Why Make Sense? is a show of new work done during the lockdown period by Alan Grieve, founder and driving force behind Workspace Dunfermline, that unique blend of haircuts and visual art that has been running in the Fife town for a decade now. Alan’s work as a hairdresser had enabled him to funnel money into the art side of his activities- until the pandemic hit.
Visual art has been challenged roughly since the lockdown began in March. The old ways of doing things- openings, social networking, endless ever more intrusive applications for ever scarcer funds- have been brushed aside like a flimsy shack in a Caribbean gale. The opening, on Thursday 3 September, was the first such event I’d been to in over seven months. It’s still really tricky looking at a version of the the old normality through the smoked glass of the pandemic.
What does an artist do when there is no audience? Even more so, what do they do when the little money there was for their work vanishes? And, when eventually we find a way of living with COVID-19 either through habituation or through a vaccine, will we really want to go back to the old ways of doing things- the circling of ever less well-padded funding waggons around a thinning base of regularly funded arts organisations, that people find ever more easy to ignore? When did an arts organisation last ask if their annual programme is actually what their audiences want to see?
Why Make Sense? doesn’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but rather offers evidence of an artistic practice that refuses to shrink or back down even in the most unpromising of circumstances; in so doing, it gives the audience a glimpse of a community-based alternative. Workspace has been a para-institution; an arts organisation with a high community profile that has not really entered into the competition for public money, yet which has a reach and recognition amongst audiences that normally would not consider spending time in an art gallery. The hair-salon-turned-art-gallery idea began in 2010/11, in the town’s Headwell Road, and had been located in the village of Wellwood, just to the north of Dunfermline, since 2016.
Like everyone else involved in visual art, Workspace faced profound challenges in March. Alan was obliged to give up the tenancy of the Wellwood salon, for financial reasons. Workspace, as a result, return to its origins, as an itinerant space for showing work, whose richness lay not in public funding but in relationships with people, and a credibility in narrating the kind of common cultural inheritance that rarely finds its way into books or scholarly articles.
The loss of the income that maintained the Workspace salon-cum-gallery was one challenge, but it did not disrupt the working rhythm of Alan’s art. An inveterate drawer, and someone with the responsibilites of a young family and a business, Alan usually gets up around 5 a.m. and draws in the light of the early morning, rapidly and working through ideas that have been germinating in the mulch of local stories, gossip and funnies for the last thirty years. Why Make Sense?, then, is a body of new work done in the last six months, built around friendships and correspondences that have assumed significance or deepened in the lockdown period. in that sense, Alan’s long-established practice has continued without missing a beat.
The show, which dominates Fire Station’s downstairs exhibiting space, is built around seven characters with diverse interests and motivations. First amongst them is Alan’s father, Jock, a former boxer, with his reminiscences of Dunfermline’s nightlife in the 1950s. As well as being a glimpse into a relationship between father and son, this part of the exhibition also allows the viewer to compare the nightlife of our parents generation (Jock’s stories are remarkably similar to my own parents who went to “the dancing” in Ayr at exactly the same time, until they married), with our own experiences; the rave generation from the late 1980s to the mediated, instagrammable public nightlife that COVID put paid to, mutating slowly into private events and in-the-know snapchat and WhatsApp groups presently.
Nightlife, clubbing, music and the stories that emerge from the crossover between these three have always been important in Alan’s work. We are greeted at the entrance to the show by a giant portrait of Barbara Dickson; one of the other characters that form the pillars to the show is Colin, a man who has built a remarkable online archive of every gig that ever took place in Dunfermline’s Kinema ballroom. A new series of T-shirts, featuring the logos of old Dunfermline night spots, has been launched, and no doubt will begin another series of conversations and mudlarking amongst half submerged memories for future drawings and stories. And, it wouldn’t be a Workspace show without some laugh out loud puns. There’s a portrait of the genuinely ludicrous P Diddy, the American rapper-turned-human-commodity once known as Sean “Puffy” Combs, who lost all contact with reality sometime late in the last century. The caption underneath, DIDDY FUCK (Did He Fuck) presumably lets us know that he’s yet to grace the Kinema.
Alan’s shows always merge raucous laughter with introspection and self-reflection, however. There’s a photograph of a herd of elephants marching, trunk-to-tail, down Dunfermline’s East Port in the late 1960s; another of a Scottish Cup winning XI of “The Pars”, Dunfermline Athletic, where legendary manager Jock Stein barely has room for a seat alongside the gas board employees and small businessmen who then ran the club, in the front row of the photograph. Alan’s work constantly invites us to look at what we’ve become, in the light of what we used to be. Multi-coloured, hallucinogenic old postcards of the town sit alongside self-portraits, quirky two line stories, and visual jokes. Other characters in the show meditate on how life has been mutated by the pandemic, loss and mourning, and the uncertainties of the future.
Overall Why Make Sense? is a snapshot of how a well-founded art practice can survive in the extraordinary times we are living through. Alan’s work has been rooted in this community for over thirty years, and is remarkably self-sufficient and self-reliant, yet somehow encourages discussion, either with himself, or amongst people watching the show. Having a quiet coffee in Fire Station the other day, it was remarkable to see again how many people would go up to individual pieces and point out a particular detail or memory that it had provoked.
The questions of how contemporary art will survive the pandemic, and what is worth persevering with as we all seek to re-build in the future, are yet to be answered. The gentle humour and simple human decency that Workspace represents, and that underpin this show, should be the very last things that we let go of. See it whilst you can.
Why Make Sense? by Workspace Dunfermline is on at Fire Station Creative, Dunfermline until September 27. Admission Free.