The Origins of George Wyllie's 'Original Earth Guarantee'
A blog post by Jan Patience
- A Canal College® journey
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We are delighted to share the inspiring story of renowned Glaswegian artist and writer George Wyllie and the inspiration behind his work ‘Original Earth Guarantee’, which has been specially released by his family to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, with a donation of the sales coming to help our work to keep Scotland beautiful.
Here Jan Patience writes about the man, his journey and his passion for our Earth and all that call it home.
Who puts a question mark at the centre of everything?
Who lives unbowed under the slant of Scottish weather,
loves the white light of stones,
walks on wiry grass
and, feeling the electric earth beneath him, turns his wide gaze to the open sea?
Who was the young sailor
who walked in a place of ash and char, fused glass, bone?
Who saw that, aye, rocks do melt wi’ the sun
and let pulverised granite run through his fingers like the Sands of Time shall Run?
(The name of the place was Hiroshima and in the middle of the word was the hugest question-mark.)
From A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie by Liz Lochhead
ONE of the abiding themes of George Wyllie’s late-flowering career as an artist and writer was the concept of achieving equilibrium in nature.
Wyllie, who was born in Glasgow in 1921 and died in 2012 at the age of 90, is best known for his large scale ephemeral sculptures, The Straw Locomotive (1987) and The Paper Boat (1989-1990). There are also a number of his public artworks dotted around the UK, including The Running Clock outside Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station and Life Cycle, which sits at the southern end of Deansgate in Manchester.
Wyllie was a playfully serious artist who described himself as a "scul?tor" because he said the question mark was at the centre of all his work.
The damage inflicted by mankind on the earth was a constant refrain in Wyllie’s work and it came from a personal first-hand experience. As former Scots Makar (national poet), Liz Lochhead, writes in A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie, written to mark his 70th birthday, Wyllie witnessed first-hand the devastation wreaked by an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
George Wyllie was a 24-year-old sailor serving in the Pacific with the Royal Navy in January 1946, when he visited the devastated Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was just four months after the uranium-filled bomb known as Little Boy had been dropped by US forces. The experience scarred him for life but it also fed into his art many years later.
Wyllie’s Original Earth Guarantee was created some 35 years after he visited Hiroshima for a two-handed play called A Day Down a Goldmine, which he wrote and also starred in. His manifesto on mankind’s duty of care for Planet Earth and was handed out to audience members.
“The product has been made from the best materials available”, it read, but, “is only guaranteed insofar as daft – a Scottish word, meaning reckless, foolish, brainless, crazy, things are not done to it or on it.”
It was signed by the Managing Director of “Universal Creations".
A Day Down a Goldmine first saw the light of day as an exhibition in 1982 at pioneering Glasgow arts hub, the Third Eye Centre (now the CCA). According to a booklet published at the time of the exhibition, the original idea was that he would create “a suite of sculptures or installation” consisting of “humorous sculpture with a deeply serious vein running through it”.
In this, he was influenced by artist and founder of Germany’s Green Party, Joseph Beuys. Wyllie had met Beuys a few years earlier, through artist and impresario, Richard Demarco, and he admired his conceptual approach to art, which morphed performance with visual art. Wyllie decided to augment this exhibition with a theatrical experience.
The exhibition came first though, and the theme, which was fired by Wyllie's ire at Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies, was mankind’s never-ending pursuit of power through the accumulation of wealth. Which, in turn Wyllie maintained, damaged the Earth's resources.
Wyllie wrote the text at first in the form of a comic lecture, and his original plan was that he and an actor would perform it over two nights at the start of the exhibition. On its own, the exhibition was a riot of ideas and knockabout surreal humour. At the entrance to the Goldmine, visitors were met by a sign warning them to “Be Suspicious!”.
In the play, Wyllie, who worked for several years as a customs officer in Greenock before retiring in 1980, claimed that the pursuit of wealth was the root of all evil. His hand-made props included: an alchemist’s machine for turning base metal into gold; a telescope to view the earth through a slab of gorgonzola (made from rusty steel); a do-it-yourself Machine for the Equal Distribution of Wealth (with a spanner in its works); various rusty eagles (a nod to the emblem of several big banks); picks and shovels; and a monument to the “greatest of the Greeks” invented gods, Trestacles’. This fictional Greek god was represented by three golden balls recumbent at the base of a phallic-style column, sited at “Delos, Valhalla of Bank Clerks”.
The performance aspect of the exhibition took place initially over two nights, 6 and 7 August 1982. A Day Down a Goldmine, which went on to be staged all over the UK, was George Wyllie’s first real attempt to counteract what he saw as an absurdity with another absurdity. In Murray Grigor's critically-acclaimed 1990 film about Wyllie, The Whys? Man, he was joined by actor Bill Paterson, who had starred in Goldmine with him at The Edinburgh Fringe, wining a prestigious Fringe First in the process.
“An incorrect assumption leads to a false conclusion” was the play’s refrain. In other words, if we fool ourselves with minor absurdities, what happens when there are really major issues to deal with. Such as protecting the Earth and maintaining balance in nature.
In many ways, Wyllie was ahead of his time. As the twenty-first century got into its stride, and he entered the last decades of his long life, Wyllie found himself consumed by the idea of finding balance in nature, and how stones and air not only create equilibrium, they contain a message.
In 2000, to mark the opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Wyllie made a permanent installation at Regent Road Park called The Stones of Scotland. In the park, which overlooks the parliament, he worked with sculptor Kenny Munro and artist Lesley-May Miller to install the 32 stones, one from each local authority in Scotland.
The work forms a circle, within which is a tree and a stone centrepiece, on which is inscribed “whose the tread that fits the mark”, alongside a footprint in cement. This line of poetry comes from Tessa Ransford’s Incantation 2000, written for the inauguration of the work on 31 December 2000 – Wyllie’s 79th birthday. The work, he said, was “a reminder to a new era of Scottish politics that the centre must involve and be legitimised by all that surrounds it”.
Towards the end of his life, Wyllie said that his spires, which harnessed “air – stone –equilibrium – that is, the broad concepts of our Planet," were his favourite artworks among the thousands he had created. "We breathe freedom of the air in balance with the energy of the stone," he said, "and are reminded of our human responsibility for maintaining that balance – known as… equilibrium.”
A special release of George Wyllie's Original Earth Guarantee has being released by his family to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 2020.
Priced at £30 each, a donation from sales will go directly to Keep Scotland Beautiful, a key partner for Earth Day Network, which co-ordinates the annual Earth Day. Prints can be ordered online at georgewyllie.com.