Luke Fowler ‘Being in a Place’

Installation view 'Being in a Place – A Portrait of Margaret Tait', The Modern Institute, Aird's Lane, 2022
The Modern Institute, 3 Aird's Lane, Glasgow

The contradictory or paradoxical thing is that in documentary the real things depicted are liable to lose their reality by being photographed and presented in that “documentary” way, and there’s no poetry in that. In poetry, something else happens. Hard to say what it is. Presence, let’s say, soul or spirit, an empathy with whatever it is that’s dwelt upon, feeling for it — to the point of identification.

- Margaret Tait, ‘A Few Notes About Film and Poetry’, Poem Film Film Poem, ed. Peter Todd, No.2, November 1997.

The Modern Institute presents Luke Fowler’s Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait alongside archival material of the late filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait. Using a collection of unreleased material and unpublished correspondence, the film is a homage to Tait’s life honouring her art and devotion to film as a poetic medium. The work encapsulates the process of filmmaking, accenting the strengths in her methods, the importance of fragmented bodies of work and the intrinsic value in failure.

Aird’s Lane is divided into two distinct areas, the archive and the screening room. The archive area exhibits photographs and watercolours from Tait’s translation of Federico García Lorca’s ‘Poet in New York’ alongside Tait’s film Aspects of Kirkwall: Shape of a Town (1981). This introduction to Tait draws on a selection from her broad and diverse body of work and is sourced from collections held at The Pier Arts Centre, Orkney Library and Archive and from Prof. Sarah Neely (School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow). Tait’s archive was carefully assembled and placed within different public archives in order to preserve and facilitate the study of Tait’s work for future audiences and scholars. Due to the fact that Tait often circulated different edits of the same film within her lifetime, distinguishing between what constitutes a finished film from a trial is sometimes difficult, and questions over which is the definitive version and which films should be considered finished works is a source of on-going debate.

Tait faced many prejudices and adversities in her lifetime as a female independent filmmaker, largely because of her singular practice and her stubborn refusal to conform to the trends and fashions of her day. Apart from Tait’s only feature length film, Blue Black Permanent (1992), and a Scottish Arts Council award for experimental film Colour Poems, Tait self-funded and self-distributed the other 31 films she completed in her lifetime.

A town is shaped by its commerce, its communications, worship, learning, pleasures, and, generally, by what people do. A child at school recites a speech from “As You Like It”, contents of shop windows meet the children running down from school. On “Kirking Sunday” the Town Council (of that time) come out by the side door of St. Magnus Cathedral. New council houses contrast with the old streets. And so on. Something of the shape of the place emerges.

- Margaret Tait on Aspects of Kirkwall: Shape of a Town.

The catalyst for Fowler’s film was the discovery of an unfinished script for a feature-length film found amongst Tait’s archives, with the working title Heartlandscape: Visions of Ephemerality and Permanence. The proposal was originally penned for Channel 4 in 1983 but was never completed. Within a single sheet of typed A4 (enlarged and displayed in the gallery), Tait outlines the film’s contents with a set of evocative chapter titles: Garden Pieces, Visions of Ephemerality, Several Portraits.

The central section of the film is perhaps the most detailed — the ‘Heartlandscape of Orkney’ is the name she coined for the landscape she traversed on her daily drive to work, from her home in Aith to her studio, a former Kirk in Rendall. Tait was most fascinated by the variety of this terrain ranging from ‘peaty wilderness areas to prehistoric dwellings and signs of modernity’ and of course the people who live and work on the land. In many ways the ‘Heartlandscape’ could be viewed as a microcosm of Mainland Orkney.

As well as drawing connections between Fowler’s body of work and those which Tait articulated and at times wrestled with throughout her lifetime, the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to capture the fleeting and enduring vitality of Margaret Tait’s vision, as one of the most important and singular figures in Scottish film culture.

Luke Fowler and The Modern Institute would like to thank Marian Taylor, Peter and Ann Tait, Pier Arts Centre, Orkney Library and Archive, Sarah Neely, Richard Demarco, Terry Ann Newman, NLS and LUX Scotland.


Please join us on 19 November, 2pm at Airds Lane for an in conversation between Sarah Neely, Peter Todd and Luke Fowler.

Luke Fowler, Peter Todd and Lee Paterson will also present The Room at The Old Hairdressers on 19 November from 7.30pm.

Luke Fowler Biography

Luke Fowler (Glasgow, 1978) is an artist, filmmaker and musician based in Glasgow. He studied printmaking at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. His work explores the limits and conventions of biographical and documentary filmmaking and has often been compared to the British Free Cinema of the 1950s. Working with archival footage, photography and sound, Fowler’s filmic montages create complex portraits of counter-culture and other marginalised figures. Fowler was awarded the inaugural Derek Jarman Award in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2012 for his first feature film All Divided Selves. In 2019 he won Best Short film at both Glasgow Short Film Festival and Punto De Visto international documentary festival, Pamplona, for his film Mum’s Cards.

Margaret Tait Biography

Margaret Tait was one of Scotland’s most enigmatic filmmakers. She died in Orkney, her place of birth, in 1999 at the age 80. 2018 marked her centenary with a series of exhibitions and events taking place worldwide to broaden the distribution and appreciation of her work (MT100). Tait made one feature film in her life (Blue Black Permanent, 1992) but was best known for her short 16mm poem-films (or film-poems). It’s not surprising that she also wrote and published poetry and prose (publishing three volumes of poetry, a volume of short stories and a book for children). After studying with Roberto Rossellini at the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome (1950-52) she based herself in Edinburgh where she ran the Rose Street festival — rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Grierson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean and Norman MacCaig. She returned to Orkney in the late 60’s — which became the landscape and subject of
the majority of her films.

  • See Sarah Neely’s Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (2016) for an in-depth discussion of Tait’s work which draws on extensive archival research.