George Wyllie belongs to a small but significant tally of Scots we might call, taking our cue from a poem Liz Lochhead wrote about him, ‘the Mad Professors’. Experimenting on madcap marvels in the laboratories of their imagination, their test tubes bubbling over with dreams and schemes, the Mad Professors number amongst their ranks Edwin Morgan, Ivor Cutler and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Like Wyllie, these artists flit between poetry, the visual arts, music, theatre, and film, no more recognising boundaries than they do limits to their concepts.
Wyllie turned 90 last year, and 2012 will see a number of events honouring his achievements, including a retrospective exhibition at the Mitchell Library. His work is notable for its experimentalism and desire to disturb the surface of the everyday. Wyllie adds a scampish sense of humour, as anyone who has seen his Clyde Clock outside Buchanan Street bus station, its spindly legs frozen in mid-sprint, can testify.
Describing himself a ‘a scul?tor’, Wylie works towards complicating and heightening reality, whether it be in the form of a full-size steam locomotive, constructed from straw, and suspended from a crane over the Clyde, or sailing an 80-foot paper boat along the Hudson river.
This month sees the publication of Some Serious, Some Not, Some Not Even That, a collection of Wyllie’s poems – or ‘?oems’ as he puts it. The title gives some indication of the slim volume’s content. There are many smile-raising squibs like ‘One of Our Choc Ices is Missing’ or ‘The Inadequacy of Having an Appetite Like a Bird’ (‘One swallow / doth not make / a supper’). But they are not all comic. In ‘Package Tour’, an otherwise satiric observation of Brits abroad, he beautifully captures the impulses, so fragilely realised, that lead us abroad with ‘collecting memories / butterflies in a jam jar’.
The Scottish Poetry Library itself plays host to a Wyllie work of art that is of a piece with his paper boats and straw trains. We have a bicycle made of cloth (see above), another vehicle that can go nowhere – except deep into our imaginings and memory.