Last Saturday, the nocturnal festival Art Night made its debut in the Scottish city of Dundee—the first time the one-night-only art event has had a full version outside London. It was also the first full manifestation of Art Night since the pandemic. “The festival doesn’t have a theme, it is about being together and gathering socially after a long time apart,” said the Art Night artistic director Helen Nisbet. She added the caveat that “it is also very much about the city of Dundee, the places, the landscape the cultural and political history and—crucially—the people.”
This meshing of art, people and place was powerfully encapsulated in Richey Carey’s performance and installation in the grand glass-fronted pavilion in Baxter Park, gifted to the people rather than the city of Dundee by the flax mill owning Baxter family in mid 19th century. It was both haunting and uplifting to hear Carey’s powerful and sometimes cacophonous soundscape based on the sounds of newspaper vendors and delivered by a number of Dundee-based singers (including the wonderfully named Loadsaweeminsinging group) echoing across one of the few remaining pieces of genuinely common land in the city.
Nearby, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley was occupying another historic public building with a room-sized, engagingly interactive art video game, called The Lack: I knew your voice before you spoke. This was in Arthurstone Community Library, one of five public libraries to be funded in the early 20th century by the Scottish-American steel baron Andrew Carnegie. By jumping on vinyl floor pads, even your game-phobic correspondent enjoyed navigating a “mid-apocalyptic world” of “Black Trans TV” in which angels could be collected, weather systems (including “anti-supremacy rain”) altered, and potential matches between protagonists such as “Married Cis Girl into Trans Porn” and “Desperate Trans Girl Feels Unlovable” be made (and possibly broken).
Fond and often fantastical unions were also to be found in Tai Shani’s My Body Remains, Your Body Remains, And all the Bodily Remains that Ever Were, And Ever Will Be. This epic film meditatied on the emancipatory power of love and was shown in the Little Theatre, home to Dundee’s longest running dramatic society. There was more meshing of art and community life in the gloriously bonkers Woosh Flower Show, mounted by Dundee’s peripatetic artist-run Wooosh Gallery. This performative flower show of wheelbarrow-borne exhibits first processed from community gardens across the city to a judging ceremony in Miller’s Wynd car park, where all the elaborately planted barrows will now remain until their contents are completely consumed by snails and slugs.
Generator Projects, Dundee’s leading artist-run space was also drawing the crowds with Dundonian artist and recent graduate Euan Taylor, AKA Inefficient Solutions. Taylor’s project The Hi-Visit invited visitors to be photographed in a “hard work environment” wearing hard hats and fluorescent jackets and accompanied by an amiably besuited CEO against a backdrop of a pile of rubbish, possibly awaiting recycling.
Art Night also intervened in Dundee’s established art spaces. Inside Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s two-storey Oak Room, originally designed for a Glasgow tearoom in 1907 and now the jewel in V&A Dundee’s crown, Lucy McKenzie was joining the dots of international Modernism by screening a re-edited version of Náhrdelnik (necklace) a 1990s Czech historical TV drama, which was largely shot on location in another famed interior: Albert Loos’s 1933 Villa Müller in Prague. Over at Cooper Gallery at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Heather Phillipson’s Dream Land re-confirmed our indelible interconnectedness with all that surrounds us by remixing and revoicing classic 1980s BBC nature documentaries into a trippily engulfing interspecies mash-up. Within this, Phillipson also staged Mourning Ritual, a live performance in which she used film, sound and spoken word in a poetic and poignant elegy to all dead animals, including her recently deceased dog.
McKenzie’s and Phillipson’s exhibitions will both remain in situ until early July, while Dundee based Saoirse Amira Anis’s film and installation breach of a fraying body is currently on view at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) until 6 August. One of the many Dundee-based artists playing a prominent part in Art Night, Anis draws on both her Scottish and Moroccan heritage to create a mysterious, rope laden deity that lives partly in and out of the water. For Art Night she brought this creature to life as an elaborately masked and somewhat sinister figure—clad in a tattered, beaded crimson cloak—who scuttled, swooped and swished from DCA down to HMS Unicorn, a wooden navy frigate moored on the waterfront. Here she flung the mask as an offering into the River Tay, site and source of so much of Dundee’s wealth, trade and vexed histories.
The seafaring city’s other famous vessel is the Dundee-built RRS Discovery, which took Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica in 1901 and is now a major landmark, situated next to the V&A Dundee’s spectacular hull-shaped building designed by Kengo Kuma. For Art Night, the decks of the Discovery resounded to a hybrid of experimental and traditional bagpipe, saxophone and other instrumental music in a programme devised and partly performed by the musician, broadcaster and DJ Nabihah Iqbal, who in a final homage to Scott and his expedition, ended up doing a DJ set in Dundee’s Arctic Bar.
When inviting artists to take part in Art Night, Nisbet revealed that she drew an analogy with house parties and the way in which different activities take place in different rooms: as she puts it, “dancing in the living room, having a meaningful conversation in the kitchen, meeting an old friend in the toilet line, crying with a pal in the garden, or snogging on the stairs.” Doubtless all of the above took place across Dundee last Saturday night, but for this writer the house party dance action vibe was most abundantly provided by Emma Hart’s BIG UP, a celebration of raving that took place not in a living room but in Greenmarket multistorey car park. Here, up on the top floor overlooking the River Tay, Hart and her DJ sister Emma played an epic four hour set where we all made our moves amongst her painted cardboard sculptures of giant raised hands and gave thanks to being brought together so joyously in the name of art.