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A giant question mark


There’s a strong streak of the absurd and the surreal in the Scottish arts; from poet/performer Ivor Cutler to dancer (and Bowie mentor) Lindsay Kemp, from Billy Connolly’s shaggy dog stories to gallus painter and playwright John Byrne.

The Glasgow-born artist and sculptor George Wyllie was a surrealist too. Born in 1921 he worked in a custom and excise office for 30 years before becoming a full-time and self-taught artist in his late 50s.

As a boy, Wylie loved making cranes with his Meccano and he dreamed of becoming an engineer. He once wrote: ‘we should remember that the marriage of art and science is important, but the human race in its effort to show how clever it is, sometimes distances itself from the elemental, fundamental things, planetary feelings and its own humanity.’

His most famous artwork was The Straw Locomotive (1987) a life-size sculpture of a steam train made from straw and chicken wire that hung from the enormous Finnieston crane on the banks of the Clyde.

It was perceived as a requiem to Glasgow (and Scotland’s) long gone heavy industry, which left behind generations of unskilled workers. In its industrial heyday Glasgow exported 18,000 locomotives to countries all over the world.

The work was later set alight, Viking style, revealing in the charred remains a giant question mark. Wyllie described his own art as ‘scul?ture’, coining this term as he wasn’t sure if he was a sculptor. Throughout his life he was always questioning. The question mark was his logo.

George Wyllie had long associations with the Clyde. He moved to Gourock in 1954. From his home he looked on in despair when he saw nuclear submarines making their way to Faslane.

It is in neighbouring Greenock (once the largest of the Clyde ports) that in late April the Wyllieum, a gallery with ever-changing examples of his work purpose built by Scottish architect Richard Murphy and dedicated to his legacy, opened in a spectacular setting overlooking his beloved Clyde.

Offering a space to showcase his work and a disembarkation point for visiting cruise ships. Greenock’s former shipbuilding industry was second only to Glasgow and the town was the birthplace of James Watt who perfected the steam engine in the late 18th century and who became the father of the Industrial Revolution.

George Wyllie was a conceptual artist long before it was all the rage. As much a shaman as a showman, a renaissance man, a provocateur, a humourist, a philosopher, a sailor, a ukelele player, a poet and an MBE.

His sculpture of a running man has two giant metal legs bearing a clock where the torso should be. It graces Glasgow’s Buchanan Street bus station, a totem to all travellers running late.

And Wyllie’s 1989 Paper Boat project saw a 24m recreation of the child’s toy sailing the Clyde, the Thames and the Hudson River in New York.

A lifelong socialist, during the Second World War Wyllie served in the Royal Navy. He was one of the first foreign nationals to visit Hiroshima after the Americans dropped the atom bomb. The cataclysmic devastation of the city made an enormous impression on Wyllie.

He died in 2012 at the age of 90 and left a powerful legacy of works that commented on everything from the nuclear threat to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In his tweed bunnet and boilersuit Wyllie was one of life’s eccentrics. He once described himself as being “disadvantaged by a happy childhood.” “I own a couple of meteorites,” he once said. “I regard them as visiting cards from space.”

‘Long before it was fashionable, Wyllie was asking questions about ecology, pollution, monetarism, colonialism, capitalism,’ says art critic Clare Henry who has been Wyllie watching for 45 years.

Largely untaught his work was ideas-based. A man ahead of his time, his art challenged the viewer like all art should and he loved making his ideas into media events. Although he was a populist and his work had a quirky element it also had a strong, spiritual and political message too.

“Art should be unavoidable,” he once said. His environmental interventions and site-specific installations were the best of what we now call, in that dreaded phrase, public art.

Duncan Macmillan writes in his book Scottish Art in the 20th Century: ‘Wyllie resisted art’s claim to see through convention and, by questioning it, to raise questions of the nature of true morality. His art ranged from the simply jokey to work that has a more serious intention’.

Visitors to the Wyllieum might also like to make the pilgrimage up the hill to see the birthplace of another flat-capped, Scottish surrealist (and contemporary of Wyllie) Chic Murray.

One of the founders of British stand-up comedy and a master of the one-liner Chic was born in Greenock in 1919 and died nearly 20 years ago. ■

Info: The Wyllieum is at Greenock Ocean Terminal, Custom House Way,

X: KenWilson84

The Straw Locomotive on Finnieston Crane; Shaman George Wyllie


Air, stone and equilibrium. The balance of understanding.
George Wyllie


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