of the ceramic dogs people of a certain age and era would bookend their mantelpieces with. These were towed around Glasgow and placed to frame landmark buildings.
A fortnight after the Winterschool, Strathclyde Regional Council, now defunct, gave us the mothballed Partick Marine police station to show works produced during the week-long festival, alongside new commissions. For two weeks the cells became galleries. One was dressed as a travel agency with desk, telephone and photos of sunny destinations. Another was transformed with smell, its wall tiles covered with used teabags. Another installation used mirrors and a laser from Strathclyde University’s Physics department to create a pin-sharp red ‘W’ (for Winterschool). But the most affecting artwork was in a cell you couldn’t get into, one used for violent prisoners.
The heavy metal door was locked - but there was a peephole. When you slipped the cover away, and peered in, the view was horrific: a man strapped to a chair, a hood over his head, struggling, under duress, and bathed in a sickly, pale blue light. The artist responsible was Peter McCaughey (pictured), an Irish trickster who excels in casting doubt. His work unsettles and is full of mystery, and he’s still working today. I’ll tell you more about him - and why his art is more important now than ever before - next week.