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My Favourite Scottish Work of Art: Neil Lebeter

By Neil Lebeter, 13.01.2022
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Nathan Coley, In Memory, 2010. Photography by Alan Pollok Morris. Courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

Nathan Coley has produced work throughout his career that carries a profound ambiguity. His best-known work, There Will Be No Miracles Here (2006), in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland and displayed outside ‘Modern Two’, is a perfect example; bold in its exclamation, yet somehow completely unknowable in its message.

Just outside Edinburgh, tucked into a corner of West Lothian woods, sits another work: In Memory (2010), a beguiling permanent commission at Jupiter Artland. It is encountered in a small dip on the edge of Jupiter, in what feels like a very private corner of Bonnington House. In fact, I hesitated on first viewing, wondering whether I should keep going towards the austere square of cement walls. Beyond the single threshold – deliberately narrow so that visitors must enter individually – you find a small graveyard, a common sight in many country estates. Once inside, the life and vitality of the surroundings are gone, blocked out by the high walls. A single tree looms over the space from the outside, itself dead and without foliage.

Nathan Coley, In Memory, 2010. Photography by Alan Pollok Morris. Courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

Then an extraordinary realisation. The graveyard is a familiar space, but the names have been removed from the headstones. Only the dates of birth, death and the commemorations remain. Moreover, the stones themselves are surely too old and weathered to have been fabricated for the work. Indeed, Coley has worked with the readymade throughout his career.

So, what has happened here? Who was ‘a precious, father, brother and uncle’, dead at 39? As with much of Coley’s work, we will never know. We are only left with our thoughts and the impact the space has on us as individuals. The erasure of the names of the dead is deeply unsettling; something that perhaps speaks to our need for remembrance. Yet, we all know this place. There are countless names known only to us that could appear on those headstones.

In Memory does what all good art does - it pulls you out of immediate experience and conveys something profound about the world and our place within it. What makes Coley’s work remarkable is that you are never quite sure what that message is.   

Neil Lebeter is Senior Curator: Modern & Contemporary Art at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Neil Lebeter (b.1983) was born in Dundee and grew up in Wormit, North East Fife. He has been Senior Curator: Modern & Contemporary Art at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales since 2018. He is an alumni of the universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and St. Andrews, studying History and Museum & Gallery Studies. Prior to National Museum Wales, Neil was Archive Curator at The New Art Gallery Walsall (2009 – 2012) and Art Collections Curator & Deputy Head of Museums at the University of Edinburgh (2012 – 2018).

Neil's current exhibition at National Museum Wales, The Rules of Art?, brings together 500 years of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film and ceramics to pose questions about representation, identity and culture. Works are displayed in a way that questions social and political power structures and shows how artists have pursued a shared purpose: to push, subvert, question and reimagine what art can be. Artists include Botticelli, Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, Paul Cézanne, Gwen John, Rachel Whiteread, Donald Rodney, Helen Sear and Bob & Roberta Smith. The show also features a group of recent acquisitions, including work by John Akomfrah, Bedwyr Williams and Caroline Walker. For more details visit National Museum Wales.

'The Rules of Art?' is on at the National Museum Cardiff until 16th April 2023. Photography courtesy of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Nathan Coley (b. 1967), born in Glasgow, is an artist whose work questions the way in which the values of a society are reflected in its architecture. His work is based around an interest in public space, and addresses issues such as the importance of place, the social value of architecture and the meaning and relevance of contemporary monuments. He has become known for works of public sculpture, including his illuminated text works.

As a graduate of Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art, Coley was encouraged to explore ideas rather than a traditional artistic medium. To this day, research motivates Coley’s practice; his methods include site visits, archival research, interviews and extensive photographic documentation. In 2007, Coley was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Discover more about his work In Memory at Jupiter Artland here.

Nathan Coley, photographed by Alan Pollok Morris. Courtesy of Jupiter Artland.

Other artworks in the series 'My Favourite Scottish Work of Art' have been selected by James HollowayBarry McGlashanMelanie ReidHelen NisbetVictoria CroweSir Mark JonesDavid EustaceBill PatersonBarbara RaeProf. Murdo MacdonaldNeal AschersonBrandon LoganJock McFadyenSam Ainsley (twice), Andrew O'HaganDenise MinaCaroline WalkerJohn ByrneSir James MacMillanJoyce W CairnsSir Tim RiceAlison WattIan RankinJoanna LumleyNeil MacGregorKirsty WarkMichael Portillo and James Naughtie.