Identity, be it individual or collective, is a subtle and shifting concept. It does not come wholly from inside the individual or among the group, but neither is it simply imported from outside. Rather, it is formed at the interface between the two. Clearly, the individual or group influence who they feel themselves to be, but so does the context of how they interact with the world and the world with them.
The Scottish photo-artist Calum Colvin explores this interface in much of his work. His images – which arise as a hybrid construction of photography, painting, sculpture and installation – juxtapose two distinct visual spaces to create a third space that throws the interface of identity into sharp relief. The first space is painted. Usually, it is a portrait, but even when it is an animal or a reference to art history, it represents the identity he is exploring through the work. This painting is created on the surface of an installation. The installation is a kind of theatrical set, dramatically lit. It is filled with objects that each have their specific significance. They are frequently drawn from popular culture and help to describe the context in which the identity of the individual is shaped by the images we see and the stories we hear and, more abstractly, by the processes of celebrity and historification, which often shift and evolve independently of fact.
Scottish history is complicated. It is traditionally recounted as a gritty lament. The most famous names are associated with defeat rather than victory but, in the telling of these tales, there remains an unbowed determination. The message is one of resilience. Yet the history of Scotland is also one of enormous triumphs. The Scottish Enlightenment – a period in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of great intellectual and scientific advancement – led Europe into the modern age. Scots made considerable contributions in economics, engineering, literature, mathematics, medicine and technology, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout much of the western world. Even so, the image that is most commonly portrayed in popular culture – through tourism, cinema, storybooks and postcards – is of a quaint, somewhat backward country of rugged landscapes, men in tartan kilts, shaggy highland cows and blaring bagpipes.
There is an image by Calum Colvin – a self-portrait [above] – in which he is reaching forward with his right hand. In his left, he holds a structure that suggests part of the stretcher for an artist’s canvas and a kind of Escher-like puzzle in perspective. It forms the diagonal cross of the Scottish flag. What is it he is reaching for and, over the years, what has he found? It was with these thoughts in mind that I began my interview.