This week, we share a tribute to Ian Smith, the focus of the Festival of Ian Smith at Summerhall artspace in Edinburgh.
Final Fling is running a Death Cafe as part of this tribute to Ian Smith on Sunday 30 October (chiming with Day of the Dead) and scheduling another during the Festival on Sunday 13 November.
6 years ago, Friend of Fling Barbara Millar, now an award-winning funeral celebrant, wrote a review of the work of Ian Smith at the launch of The Briggait, the stunning artspace at the heart of Glasgow’s city centre, where Mischief is still based.
Barbara kindly shares her article as a tribute to Ian Smith:
Way back in the 1860s, key figures from Glasgow City’s planning department went on an organised trip to Paris (isn’t it amazing how the centuries roll on and the jollies still perpetuate?).
I know not what was the intended outcome of this fact-finding mission, but it is generally believed they came back with architectural inspiration gleaned from the great Parisian markets – Les Halles – built between 1845-1854, and that this inspiration filtered down into the creation of the splendid Fish Market building on the banks of the Clyde.
The Fish Market – often simply referred to as ‘the Briggait’ after the medieval street on which it is located – was built in 1873 as the trading room for Glasgow’s wholesale fish trade. It was designed to allow horse-drawn carriages to enter and load/unload their wares, so featured a large, open-galleried central hall with a magnificent cast-iron surround and a glass roof.
In 1889, and again in1903, it was extended with two smaller halls added on, and the whole structure encompassed the 17th century Merchants’ Steeple, the lookout for the fabulously wealthy Tobacco Lords, anxiously awaiting their valuable cargoes from America.
In the 1970s, however, the Fish Market moved out of town, and Glasgow City Council drew up plans to demolish the now unwanted building. It was saved by a charitable trust, which raised funds to repair and convert it into a shopping arcade with food and craft stalls. This venture, however, was short-lived and the old Fish Market became increasingly unloved and decrepit, its Victorian façade cracking and peeling, its glass roof broken, its ornate ironwork rusting, and its crowning glory – the winged sea-horse sculptures on the parapet – presiding over a sad and sorry state of utter neglect.
But, remarkably, the Fish Market has been given a new lease of life and will open its great central hall to the public in August, after an open studios event on July 24 and 25. The A-listed building has been saved by another charitable operation, WASPS (Workshop and Artists Studio Provision Scotland), which has a long and successful track record in providing affordable working spaces for a community of 750 visual artists throughout Scotland.
WASPS has secured over £15 million public and private sector funding to rescue and refurbish 17 buildings – from the Borders to the Shetland Isles – including major projects in Aberdeen, Kirkcudbright, Newburgh and Edinburgh.
The Briggait, its latest venture, has cost £6.5 million and will house 45 studios for visual artists, 24 offices for cultural organisations, five shop-front units for creative industry companies, meeting spaces and a heritage interpretation room – and that superb 1873 courtyard will be used as a public space, with a café open to everyone.
Fittingly, one of the organisations recently moved into its new Fish Market premises is Mischief La-Bas, which runs its own market – of a very different kind.
Mischief La-Bas, described by its director Ian Smith as “independent, interactive walkabout theatre, which likes gently to warp the underlay of the fabric of society” runs the Market of Optimism, a quality much needed in these straitened economic times.
The Market of Optimism is, as its name suggests, “a full-sized street market of optimism”, says Ian. “We bring something uplifting and totally ridiculous – so ridiculous, in fact, that you can hardly believe we do it – to market towns in Scotland.”
To shop in the Market of Optimism you must obtain the local currency – neuros – from a human cash dispenser (“which guarantees truly free withdrawals, as long as you are polite,” says Ian) and, armed with 100 neuros, you can then choose to purchase from the 16 different stalls such items as a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, two minutes of good vibrations, a personal guardian angel, some spice – in flavours including grace, passion and glamour – to spice up your life, or a year’s worth of renewed optimism. Each purchase costs 10 neuros so your money goes a long, long way.
The Market of Optimism first saw light of day in 2008 when Liverpool was the European City of Culture and the Market was staged, appropriately, in Hope Street, the long thoroughfare which links the two cathedrals of different denominations. A Scottish version was commissioned for Edinburgh’s “Feet First” New Year’s Day celebrations in 2009, and the show has now been adapted for touring throughout Scotland.
“We want to take this exciting event to places which don’t have regular festivals,” Ian Smith explains. So far the Market has opened for business in Aviemore, Perth and Dumfries. Later this year it will be in St Andrews, Cumnock and Kirkcaldy, although it will also appear at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival.
Mischief La-Bas, which Ian interprets as “mischief, over there: a misdirection, an illusion”, has been running since 1992 and is very much a family affair. Ian’s wife Angie Dight is Senorita Stampada, a flamenco dancer (at the Market of Optimism she will stamp your troubles to dust for 10 neuros). Stan, aged 15, is a guardian angel and 13-year-old Lily is a wishing well elf.
There are also 30 other people – or “manifestations”, as Ian calls them – involved in the Market. “I provide them with a brief, costume, props and motivation and they then run amok, improvising and bringing their own characters into the mix. To be involved requires nothing more than a brass neck and a fast tongue.”
But, he adds: “This kind of activity is a real craft. Not everyone has the confidence to do it. But the people we work with, many of who have been with us for 15 years, are so experienced they can undertake any stretch of imagination I can come up with. They allow me to go wild, and they realise it for me.”
The company has grown organically, he points out. “We’ve never interviewed or auditioned so I don’t know where these people have come from.”
Mischief La-Bas’ manager is a trapeze artist and its project manager is also a ventriloquist. But some of the core crew also came from less arty backgrounds – one is ex-Royal Navy and many are former teachers.
As well as the Market of Optimism tour, the company is also currently involved with erecting statues of 1930s “tango superstar” Carlos Gardel in small towns and villages throughout Scotland.
Carlos Gardel was a real person, and a real tango superstar, feted and beloved in his native Argentina. But Mischief La-Bas has created a fictional hinterland for Carlos: in the 1931, he came to Scotland and performed his passionate dances in remote villages and towns, giving impromptu pleasure to those who could never have dreamed of witnessing such delights.
In recognition of this little-known tour, temporary statues of Carlos will be erected in 25 locations, following his original route. So far statues have been put up in places such as Montrose, Kirriemuir, Forfar, Cupar, Burntisland and Bowmore, and the ceremony is always led by Councillor Frank Patterson and the glamorous Irana Frump.
Mystified local people are invited to the unveiling, when the history of Carlos and his “visit” to Scotland are shared. Because Carlos only stayed in each venue for 50 minutes, that is as long as his statue remains, before being hastily dismantled and carted off to the next stop.
“We are creating mythology with a guerrilla effect,” says Ian Smith. “I considered asking councils for permission to do this, but then decided simply to write to them, courteously, and tell them it was happening. No-one has tried to stop us.”
It is pretty strange, he admits. “But the locals love it. There have been no cynical responses at all. People really enjoy the absurdity of it all. I thought, the further north we went, people might be dour and disapprove of it. But the opposite has been the case. People can’t believe you have bothered to go there, that they are worth all this hoo-haa, so they really appreciate it.” Stornoway, Oban, Mallaig and somewhere on Orkney are still to undergo the Carlos Gardel experience this summer.
If these are the quirky and imaginative offerings of just one of the new occupants of Glasgow’s old Fish Market, I must confess I can hardly wait for what others may have to reveal.
Find out more and see what Mischief La Bas is up to these days.
There are exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the Festival of Ian Smith. Find out more and book now.