THIRTY years ago this week, a Glasgow sculptor made history at one of the world’s most famous art exhibitions.

Kate Whiteford and fellow Scottish artists David Mach – who would go on to create the famous Big Heids on the M8 – and Arthur Watson made headlines around the world with their works at the 44th Venice Biennale, the ‘art Olympics’.

It was a wildly ambitious, fitting highlight of Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, and it has been commemorated in a visual guide for the first time.

Clare Henry, former art critic of the Glasgow Times’ sister newspaper The Herald, explains: “This was huge for Scotland – for the first time, Scottish art was part of the official Venice Biennale, as a country in its own right, alongside 39 other nations. 

“It remains a resounding success for Scotland and deserves to be revisited on its 30th anniversary.”

Glasgow Times: Clare Henry Clare Henry

The trio, under the auspices of the Scottish Sculpture Trust, filled the huge central space with ambitious works that delighted audiences and critics alike.

Clare says: “The Biennale director, Professor Giovanni Carandente, wrote that he considered this exhibition ‘one among the most important events of the 44th International.’”

In fact, Whiteford, Mach and Watson were given centre stage in the Esedra, the Biennale’s prime site at the heart of the Giardini in front of the Italian and American pavilions. 

Whiteford’s Sitelines, a 10m by 20m concrete and gravel land drawing sat alongside Mach’s giant steel bonsai trees, Softening the Hardened Hearts of Men, and Watson’s sunburst sail pyramid, Across the Sea. 

Glasgow Times: Kate Whiteford’s SitelinesKate Whiteford’s Sitelines

Mach’s four-tonne tree installations required the Biennale crane for five days, a team of 20, and a pickaxe.

Clare says: “The five bonsais included a 20-foot high Scots pine, in the place of honour at the Biennale entrance, central to the main avenue. Scotland was impossible to miss.”

“It was a triumph for lots of reasons, not least because we did it on a shoe-string budget.”

Clare, who was one of the driving forces behind the project alongside Barbara Grigor, Angela Wrapson and Lynne Sanderson, adds: “Since 2003, Scotland has had a presence again but not in the main arena. 

“In 1990 total funding reached £46,000. Scotland’s bid for the 2021 Biennale is a huge £350,000 plus.”

She adds: “Looking back now, I am amazed and proud of our success. Even the logistics were immense: laser-cut steel from Aberdeen; photo laminate from Glasgow; concrete from London, all trucked to Venice to be erected on site. No cell phones, no internet, no email. No money. Just a fax and postage stamps.”

Clare remains in close contact with all three artists, who remain busy professionally, and has helped Ruairi Barfoot to create a guide to Scotland at the Biennale, which will be made available on social media.

The project was a highlight of Glasgow’s reign as City of Culture 1990.

“I think it was a triumph,” says Clare. “If you get a chance at Venice, it’s like winning Wimbledon. 

“From the moment Carandente suggested the Esedra, we managed to pull it off.  The artists were all successful, they all picked out their location and it all worked. It’s something I’m very happy to look back on.”