By Sarah Laurenson
It was a biting cold spring day when I first met artist Bobby Niven on a train journeying through central Scotland.
He was returning to his parents’ farm in Fife after researching a sculpture project in the Isle of Skye. Stationed at Rubh’ an Dunain, a remote archaeological site, he had discovered layers of time in matter reaching back thousands of years.
Some months later we meet to discuss the outcome of that trip, a series of playful, beautiful sculptures brought together under the title The Proceedings of the Society. The works are part of Broad Reach which was shown at Atlas Arts in Skye and Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Art Centre in North Uist.
The colours and contours of the landscape, and the unyielding might of the Scottish weather, frame Bobby’s memories. “I decided it was a good idea to take my bike,” he says, before adding that it was, “slightly delusional to think I was going to do some dreamy cycling, because of course it was 40 mile an hour headwinds and driving rain. The road from the ferry was pretty epic, going through the Red Cuillins and up to Portree - but doing so with insufficient waterproofs was an awakening.”
He visited the site with Emma Nicolson, director at Atlas Arts, and archaeologist Martin Wildgoose who helped him interpret the landscape and read the narratives layered within. “You can see evidence of the lives lived there through the ages – Megalithic, Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age right up to the 1800s when the last folk left”, Bobby explains. “There are built structures, namely a broch and a canal in the peninsula. You can see things that have been really well made and have been used and survived over such a long period of time.”
“From there you can see across to Rum, Cana, Eigg. It changes your perception of the land, looking out from a site that is now on the periphery, but was once a centre because of the access from the sea at a time when the ocean was a highway rather than a barrier.”
In standing there, evidence of everyday life – past and present – glinted in the mud and on the tideline. “There were carved pieces of bloodstone, a brilliantly green stone with little flecks of red from Bloodstone Hill on the Isle of Rum. There was quite a bit of Scots pine on site, although its debatable whether it was grown there, because flotsam and jetsam was used to build boats and infrastructure. Being there by the sea I was struck by the familiarity and closeness of fragments of plastic being washed up on the tideline – there’s a jarring feeling. It opened things up for me and I decided to work from that material.”
The latter issue would become a departure point in how Bobby approached creating work for the project. Yet while the rubbish of the sea was compelling on a personal level, Bobby understood that using it to render lost scraps of everyday ancient lives into special sculptures for island audiences would require more than just imagination. “It was important to make something precious from the things I found. For islanders, flotsam and jetsam is just too familiar. So I decided to make direct casts from what I gathered, from found objects and the kelp on the beach.”
Bobby teamed up with Powderhall Bronze, a foundry in Edinburgh, to cast his works, and in doing so embarked on a collaborative process of making and discovery. “We cast the pieces in wax and then poured the metal in, but when they casts came out they didn’t look special. They looked like a branch from an old thorn bush with all the runners sticking out and covered in residue. You couldn’t read all the beautiful lines of the organic material, so I filled in some of the holes, and covered over the fine detail of the matter itself to emphasise the natural curves of the kelp – the twists and turns and curls.”
Describing the process of transforming organic stuff on the shoreline to something precious, Bobby explains how the viewer brings their own imagination to give each piece meaning. “For example, the twisting kelp emerging from an old Vodka bottle I found washed up on the beach might bring to mind the indirect route home after a night out.”
The pseudo-archaeological artefacts were displayed in the gallery on carved hand-shaped plinths, thus harnessing ideas of handwork involved in the making and recovery of the objects. “I just started carving, carving away until I found a form I liked. I was doing it with hand tools so you could very much see the chisel marks and towards the end I smoothed them off. The plinths recollect Martin’s hands and the way he uses them to uncover archaeological objects, digging with tools, and with his bare hands, like giant organic spades.”
As well as referencing layers of hand work, the simple forms of the plinths can be read as a gesture of giving: “the idea of a child going to the beach who comes back to show their parents or their friends – that moment where you present what you’ve found.”
Islands are not a new interest for Bobby. The making of ISLAND, for example, a film about Inchgarvie in the Firth of Forth, reveals a fascination with familiar but unexplored places. “Making that work”, he says, “gave me an incredible opportunity to visit and revisit an island that I had seen every day under the bridge as I travelled from my home on the farm in Fife across the water to school in Edinburgh. So many people rest their eyes on that island every day out of the train window, but few get to experience it for what it is.”
When I ask Bobby about the role of islands as a recurring influence on his work, our conversation comes full-circle to the physical experiences of being in island landscapes: “When I was in art school, I went cycling round the Hebrides with a few friends. I sketched from the landscape and worked from those sketches when I came back. Most of the time we weren’t doing long cycles. That said, the wind could make the island feel bigger or smaller.”
Bobby’s imagination runs riot in the island landscape. As he recounts his visit to Skye, I can see him tracing the outline of the hills in his mind’s eye. His latest sculptures suggest an affinity with past makers, a curiosity about how people gathered materials and made things to shape the world around them. Emerging from the space that exists between art and making, Bobby’s sculptures are deftly moulded works which fuse material and sensory aspects of island lives.
Sarah Laurenson is a researcher and writer specialising in craft and design. She is the editor of 'Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present', an illustrated collection of essays on wool, knitting and weaving. Originally from Shetland, she now lives in Edinburgh where she is completing a doctorate on the history of Scotland's jewellery craft.
Photographs by Johnny Barrington