John White: We need artists to inspire, entertain, and challenge our way of thinking

Art at the Storr. Pic, Alan McAteer

By John White

The Skye’s the Limit is a fund-raising exercise challenge set by Skye Events, who among other things would normally have organised the Skye Half Marathon last weekend.

At present it is, hopefully, planned to take place on the 31st October.

But the idea of the current covid challenge is to walk, run or cycle as many miles as possible as a team throughout the month of June, and raise money for Skye Community Response.

Team White/Martin decided to take the opportunity, stretch the five-mile exercise travelling guideline a little, and check the trig point out on top of the Storr.

Nearly every time I see the old man, some memory flashes up of that incredible event held 15 years ago.

‘The Storr Unfolding Landscape’ was a night-time adventure, when the arts organisation NVA audaciously lit up the paths, wood and hillside, painting the rocks and trees with spotlight and projection.

Poetry sounds and song also echoed around Am Bodach, adding to the sometime ethereal experience.

I was in charge of safety, and it is not without some pride I can say we took nearly 6000 folk up the hill, at night, in all weathers over a period of six weeks, and at worst had one twisted ankle.

Anne Martin singing in a memorable setting. Pic Alan McAteer

Each participant was given a head torch and as if pilgrims, a stout stick. A team of guides dictated the progress of three groups who had to pass at exactly the right point.

It was a single track, with few passing places.

Radio contact with a coordinating control centre at Storr Lochs monitored the flow, as the audience became part of the show with lines of lights stretching across parts of the hill.

There was precision in the art.

And it was art.

At the time the WHFP wrote: “Some people say that any addition to the Storr is at worst sacrilege, at best gilding the lily.

“Yet, on reflection we can see it’s possible to do just that, and do it acceptably…This may be the aesthetics of the future”.

At first, my delight was the facilitation of getting people outside, at night, helping give them an outdoor experience.

Any art was a bonus; first and foremost they were having a safe adventure. But as the weeks rolled by I became more and more mesmerised by the art, and took my own understanding of what it may or may not have meant.

It was Orson Welles who wrote: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”

But art amongst other things, can and perhaps should make you think.

Now more than ever we need to do a lot of thinking.

Knowing what we like is valid, but the danger is we stay within our comfort zone and remain unchallenged in our thinking.

Art can be pretty, it can be disgusting, it can be clever, it can seemingly be not. It can entertain, it can stimulate.

Some could say the ‘Storr Unfolding Landscape’ did all of these…

Above all it made me look at a place differently, in the reactions of the participants, as well as the aesthetics of the event itself.

I saw people’s faces in awe at the display in the corrie. I saw some fed up in the rain.

I could hear a pin drop at Anne Martin’s live singing echoing off the cliff from ‘her cnoc’ as the 50 or so lights, some as far away as Raasay and Ben Tianavaig were programmed to automatically turn on, some nights mirroring the stars in the sky.

Occasionally I could barely hear the song through the wind.

As she sang, some nights due to the direction of the wind and the subsequent noise to her microphone, she would have her back to the audience and as a small silhouette in the distance they were unaware that she sang to the landscape and not them.

She says it was a privilege to be able to perform in the landscape of the song and yes, she understood the songs differently by the end.

She told me that she would sometimes have a feeling of her words floating off across the Sound of Raasay, to drift forever, perhaps to be heard randomly in some far off place.

Maybe the answer really is “blowing in the wind”

There is often criticism of big art, especially if public money is spent.

Criticism is actually part of the point.

Often the cry is that surely the money could be better spent on roads, health or education, anything useful.

But I believe it is a mark of a civilised society, firstly how the old, infirm and poor are treated, but secondly and still importantly how art and culture are patronised.

If society is purely utilitarian, then we might as well give up now.

We need our artists, musicians, writers, poets and free thinkers to inspire, entertain, but also to challenge our way of thinking.

Art can make you see things differently, by making statements, either loud or subtle.

Artist Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who died in November last year, was made famous in 1995 along with Christo Vladimirov Javacheff by wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag with material.

A bold statement if ever there was one.

I often smile when I see Am Bodach, and do take delight in explaining to visitors the Gaelic roots to its descriptive name and their anatomical connotations.

Clothing the huge upstanding stone volcanic intrusion could, well, to some, be seen as the appropriate, even the decent thing to do!

We see graffiti appearing on some statues, and the toppling of one is a powerful image, ironically reminiscent of the falling of dictatorship.

Imagine the power of statues wrapped, covered non-destructively in material. Temporary shrouding to stimulate reasoned debate on their relevance or not in the future.

I guess the thugs would rip it off…

As we cycle run or walk to keep fit and challenge our bodies and log our miles for Skye’s the Limit, we should also challenge our minds.

Look at the familiar as if through an artist’s eyes.

Imagine viewing through the lens of others, visitors. Maybe even plan a return when the nights draw in, which they will soon enough.

Shine a torch at a rock, a tree, listen to some song, capture an image, maybe write some poetry.

We are all artists.