An afternoon with Robert Montgomery – artist, poet, Scot

Published in The Scotsman Magazine on 23 June 2012

They catch you off guard: just where you expect an advertising hoarding to be, you find a poem, its words compelling you to read on, to take in all that is being said. White capital letters on a black background, a lyrical yet bold proclamation, street art that is moving and political at one and the same time.

The artist/poet in his Spitalfields studio by Stephen McLaren

The artist/poet in his Spitalfields studio by Stephen McLaren

These are the works of Scottish artist Robert Montgomery and they are popping up all over London. Here is his Jubilee Poem, which caused pause for thought just off the busy Bethnal Green Road.

Montgomery’s guerrilla billboards very purposely straddle the boundary of poetry and art, neither one nor the other, they assimilate the best of both forms. Made up of 16 separate printed posters, the completed works take at least two hours to assemble and remain in place for between five days and two weeks. It’s a transient medium but for those who catch a glimpse of it, it can have a great impact.

Sitting in the Spitalfields studio where the 39-year-old lives and produces his work, Montgomery laughs when asked if anybody tries to stop him pasting up his billboards. “In the time that we are putting them up, 100 people will pass by and no-one is ever offended by it. No-one calls the authorities. People, by and large, given a choice between seeing an ad for Diet Coke or the Conservative party or one of my billboards, they will take the poem every time. It is reaching the kind of people who don’t go into galleries. It’s the passing ‘anybody’ people that really get it and they’re who I do it for. I want to turn them on to poetry as much as I want to turn them on to art,” he says.

“What’s amazing is the diversity of people that engage with it. At nine o’clock in the evening, a drunk Essex estate agent will come up and say ‘I agree with that. That’s profound.’ People that are not the traditional art audience are what keeps me going and keeps me doing this, and that’s the whole point of it. They come up and say ‘that’s just what I feel but I can’t say it’.

“People are not idiots. They don’t just need to be fed shit TV culture and advertising they can read in four seconds. They are capable of reading something that’s engaging, and interesting, and are more literate than they are given credit for.”

Montgomery is an acolyte of Situationist ideas, a belief that public spaces can be used in spectacular ways to inspire, capture attention, be political and provoke both question and thought.

But displaying art in advertising spaces does not come cheap. Montgomery most often pays for the hoarding rental out of his own pocket. This is subsidised by his more commercial work, primarily his iconic “recycled sunlight pieces”, which use solar power to illuminate glass lettering. One of these works can currently be seen in the Dior Homme pop-up shop in New York: WHENEVER YOU SEE THE SUN REFLECTED IN THE WINDOW OF A BUILDING IT IS AN ANGEL. Another is in the garden of Scottish film producer Hamish McAlpine at his home in Broadstairs, Kent.

Montgomery’s latest project, an installation at Tempelhof airport, just outside Berlin, will be unveiled on 7 July. The airport, closed to air traffic since 2009, is being redesigned by two Edinburgh architecture practices, Sutherland Hussey and GROSS. MAX, to become one of the largest urban garden developments in Europe – it is pitched as “a contemporary prairie for the urban cowboy”.

With its Nazi history – Tempelhof was reconstructed in 1934 in line with Albert Speer’s plan for the restoration of Berlin – as well as its Cold War resonances, the choice of text for the work has been difficult for Montgomery. Entitled Echoes of Voices in the High Towers, the works include billboards, as well as a recycled light piece which says simply: WE WILL REST ONE DAY WHEN THE IDEA OF WAR BECOMES AS IMPOSSIBLE EVERYWHERE.

For this, Montgomery takes inspiration from Victor Hugo’s speech to the Third International Peace Conference in 1851, where he called for a United States of Europe. He quotes the words off by heart. “A day will come when all nations on our continent will form a European brotherhood … A day will come when your weapons will fall from your hands, a day when war will seem absurd and be as impossible between Paris and London, St Petersburg and Berlin, Vienna and Turin, as today it would seem impossible between Rouen and Amiens, Boston and Philadelphia.”

He adds: “The integration of Europe has been a beautiful thing in my mind. Despite people whining, we have made Victor Hugo’s dream come true and we have made Europe a little lighthouse of peace.”

The political nature of his work is not taken lightly. “I do think that contemporary artists should be engaged in politics and society in a way that hasn’t been fashionable enough in the Young British Artists’ generation,” Montgomery says. “They’ve been happy with this shock value that’s non-political. But I think back to people like Joseph Beuys who were the avant garde in the Seventies, he founded the Green Party in Germany with three other people in 1970, as well as making his art. So it’s not hard to do something political.”

It’s this sense of a greater purpose that led Montgomery to his work for the Stop the War Coalition, which was displayed at the 10th anniversary protest against the war in Afghanistan in Trafalgar Square last October. It said: WHEN WE ARE SLEEPING, AEROPLANES CARRY MEMORIES OF THE HORRORS WE HAVE GIVEN OUR SILENT CONSENT TO INTO THE NIGHT SKY OF OUR CITIES, AND LEAVE THEM THERE, TO GATHER LIKE CLOUDS AND CONDENSE INTO OUR DREAMS BEFORE MORNING.

