Calum Colvin at The McManus: An Interview with Dr Tom Normand

By Helena Cameron

Calum Colvin, the eminent Scottish photographer, has recently completed an installation at The McManus Galleries, in Dundee.  Actually, less an installation and more an “intervention,” Colvin has interspersed various photographic works through the permanent collections held within the McManus’s diverse rooms.  These photographs complement, supplement and pastiche the esteemed objects and artworks held in the museum’s collections.  The exhibition, at once both an homage and an ironical counterpoint to the museum’s opus, has been titled Museography: Calum Colvin Reflects on the McManus Collections.

Dr Tom Normand, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, was asked to complete the information labels that accompany Colvin’s complex artworks. 

 Here, in conversation with Helen Cameron, he discusses this role and his interactions with The McManus Galleries.

HC: How did you first become involved in this exhibition?

TN: It happens that when I began teaching, in 1980 at Dundee College of Art, Calum Colvin was a 3rd year student.  We became friends and I watched him become something of a star in the international art world.  I’ve worked with him on various projects throughout his career, and written about his work fairly extensively. 

When he was asked to undertake the McManus exhibition he gave me the call and asked me to write the information material.  I was happy to oblige, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  When I began, I wrote extensive interpretations of the works, and the associations they made with the materials in the McManus collections.  It soon became clear this wasn’t altogether what was required.  I was asked to edit these labels to 250 words, and to ensure they were appropriate for a general audience.  I mentioned my problem with this rubric to Calum and he suggested I simply write what I deemed fitting.  In the event it was a bit of a compromise, in style and substance, but I’ve generally had some good words from those who have bothered to read the introduction and commentary.

Calum Colvin,  Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart (after Liotard),  2016

Calum Colvin, Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart (after Liotard), 2016

HC: My favourite of Colvin’s works was the portrait of a Jacobite warrior situated in an everyday living room because of its play with the Romanticism of a fragmented highlander image. Do you have a particular favourite?

TN: Of course, you’re identifying Calum’s oeuvre in respect of this conflation of fine art and popular culture.  His mission has always been to collapse dualisms: high and low culture, fine art and photography, analogue and digital, science and art.  More than this, he constantly seeds his work with references to contemporary events and issues: nationalism and identity, ecology and environmentalism, social class and conflict, the ramifications of history and world events.  He does this with a Pop sensibility that has been called postmodern, and though the elements of irony and comedy are evident in the work it has a serious intent.

As to favourites, well that’s near impossible.  Though, actually, I favour the entire concept of the exhibition.  The integration of dissonant images within an established collection.  This is something he first engaged with in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in a show called ‘Jacobites by Name’.  This was in the winter of 2015-16 when he was invited by the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland to place works in the Jacobite Room in the portrait gallery.  It was an extraordinary show, both disruptive and enlightening.  This idea of the ‘intervention’ in a gallery or museum is the basis of Museography and I applaud the whole concept.

But, maybe I do have a favourite and it’s not by Calum, it’s by his mum, the artist Elma Colvin.  Calum’s long been interested in the idea of the pastiche and imitation.  The idea of art as a disputatious artifice.  And so he asked his mum to copy one of the photographs he’d placed in the McManus’s ‘Landscapes and Lives’ space.  This was the portrait of Charles Edward Stuart titled Harlequin.  Elma Colvin recreated this work, but as an embroidery, immaculately stitched and gloriously ‘present’.  It’s a gem, and Calum was jealous that it rather stole his thunder.

"Oor Wullie" statue, outside the McManus Gallery

"Oor Wullie" statue, outside the McManus Gallery

HC: From a curatorial standpoint, how was it decided which pieces would be situated where in the galleries?

TN: Well, I wasn’t a curator for the exhibition, but I did sit-in on a few of the meetings.  Really to see how it all worked.  The remarkable thing was the pragmatism of it all.  Some objects and some pictures couldn’t be removed for various reasons.  Some works were too large for a given space, some too small.  Some pieces needed careful handling, and always there was the need to present the public with something accessible and interesting.

I have to say the curatorial group, and the technicians, at the McManus were remarkable.  They were always ready to listen to thoughts and ideas, and open to every suggestion.  Calum, in fact, had pretty much a free hand with regard to his interventions and he did produce a great show.

HC: Do you have a favourite artwork on display in the McManus?

TN: Now, it’s strange you should ask that for the McManus has approached me to contribute to their 150th anniversary publication with my comments on the importance of the collections for my teaching.  They’ve asked me, also, to name and comment upon my ‘favourite artwork’.  What can I say?  In the past I’ve mostly introduced students to the Victorian Collection, for historical reasons.  And, in the 20th Century Gallery the individuals whose work is represented include many of my friends.  Who can I choose without offending someone?

But, here’s the thing;  I recently took my grandkids to see Museography.  As we approached the museum, my grandson, Logan, spotted the statue of Oor Wullie that sits on the wall outside the gallery.  We sat with this for our photograph.  Logan sat on the pail and he spotted Wullie’s mouse peeking out of his satchel.  It was a moment of whimsy and laughter we both enjoyed.  I might choose this piece.  Of course my colleagues may sneer.  It’s not ‘art;’ but maybe it just is.

HC: It is the 150th anniversary of The McManus this year and Dundee is vying to be European Capital of Culture 2023, after making the shortlist in 2013. What do you think of the current and future state of the arts in Dundee?

TN:  Well, it’s obvious that Dundee is a coming city.  The art college has long been a hotbed of talent and invention.  The McManus and the DCA are, in their different ways, exemplary institutions; and the new V&A will surely be a destination venue for every kind of traveller.  I even understand that they have a university or two there. Add to this the developing waterfront area, and the general energy in the city and its surely destined for great things. I certainly hope so.