Whaur Extremes Meet is a fifteen-month, Pan- European collaboration between an artist and an architect, both from Scotland, which culminates in Glasgow next month. Andrew Burnet talked to one of the collaborators about an extraordinary exercise in international diplomacy.
On Sunday 1 July, a peculiar-looking structure, made of wood, metal and canvas, will appear on Glasgow Green. The story of how, why and by what route it came to be there, is a long and highly unusual one.
It began in April 1989, when artist Wendy Gunn and architecture student Gavin Renwick both received research scholarships from the British Council to explore the practical relationship between art and architecture. Although both were now based in London — Gunn working at Riverside Studios and Renwick concluding a course at the Royal College of Art - they had met in Edinburgh, where both had been students. They decided to undertake an ambitious collaborative project.
The concept — which evolved in London, with advice and funding from a number of bodies including Glasgow 1990‘s Festivals Unit — was to create a portable structure, which would tour public sites in various cities from one'extreme of Europe (Istanbul) to the other (Glasgow), and would be a meeting place for discussion of the relationship between art and architecture. The project was named Whaur Extremes Meet after a line from MacDiarmid‘s classic poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle‘.
‘The project developed from our response to work that involved art and architecture,‘ explains Gunn. ‘We were appalled by the involvement of the artists in these projects — they were really just brought in to provide superficial detail. We were looking at how the artist could become much more involved in the actual building, to improve that space in a much more detailed way, rather than just being a decorator.‘
With funding from the Turkish government, Gunn and Renwick left last September for Istanbul, where they set to work designing and building the structure together. Despite teething problems (freedom ofexpression is something of a
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novelty in Turkey) the authorities were eventually very helpful and supportive.
‘We developed a lot of good contacts in Turkey: artists, architects, writers, politicians. One lawyer let us use his car. We worked with local craftsmen and local materials. We involved the craftsmen from the initial design process, using a translator so they would all have an understanding of the project.‘
Since the space is used to discuss the urban environment, it’s appropriate that its design is entirely organic. Lighting, heating and cooling are powered exclusively by natural sunlight, but the structure is adaptable to different climates, weather conditions and even acoustic requirements, through an ingenious complex of shutters,
louvres, light scoops and other movable parts. ‘I think the best way to describe the structure itself,‘ explains Gunn, ‘is that as it goes from East to West, it almost gains a series of coats, so it changes according to the particular environment. For example, we had to develop a raincoat for Glasgow, whereas in Istanbul it had to be stripped down to its most basic elements.’
Gunn and Renwick planned a route for the structure‘s journey from Istanbul to Glasgow in April last year, oblivious to the extraordinary events they would encounter on the way. ‘We decided to de-centralise ,‘ says Gunn, ‘to document how collaborations were working- if at all — in cities which weren‘t necessarily recognised as art and architecture centres. We had no
idea what was going to happen in November. We were incredibly lucky; we couldn‘t believe it.‘
They found themselves in Prague when Vaclav Havel was elected, in Belgrade and Budapest during the overthrow ofCommunism, in Berlin a few months after the wall had come down. They had been using a video camera to record the discussions; in these cities it became a means of documenting events of huge historical importance. Their plan now is to compile their findings into a television documentary, to be screened in as many of the countries visited as possible.
The itinerary reads like a grand — sometimes humorous — adventure story, but doubles as a barometer of Zeitgeist. ‘In Athens, we had problems getting the structure through customs and we missed the