Prize Winner

SaltSpace Award

School of Fine Art Sculpture & Environmental Art

Tamsin MacArthur


Tamsin MacArthur is a multi-media artist based in Glasgow. Her work circles around subjects of faith, folklore, death, lifecycles, naivety and inevitability. Her art practice sits as a personal navigation system, functioning as a means to explore the human condition, and have discourse with the things that feel incomprehensible and difficult to articulate.

Within her work she explores dialogues between belief and reality, and action and reaction. Her work increasingly incorporates folklore, and mythological and religious ideas, which are appropriated by herself, the artist, to become part of her own constructed personal ideology. She has a fascination with ideas, objects and sites which have been assigned ‘sacred’. Her recent work has drawn reference to ‘The Holy Isle’, a historically spiritual island on the west-coast of Scotland, where she decided to plan a modern-day pilgrimage to in the hopes of finding reason and peace.

Her works are generally process-based, featuring performances and gestures which culminate to be sculptural installations. Her work often begins site-specifically, nurturing and anthropomorphising a place or thing. She’s fascinated by the idea of going too far, or yearning for ‘too much’, and enacts this, often through tedious repetition, so that ideas do inevitably become exhausted. This is also through actions which have an already fated outcome to not become, or not quite serve us in the ways we desire. Planning to do something to the point it’s become already, our plans and ideas often fail to happen despite our best intentions.

These anti-climaxes of hope and belief, whether romantic, spiritual or otherwise, are integral to the themes of her practice. She attempts to explore the significance of both personal and dogmatic belief systems and intends to highlight the importance of naivety and hopefulness because of its unending ability to carry us through all the uncertainty and turmoil. Her work, like everything, is stuck between holding meaning and no meaning at all. These paradoxes are paramount to the ideas behind her artworks, and in this acceptance of absurdities and paradox, she settles to both resist and absorb the emblems of an increasingly individualised and nihilistic Western modernity. Constantly reaching back to prehistoric and historic notions for answers and solace, these things aren’t really in reach, though she wishes they were. One must accept that they resist one another.

Degree Show

Degree Show

“There’s a sense of theatre in the work, it’s a fictitious landscape or place or feeling or situation. It’s a stage or theatre set, a drawing come to life, the imagined become materialized. It’s spiritual and Holy but void of any ideology, narrative or meaning. Its plaster meets mud and old heavy red bricks meets bedsheets and walls made from paper balls. There’s nothing that quite makes sense of the materiality, only that it all looks quite solid, but some of it less so and some of it not at all, really, it’s hollow. It’s the cave and it’s a chapel and it’s my childhood bedroom and it’s a dreamscape and it’s a reimagining. It’s trying to make you feel safe and contemplative, but it offers a surrounding of doors and windows and archways that lead to nothing. You can see that because they are flat, and dark and they are graphite, and there’s not even been an attempt to create much of an illusion of that. Its childish, like a story book illustration, or a biblical one. Within the video and the work, in some way I’ve tried to capture a small sense of absurdity. Because through exploring the lengths we go to to find simplicity or spiritual peace, it is all so absurd, everything we do and say and see, and we must accept that we are held between meaning and meaninglessness. Like the Myth of Sisyphus we are caught in this absurdity. I want this absurdity to feel hopeful and pervade throughout my work, even and maybe especially when this hopefulness encounters morbidity. “

Tamsin’s degree show work explores ideas of divinity, holiness and the search for meaning. Within this, through naïve representations of objects and architectural features, created from the amalgamations of memory and the imagined, she seeks to create environments and an ‘intermediary’ space which poses with structurally sound replications of spaces such as churches and caves and towers. At the centre of her work is an exploration of the paradoxical nature of existential reasoning and meaning seeking. More specifically in this work she explores already fated outcomes and the inevitabilities of failure. Much of her work attempts to dance with failure, exploring gestures and themes of the cyclical, inevitability, naivety and futility – much of this coming down to absurdity as the fountain of meaning, meaninglessness, existence and experience.

The video installation comprises of a scene set, a theatrical stage set, drawings come to life, imaginations become tangible and solid. The real and the imagined, the believed and the actual – all held in paradoxical combination. Large monuments like the huge flintstone effect arch stands almost centrally to the space and suggests a portal of some kind, we aren’t beckoned to pass through it, but the suggestion is there. We know that archways are passages, designed to be entered. But the placement of this architectural feature is contradictory to that idea, and it’s clear that nothing ‘new’ can be found through one physically passing through it. We can see that; we can go around it and find ourselves in the same place we’d be were we to pass through it.

In much the same visual language, a waist to chest height wall juts into the space, suggestive of a bar area, it’s seems like a useless obstacle in the space, it’s difficult not to stand behind it in order to view the projected video. We are being led, in a very vague way around and through this disjointed but worldly space. These futile or useless architectural features are in some ways metaphors to inner states, feeling states, spiritual or religious or mind and body states. The artist is creating these physical features in suggestion to the internal workings of consciousness and existential reasonings.