And it’s that same sense that he should be involved in society that brought him to work with the Occupy movement. “I really believe in what those Occupy guys have to say,” he explains. “They asked me to come in and do some billboards that would maybe be a reach-out to people who are sympathetic, those lazy armchair occupiers that they’d like more on board. They came up with phrases such as ‘the whole world in your hands’, ‘the universe is kinder than you think’. I passed my work round for them to write on – and sent it to their e-mail groups, I’m trying to do it from a group voice point of view.”

Montgomery lived in Bathgate, Coatbridge, then Prestwick, as he, his mother Janette and his sisters Lisa and Graceanne, followed the peripatetic placements of his bank manager father David. His grandfathers were both miners, from Chapelhall and Harthill, and he believes it was here in Central Scotland that his socialist principles first took root as he watched Thatcherism “decimate the place my nana lived all her life. If you see that you never forget it”.

“My parents are amazing – my dad was the first person in his family to not be a miner and he was a really good, old-fashioned bank manager, before the banks became aggressive businesses like they are now. He became disillusioned by the way the banking industry went in the Nineties I think.

“My mum was a hairdresser and when she was 40 she decided to open a shop in Prestwick – Interior Motives – because she loved William Morris and Liberty fabrics. My parents have that work ethic that comes from that mining background and my mum still works in the shop six days a week – we’ve been trying to get her to work five days like a normal person.”

Aside from his parents, Montgomery credits his high-school art teacher John McKerrell with helping him find his place in the art world today. The young artist followed in his mentor’s footsteps aged 16 and studied fine art at Edinburgh College of Art.

“John McKerrell was a proper Dead Poets Society inspiring, amazing teacher who is kind of a genius. He was my hero, so I went to Edinburgh because that’s what he did,” says Montgomery, getting to his feet and bounding to the toilet to retrieve a picture of the River Doune at Ayr from the wall.

“I just love this by John. It is beautiful. This photorealism is really hard to do in watercolour. John got a first the same way I did. He went back to live at his mother’s house in Troon and teach at the local school. He taught me enough art history, as well as the art he taught me, to get me through at least first-year exams at Edinburgh. He taught me about art from top to bottom. He comes to my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. He’s still my best mate in Prestwick.

“I am the artist I am expressly because of John McKerrell. He’s also a great character, kind of like Ayrshire’s Dustin Hoffman – quite a nervous wee guy, but really smart and hilarious, a real intellectual comedian.”

But, since Montgomery himself is a poet as well as an artist, there’s another teacher given immense credit.

“I had an amazing English teacher in third year, called Enoch Currie. He swore to God he’d come to the school as a painter and decorator. He had this spiel to make the tougher kids relate to him, telling us he’d come to paint the windows last summer just before the end of term and a class was getting noisy so he came in through the window and the teacher never came back.

“He gave us the curriculum but also gave us Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I remember reading Philip Larkin’s High Windows when I was in third year and I still think a lot about the way Larkin writes when I write my billboards and text pieces.”

Montgomery recites the lines:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Edinburgh awarded Montgomery a first in painting and he went on to study for a masters in fine art. While still a student, he cheekily applied – along with fellow artist John Ayscough – for a grant from the Scottish Arts Council for their street-based project, Aerial.

He confesses: “We had applied not saying we were students and it was not designed to be a grant for students … when we were awarded £40,000 there was some debate as to whether we could get it when they found out. But to Andrew Nairne’s (then visual director at the Scottish Arts Council) credit he backed us up – we basically encouraged 20 young artists to do work on billboards and in the streets, and that’s how it started for me.”

Montgomery returned to Edinburgh earlier this year for a reunion show with Ayscough, Keith Farquhar, and Chad McCail, the other three key artists for the Aerial project at Whitespace in Gayfield Square.

In 1999, Montgomery moved to London where he soon became involved in the style magazine Dazed and Confused (where he is still an associate publisher).

“I still really believe in those kind of magazines. When you are 15 in a small town in Scotland and you go to Willie Young’s newsagent on Prestwick Main Street every fourth Thursday to buy a copy of ID, that just opens up your world. I had the high school library but it was very narrow in its reach. Through ID I learned about Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes and Leonard Cohen. I’m still involved in Dazed because for those kids in small towns it’s a source of education. Dazed is not something I would abandon or walk away from because of that.”

But his own work has taken centre stage – so much so that his girlfriend Lucy Newman has given up her job to work with him. He says: “It’s great if your girlfriend understands your art and gets it. Being an artist can be quite a mad thing and you have got to come home and do something through a compulsion. Sometimes they think you are ignoring them and that can become a difficulty in relationships.”

Last year Montgomery took his work to the Venice Biennale, and he has shown in Paris, Geneva, New York and Istanbul. He has displayed on billboards, the side of bus stops and even on the back of a lorry.

After more than 20 years in London, Montgomery’s west of Scotland accent has still not diminished – listen to how he says “po-yum” and you know he relishes that beautiful, lilting, proud pronunciation.