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George Wyllie: Day Down A Goldmine

By Neil Cooper, 21.05.2023
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George Wyllie working on print (1988) Photographed by David Atherton

Buried treasure abounds in this very special show of around 40 unearthed printworks by George Wyllie (1921-2012). These are drawn from Wyllie’s original theatrical satire of the same name as this exhibition, which took an irreverent look at power, wealth and the historical roots of capitalist exploitation he dubbed ‘a great bum steer’. 

Glasgow’s maestro of absurdist largesse originally conceived his comic critique as an installation at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre (now the site of CCA). Working with actor Russell Hunter, Wyllie gradually expanded this into a cabaret style show first performed in 1982. Later iterations saw Wyllie form double acts with Bill Paterson for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, and with John Bett for a last hurrah at Tramway as part of Glasgow’s 1990 tenure as European City of Culture.

'A Day Down A Goldmine' by George Wyllie

Wyllie’s deceptively serious inquiry of what he called ‘the greatest ever confidence trick to be played ON the human race BY the human race’ advised audiences to ‘Be suspicious’. This was done through sage advice on the dubious notion of alchemy, observing how latter day equivalents were ‘making Tartan Special in a similar way’. Then there was Trestacles, the phallically inclined ‘god who went one better’ with his three balls of gold in tow.

The show’s loose-knit script and song lyrics were gathered together and transformed into a lavishly illustrated book, the pages of which, between 1987 and 1989, were made into prints at Peacock Printmakers, Aberdeen. Having lain unseen by the public for more than thirty years, this exhibition presented by Glasgow Print Studio in partnership with The George Wyllie Estate shows off Wyllie’s originals in all their playful glory.

The cartoon music hall agit-prop of the show tipped its flat cap to the good nights out of John McGrath’s 7:84 Theatre Company, with both Paterson and Bett having appeared in the company’s now classic show, ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ (1973). The busy cornucopia of text and image on the prints complemented this approach in a way that sits alongside the works of other pop cultural polymaths such as Alasdair Gray and John Byrne. 

The result is revealed here as a priceless insight into Wyllie’s multi-faceted artistry, wit and constant questioning of the state we’re in, with any polemical intent leavened by its gallus delivery. While a delight to see, one should take Wyllie’s advice to heart, and continue to be suspicious. The great bum steer goes on, but this is pure gold.


A Day Down a Goldmine is exhibited at Glasgow Print Studio until 27th May