There’s juxtaposition in the materiality of the installation. In some ways it feels earthly and wild, with sand and raw clay. But dominant is the plaster, the housebuilding stuff, a material which surrounds us in our domestic spaces, and in almost every internal space we enter. These material choices are employed by the artist to amalgamate the intangible with the tangible, the past with the present, the strong with the not so strong. The lasting with the temporal. This solid space with these solid features are caught in an environment that unfortunately is not so solid. There’s a sadness to this, it feels like someone has tried to create a chapel, a world, a house, a place to be safe, to hide or to meditate, or to work it all out. Drawn on to the walls are arched shapes in graphite and others spread with plaster – they seem like doorways or windows, repeated again and again around the edges of the space, though leading to nothing.

“I wanted it to feel so close to the real thing but it be let down by its naïve construction. These objects are imagined version of real things, a coming to life of a drawing or memory. A remembrance of something. This is what the wall which comes out from the wall and in to the space serves to do, it was a memory and recreation of a wall which was left in the construction of my childhood home.”

A pilgrimage to Molaise’s Cave on the Holy Isle is at the centre of the work, the artist travels from Glasgow to the Isle with a coracle on her back. A Coracle is a woven willow boat and thought to be one of the earliest ways that people would travel across water, the tradition has mostly died out, but the coracle can be traced back internationally, and is a widely known as a fishing boat, as well as the pilgrims boat. The artist uses the coracle as an ode to Saint Molaise, who is said to have travelled in one to the Holy Isle from Ireland around 600AD. Molaise stayed in the cave as a hermitage for around 10 years, and the Isle has a long and rich history of spirituality since and possibly pre-dating his residing there.

The video documents the journey from city to cave, often times filmed from behind, the slightly absurd image of a large black oblong shape with two legs walking beneath is in many ways comical – the coracle does not look easy to manoeuvre around, and this sense of burden is intended to reference the Sisyphean journey of endlessly carrying a huge rock to the top of a mountain only for it to fall back down and start again. The artist references a range of stories and myths, and the piece was influenced especially by Voltaire’s ‘Candide, the Optimist’, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, by the anchorite Julian of Norwich, ‘The Myth of Sysiphus’, especially writings on it by Albert Camus, as well as the story of ‘The Smokey Mirror Man’ found in the ‘Tibetan book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche.

The unfortunate failure of the coracle to carry the artist across the water from Lamlash Harbour to the Holy Isle means that she and the sailors from Lamlash Cruises have to utilise ‘Plan B’, where the coracle is put on another boat and carried across that way. The result is the same, she and the coracle cross the water and do finally reach this mythologised place, despite it being… “a bit anti-climactic isn’t it”.

“I’d made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be sailing the coracle to the Holy Isle, it felt like a success that It would get there anyway, that the coracle and I would make it to our destination. The boat became an emblem of of that wanting to get there, an object of that hope and longing. It had become a companion to me, something I’d made and carried and I’d hoped would carry me. I always knew there was a chance it wouldn’t work, I’d set myself up for that in a way, at the very conception of the idea. I’ve never sailed a boat, let alone made one before.“

Upon reaching the cave, the artist/pilgrim finds a dead goat in the cave, this is replicated in the installation, where a paper mache and plaster goat lays resting in a ground level sand pitted cave, loosely shaped like the Holy isle. There’s a sense that this is an alter, it in many ways decides to be the most divine aspect of the installation. A material screen surrounds it, and the whole corner of that space where the goat lies has a nativity-esque way about it. The material screen is smeared with clay and plaster, and there’s a sense that rags have been attempted to become rich with sentiment and care. Though messy and still with the mark making typical to the artists work, which leaves the hands and the human touch present.

“Once arriving at the cave I climbed down in to the cave with the coracle still on my back, this was the true destination in many ways, to reach Molaises cave, where he’d hermited for 10 years. Only to find a little dead goat laying against the side of one of the cave walls. What a beautiful place to die. But not what I’d expected, I’d wanted to sit in the cave, I’d been planning it for months! And now I get there and the cave is filled with flies and my idealism has been interrupted. How wonderful, what a wonderful place to die. So I sat on the grass just next to the cave, away from the flies and ate some bread and butter, and sat and absorbed it all before rushing back to catch the last boat.”
“I didn’t want to leave with the boat, it felt like it had come to where it was intended to be, and the coracle had become this gift to the island. As Grant had said, he thought it might be the second coracle to enter the cave since Molaise. Like I say In the video, that might not be true but it would be pretty great if it was. So I gave it to the community who stay in the centre for World Peace and Health, and watched as one of them carried it away on his back.”

Detail from Installation

a small piece of rock from the Devetashka Cave, Bulgaria, hung within the Installation.

Detail from Install

A clay 'waterhead', Devetashka Cave rock piece hung from an open mouth.

Installation View

Installation View

Installation View

Installation View

Installation View

Installation View

Installation View