Sights and sounds of shipyards

11th October 1996 at 01:00
IRON Exhibition by Tom McKendrick at Collins Gallery, Glasgow, until December 21. Gillian Macdonald visits a vivid recreation of Clydeside's past. Walk through the shipyard gate, hammers clanging in your ear, laser lights and the red glow of embers catching your eye. Enter the dark and exciting world of the riveter, as experienced in the 1960s by Clydebank shipyard worker-turned-artist Tom McKendrick and re-created in his latest exhibition "Iron" at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow.

Described as a "multimedia experience", the show is heaving with metal sculptures, paintings, gravel and all the dusty paraphernalia of the shipyards - tea cans, drill heads from John Brown's, even a chunk of the original Queen Elizabeth liner. It is, Mc-Kendrick hopes, "the filthiest exhibition in Glasgow, because shipyards are dirty". It is certainly one of the noisiest, with specially composed music creating the appropriate acoustics.

At one end of the room, hammers warm over a cosy fire, a sentimental image of the ice-cold tools that would freeze to the holder-on's hand on a winter morning. At the other end illuminated tea cans, symbols of the infamous teabreak disputes, hang - riddled with holes now - above the accountant's "ready reckoner", a pocket guide to every farthing spent.

Elsewhere in this temple to a bygone industry, altars are dedicated to the sacred hammers that beat the rivets, the great sparks that flew, the borers that drilled the holes, the frame benders and the myth of the Golden Rivet, found here for the first time.

At the centre, the symbolic Timekeeper, protected by a ring of Dreadnought battleships, keeps a steely eye on the thousands of men and women clocking in and out - one minute late in the morning or one minute over the seven allowed for the lavatory, and you're docked a quarter of an hour's pay.

Everywhere there are numbers and lines, in paintings and on metal plates on the floor - a whole world of graffiti that would be painted over at the last moment. And there are holes. "Think of these thousands of tons in the water, filled with bloody holes," laughs McKendrick.

Here is social history at its most tangible, a hands-on, four-dimensional exhibition if you count the metaphysical level - gods at the entrance sending down thunderbolts and iron-rich meteors; the fire of the great furnace; "the bad fire of Sunday school fame if you're a bad boy".

Add the irony and sense of the ridiculous, the "silly little bits" as McKendrick calls them, like the festooning of the entrance gates in silk drapery for the launch, and you get a taste of the humour that kept men like him and one-time welder Billy Connolly going when the work and conditions were hard.

The one pity is that the "vertically challenged" little artist will not be on hand to give his own guided tour as he did for the press, jokes and memories of the shipyards flying like sparks around the room. A brilliant entertainer and teacher, he will be back in the classroom at Johnstone High, instilling what he can of the art curriculum into his pupils.

Others, however, will have the chance to attend curriculum-related workshops, where children can make their own "time checks" in clay, and get a 40-minute video with interview and archive footage of the yards, plus detailed teacher's notes on the background to the exhibition.

It's a far cry from the 15-year-old's apprenticeship on Clydebank, but there was a lot of talent there, as McKendrick says. With all the nostalgia around the exhibition, would he ever want to go back? "Naw," he chuckles. "Six years in the yards was enough - bloody awful. Forget it!" For further details of workshops, tel: 0141 553 4145. The show will tour to the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock, January 25-March 1 McManus Galleries, Dundee, March 29-June 21; The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, July 5-August 23; and (to be confirmed) Summerlee Heritage Centre, Coatbridge, from September until the end of 1997.

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