Back in 1996, the artist Ross Sinclair constructed Real Life Rocky Mountain: an astro-turfed slice of undulating mock "ruralness". Installed at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts, it was viewed as a parody of the Scottish landscape tradition, an interrogation, if you will, of "Scottishness". With its running burn and stuffed examples of indigenous wild life, you could almost whiff the Famous Grouse wafting from the work's mountain-top bothy.
Three years on, devolution is imminent and it is seen as timely to run a state-of-a-nation-to-be cultural check-up. Is indigenous "Scottish art" likely to over-imbibe on "Scottishness"? Far from it. Scotland's contemporary art scene is more vigorous and worldly than it has been in decades. But let's cut the labels. "Scottish art" is a suffocating blanket of a term. It offers up exclusion zones to the hundreds of artists who have made Scotland their home over the years precisely because it is not hell-bent on parochialism. Here, we are talking art from Scotland.
Yet despite signs of rude health, fears are not unknown: namely that Edinburgh might choke on an overly buttery shortbread finger. A knowingly good-looking city, it's a capital that can contentedly peddle its past. But this is no good thing. Even its annual fling with contemporary culture, the Festival and Fringe, has for years left unmoved a somewhat moribund and conservative art scene. The National Galleries of Scotland, under Timothy Clifford, have seemed more caught up with drawing-room niceties than the pursuit of curatorial adventurism. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art continues to put on unmerited, large retrospectives of dead Scottish artists, while the opening of the Dean Gallery last month, the latest addition to the National Galleries, demonstrates more the interior decor sensibilities of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town than clean-cut internationalism. Yet the Dean's temporary exhibition space could prove a real runner if curatorial complacency is nudged, as has been the case with the city's other galleries. Contemporary art spaces such as the Collective, Stills and Inverleith House have shown increasing confidence to tally with internationalism, not provincialism. Even the Fruitmarket Gallery, Scotland's "leading contemporary art venue" - at times a misnomer - seems to be throwing off its timidity. No longer so dependent on "buying in" tour circuit exhibitions, this Festival they're showing work by the acclaimed American artist Kiki Smith. Moreover, a number of galleries are wising-up to the talents of Scotland- based artists. Over the next few months work by Callum Innes, Richard Wright, Martin Boyce, Wendy McMurdo, Moyna Flannigan and Rose Frain, together with so-called emerging artists Paul Carter, Chad McCail, Shauna McMullan and Janice McNab, will be exhibited, something near unimaginable a few years back. And if plaudits were needed, in May 2000 the British Art Show, the hip touring show of new generation artists, will open in Edinburgh. Organised by London's Hayward Gallery, it is evidence, many believe, that the city is now receptive to contemporary art. Glasgow, however, still holds its own as the more resolutely contemporary of the two cities. In many ways, Edinburgh and Glasgow - only a 45-minute drive along the M8 divides them - have played out cultural rivalry much like Italian civic states back in the 15th century. …