It was Hamish who first told me, you see. But all he knew was that there were some huge artworks in the old student union building, and how they’d been there since it closed, and now no one can see them. My round, by the way, what are you having? Lovely. Two, please. Cheers. So, anyway, the building used to be a drapery store in the nineteenth century, before it was bought for the student union. I found a book where it mentioned some murals, but there was no description. I thought, that must be what Hamish was on about. And then the next day it just happened – I swear, it just happened – that I was at the pub –ok, no surprises there – and my old undergrad supervisor was there. We get talking, and I casually mention this story – and he goes, ‘you wouldn’t know I’m the one who saved those paintings.’ He did some, like, vital conservation work on them, you see. And the thing is – no one really knows what to do with them now. They can’t be taken out – and the building can’t be used. We got talking a bit more, and, anyway – want to come see some murals?
To get to the studio you forget about the bustling, glistening square – and go all the way round, past the car park, through a wee dark alley, then through a small door, what must have been a service entry. After that, it’s a little courtyard – with bins and boxes and bits of construction material all around, big signs of no entry and danger. But it’s just there – the black door, the only one that’s not jammed shut.
The corridor is a slim dark gut, the ceiling far up above you. Your shoes squeak on the lino floors, the air smells stale.
My studio is right at the back – a large, white room, punctuated by thin pillars. The block of oak I got delivered today sits in the middle of the floor, alone for now.
There’s a blackboard on the far wall.
The University’s Anatomy department used to be here, that’s where they’d have classes. When the light’s like this, grey and dim, it’s not too hard to see – the bodies that have come through. Some laying still, exposed, open, on the slabs; some young, nervous, reverent, operating surgical tools with trembling hands. The respect, the awe, the nervous balance between curiosity and aversion. It’s a breach of the natural order, looking where you shouldn’t look, opening what was closed – you can’t resist despite yourself. A katabasis, a descent unto the core of life and death – excavate, examine, exhume. Gathering knowledge, the pomegranate seeds for another life.
The block of wood stands in front of me, smelling of open air. I like to think of sculptors as a little archaeologists, a little meta-physicians. Michelangelo would wander for hours, in the caves at Carrara, until he recognised the soul of a statue in a streaked block of marble. In studio, his task was to bring that spirit to the surface – descending into the bowels of stone, recognise an old friend and bring them back home.
Time travel on the online map. Top of Broad Street, College to your left – to your right, a low, longitudinal building, small office windows. People scuttle in front of it – to pay fines, get married, register to vote. One click forward. Hidden behind white fences: a crane, ‘Demolition In Progress,’ a crumbling skeleton, rusty iron rods in the air. One step forward. The road is closed off; on the fences, glossy, pastel-coloured advertisements: ‘Marischal Square – Transforming Our City Centre. Grade A Office Spaces And More.’ One click forward. Two square glass units, offices, restaurants, a fountain, buses gliding past. One step forward.
Even without the exposure to light, the wood panels would eventually suffer from damp and mould, as the room is never heated or aired, so the paper is essential – a stubborn resistance against time.
The murals are to be read clockwise from the back wall. It’s a story with no protagonist, many voices in the faint light. “The general theme is an interpretation of the adventure of life and learning as presented to the imagination of the student entering on his career,” Sivell says. Elongated, twisted bodies in heavy chiaroscuro underneath the shroud of waxy paper, interrupted in the middle of a sentence, a wave, a dance step.
A corner of the conservation paper is slightly lifted, almost an invitation to peel it off. If I did, would they spring forth?