Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts

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Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
Springs Eternal: Glenfiddich Artists in Residence - 12 Years from Taiwan
Springs Eternal: Glenfiddich Artists in Residence - 12 Years from Taiwan

The Flow….

In simple ways the grain was prepared and ground and set to ferment; the fermented liquor was then boiled and as the steam came off it was by happy chance condensed against some cold surface. And lo! This condensation of the steam from the greenish – yellow fermented gruel is clear as crystal. It is purer than any water from any well. When cold, it is colder to the fingers than ice.

A marvellous transformation. A perfect water. But in the mouth, - what is this? The gums tingle, the throat burns, down to the belly fire passes, and thence outward to the fingertips, to the feet, and finally to the head.

In this poetic account, Neil Gunn constructs a fanciful tale accounting for the series of ‘happy accidents’ that may, or may not, have resulted in the very first distillation of single malt whisky. These days of course not quite so much is left to chance. For in order to consistently distill a spirit that Gunn likens to ‘a perfect water’ distillers now benefit from a time trusted series of processes refined over the generations. They are also well aware of the need to use only the purest of natural ingredients.

While there are many debates over the greater effect that copper or wood has on the qualities and character of Scotch whisky, William Grant clearly understood that in order to get a spirit from your still that was ‘purer than any water from any well’ you had to start with the best possible base materials.

In the summers of his youth, William contributed to his family’s purse by working as a cowherd in the hills not far from Dufftown. Being responsible for a free grazing herd of cattle would have required him to quickly learn which springs flowed even through the driest summers and where to find them!

It was to be the knowledge of one such spring known as the Robbie Dhu that would come to be so important in his later years.

Williams’s choice of water source to make his Glenfiddich whisky was not just based on the quantity available, the quality of the spring was also a highly important consideration! In his early twenties William took up position as a clerk for the Tininvir Lime Works just outside Dufftown. Beyond his role he developed a keen interest in geology and would have understood that the best water for making whisky was not hardened by filtering through limestone, but that which had been softened by its passage through peat and gravel, just as those of the Robbie Dhu were.

Today this bountiful highland spring is still the single source of all the water used in the making of Glenfiddich single malt. And where it rises in the Conval Hills overlooking The Glenfiddich Distillery was one of the first places I took Kun-Ying when he arrived early last summer. Kun-Ying was particularly interested in the whole process of whisky making, so it seemed right to start where for Glenfiddich it all starts, with the waters of the Robbie Dhu!

While Glenfiddich might use one single source of spring water, as a residency location it continues to provide multiple sources of inspiration - as the creative output of Kun-Ying’s eleven predecessors testifies.

Twelve summers ago in 2005 Glenfiddich welcomed Chen Hui-Chiao, the very first artist in residence to join the programme from Taiwan. Some of the barley grown and harvested that same summer was malted, ground and finally introduced to the waters of the Robbie Dhu spring in the Glenfiddich mash tun. And as Chiao put the finishing touches to her landscape inspired wall installation A Feeling in the Guts, the ‘perfect water’ that flowed from the Glenfiddich spirit stills was being laid down in oak casks. Clear in appearance, high in alcohol, this raw spirit is not without its own charms but its bite still needs tempered and mellowed with years of maturation in wood.

For three summers the spirit must lie in a traditional oak barrel before it can legally be classed as whisky. In this time Wu Chi-Tsung converted the old peat shed at Glenfiddich into a pinhole camera viewing gallery and Yao Jui-Chung completed the first series of his now celebrated Wonderful drawings. In the fourth summer Yuan Goang-Ming’s work Disappearing Landscape - Scotland saw his camera travel along a wire suspended through the warehouses above where the maturing casks of spirit lay.

At this time, the spirit would have been checked by our Malt Master David Stewart, but as the years marched on this responsibility would in turn pass to his apprentice Brian Kinsman, our current Malt Master. For at this still young age it would be many more years before the spirit would be considered ready for bottling and in those years the creativity continued. For Project Rrose, Wang Jun-Jieh would use the tun room as a film location and photographically survey each of the warehouse doors. Chen Shiau-Peng would carefully and concisely map the physical locality and her experience of Glenfiddich, Mia Wen-Hsuan Liu would experiment with installations informed by a cloud swept sky-scape while Wu Tung-Lung would be inspired to incorporate the subtle colour variations of the night-time sky into his paintings.

By now, the spirit of 2005 was only two thirds of the way through its maturation, Agi Chen would still need to arrive in Scotland and invent her rotary easel, Joyce Ho had yet to produce her skillfully crafted paintings on to cask end wood, for the When Cold is Colder series. And still the spirit continued to rest.

In the summer of 2015, under the direction of Chang Huei-Ming the silent slumber of the maturing spirit was broken as a single boy drummer marched sharply round the bounds of the warehouse beating out a rousing wake up call on his marching snare drum. In a few more months’ time it would then be tipped from its cask, sampled and made ready for bottling. So now after twelve summers since Chiao was first at Glenfiddich, Kun-Ying stood by the flowing water that in another twelve summers’ time would also contribute to the contents of the famous green triangular bottle of the Glenfiddich Signature Malt.

