On top of the world

The Scotland pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale will promote the country as a centre for a wide

Louise Hopkins is a Glasgow-based painter. Instead of using a blank canvas, she paints directly on to familiar items such as furniture fabrics, maps, comic books and song sheets. Asked what draws her to these objects, she describes the attraction as "a love-hate thing. I'm interested in what they mean to people and what they stand for, but I also want to change them, because they're often things that stand for something particular. I feel a certain kind of awkwardness about what they are." One project involved painting over a map of Europe to alter the borders of the countries. “What interests me about the maps I’ve used, for example, is the very certain political bias they have,” Hopkins says. “They’re seen as neutral, but of course they never are.”

Lucy Skaer, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1997, is a painter, sculptor and conceptual artist. The best-known of her "public interventions" involved hiding moth and butterfly pupae in the criminal courts. Her most recent installation was inspired by the life of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Skaer is also a member of the Henry VIII's Wives artists' collective, whose current project is to build Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, placing sections of the giant steel tower at different locations around the world. While her work has an international outlook, Skaer has been helped by the "supportive" atmosphere of Glasgow's art community. "There's a good grass-roots structure here and a much less competitive mindset," she says.

Henry Coombes is a painter and film-maker whose recent work has been inspired by Edwin Landseer, the 19th-century painter of hunting scenes in the Scottish Highlands. Coombes’s oil paintings, watercolours and drawings feature wildlife and rural scenes that appear comforting but, on closer inspection, expose a dark and disturbing subtext. Speaking of Landseer, Coombes says “he had a great part to play in creating that vision of the wild romance of blood sports. I’ve always been attracted to his work, though I don’t know whether that’s because of the symbolism he uses, or the morbidness of the actual imagery.” At Venice, Coombes will show a short film and a series of paintings based around these themes.

Tony Swain’s intricately constructed paintings start off life as sheets of newspaper. He adds to and distorts patterns that already exist on the page, inverting photographs or painting over sections of text in order to create abstract, surreal images. “In a way, a newspaper page is already a sort of random collage to begin with,” says Swain. “I don’t respond to the literal content of what’s on the page – it’s not my intent to make a political statement.” Swain, who was born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland in 1967, studied at Glasgow School of Art and continues to live in the city. He cites Max Ernst and synthetic cubism as two of his most important influences.

Charles Avery is a self-taught artist whose sprawling Islanders project draws from his childhood memories of growing up on the Isle of Mull. Over the past ten years, Avery (left) has created a series of drawings, paintings and sculptures that describe in detail a mythical island full of strange creatures and heavyweight philosophical concepts.

At the centre of the island lies an “eternal forest”, which, according to Avery, can never be reached, because “your footsteps become smaller the closer you get to it”. He intends to bring together his material eventually in an encyclopaedia-style series of books.

Rosalind Nashashibi has already attracted critical acclaim for her short films, which won the Beck’s Futures prize in 2003. She is currently shooting another film for exhibition at Venice, on a cargo ship travelling from southern Italy to Scandinavia. “I’m interested in closed communities,” says Nashashibi, who studied and worked in Glasgow for eight years before moving to London. “The men who work on the ship are Neapolitan mainly, as well as eastern European and Filipino, but their existence is as a part of a kind of being, which is the ship itself. I’m more interested in things that represent the human, rather than the idea of the individual.”

Islanders "Scotland and Venice 2007" will run at the Palazzo Zenobio in Venice between 10 June and 2 November. For more information on the exhibition, visit http://www.scotlandandvenicebiennale.com

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?