Like Joyce and Huei-Ming before, him Kun-Ying had arrived early in the season when the Scottish countryside is at its very best. May is one of my favourite months, full of fresh energy as the plants, trees, birds and insects rejoice and flourish in the growing hours of daylight. For those artists who manage to arrive in at this time it can be almost like a honeymoon period. With only two other artists on site that first month there was plenty of time to make trips away allowing the early arrivals the opportunity to explore beyond the boundaries of Glenfiddich and Dufftown.

One such trip undertaken by Kun-Ying and fellow resident, UK based painter Lisa Almond, took in a visit to the ‘Clootie Wells’ at Munlochy on the Black Isle to the north of Inverness. Clootie Wells are particular to the old Celtic belief system that flourished in Scotland before the arrival of Christianity. In fact, many of these older pagan customs continued to thrive and be respected long after Christian church became established. Once a common phenomenon, these Clootie Wells were essentially places of healing, sacred places, the water that flowed from them were attributed with special properties, in that they could cure ailments or provide protection from illness. In addition to the well at Munlochy there are two other well-documented springs that are believed to have similar special properties in the near area. One being at Avoch, a few miles from Munlochy, and the other just over the Moray Firth, at St Mary’s Well by Culloden. Ritual practices varied from well to well but essentially had a common theme involving strips of natural textiles (wool, linen, cotton, etc.) These pieces of cloth (or ‘cloots’ as they are called in auld Scots, giving the names to the wells) might be first dipped into the sacred waters, a prayer or incantation might be spoken, or the cloot might be carried three times round the water in sunwise direction before being tied to a tree branch in close proximity to the spring. As the cloot rots away over the passage of time so the ailment or worry of the person who placed the cloot there equally diminishes. Although to those of a logical scientific mind this will sound like superstitious poppycock, given the abundance of cloots festooning the trees surrounding the well at Munlochy it would appear there are many prepared to still hold on to a little bit of belief in the old ways, including Kun-Ying who left the site one sock less than when he arrived.

Before Kun-Ying’s visit to the well he like many artists before him had fallen foul of the shift in temperatures between Taipei and those of Dufftown, which resulted him suffering form a slight dose of the cold. It was another old traditional Scottish remedy that helped cure him; Hot Toddy. To make a hot toddy you first pour a healthy measure of whisky into a glass and allow it to infuse with lemon, honey and cloves before topping up with hot water. These toddies have been used for generations to effect such a cure and remind us that the distilling of whisky was originally conducted to produce a sort of medicine, not for nothing is whisky often referred to as being the ‘water of life’.

While much of the credit in Kun-Ying’s toddy in effecting a cure must go to the lemon and honey, it can be argued that in moderation a wee dram of the perfect water is not detrimental to health, that indeed it can even invigorate or act as a lubricant to aid the flow of inspiration!

The man was a bit tired, exasperated a little, for things must have been going wrong…

And then – and then, the head goes up. The film dissolves from the eyes; they glisten. He abruptly laughs and jumps to his feet; as abruptly, he pauses to look over himself with a marvelling scrutiny. He tries the muscles of his arms. They are full of such energy that one fist shoots out; then the other. A right then a left. His legs have the same energy. He begins to dance with what is called primitive abandon. Clearly it was not water he had drunk; it was life.

Kun-Ying’s artistic projects at Glenfiddich concerned themselves with the flow and cyclic nature of the distilling process. From the source of the Robbie Dhu down the hillside and through the sculpture-like copper stills of The Glenfiddich Distillery, into the caress of an oak cask and finally to the evaporational exchange romantically known as the angel’s share, in which a certain percentage of the spirit escapes the cask and rises up in to the heavens.  Nourishing not just the angels, but perhaps also softening the rain yet to fall back down from the clouds.

The project was presented as a multi media experience comprising of sculptural pieces, print and projection. Yet like the pioneering distiller in Gunn’s account, the ambitious and experimental nature of his projects faced a number of frustrations and challenges to be overcome.

Fortunately unlike Gunn’s early distiller, Kun-Ying did not have to work in isolation, and was able to call on the willing assistance of many pairs of skilled hands existing within the local community including Ian McDonald, the master copper here at Glenfiddich, Allan Morrison, a retired craftsman from Dufftown, who in the past has given so generously of his time and skill to previous artists in residence. And last but not least Ken Pemberton, a carpenter with G&A Construction, a local company in Dufftown, whose patient indulgence allowed much of Kun-Ying’s ideas to be brought into reality.

In many ways, it has been the amazing support and genuine willingness to assist the artists provided by those at Glenfiddich and the wider community that have not just benefited Kun-Ying and previous residents, but indeed have allowed the programme to grow and become established over the years.

Along with the warm openness shown by the people of Glenfiddich and Dufftown, the unique and special setting of Glenfiddich itself, with the multitude of inspirational opportunities it provides all combine to result in an invigorating and inspiring experience for the artists who take up residence here.

As we mark this special occasion celebrating twelve years of Taiwanese participation in the Glenfiddich residency, we can look back over the thoughtful creativity each artist has shared with us through the new works they have made in residence. We can remember the relationships it has forged and happy memories that have enriched our lives. And for as long as the pure clear waters of the Robbie Dhu spring continue to flow we can in anticipation also look forward to the years yet to come, the friends we still have to meet, and the experiences we still have to share.

So for now let’s raise a glass of the perfect water of Glenfiddich and salute all those whose passion and dedication have brought us this far!


Andy Fairgrieve∕Programme Curator, The Glenfiddich Distillery