Art reviews: Nashashibi/Skaer | Rose Frain | Andrew Ranville


WHAT is the power of an image? We are forced to consider this when, watching the new film by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer, we are confronted by Margaret Thatcher's face. Not the haggard face of her final days, but a glossy publicity shot of the Iron Lady at the height of her powers, immaculately coiffed and pearled, mimicking a collectable shot of a film star.

The artists are interested in how uncomfortable this makes us, and it does, sending a shiver up the spine decades after her political demise as we see her with her hands clasped as if in prayer. But they are less interested in party politics than in evoking a range of complex ideas about war, power and Britishness.

Nashashibi, a former Beck's Futures winner who is about to have a major show at the ICA, and Skaer, on the shortlist for this year's Turner Prize, have strong individual practices, but they see their collaboration as a genuine fusion producing something new, a kind of third artist. This film owes something to both – Skaer's fascination with dissecting an image, Nashashibi's careful, lingering gaze – but explores themes new to both of them.

The starting point is Paul Nash's 1944 painting, Flight of the Magnolia, in which the immense, strange flower unfolding in the sky evokes both beauty and destruction (Nash describes it in terms of an explosion, or the opening of an enemy parachute). It sets the sombre, even threatening, mood for the film, which collages contrasting images – the petals of magnolia flowers caught by a breeze, the decaying body of a whale on a beach – to create a network of contrasting associations and feelings.

The still, unwavering gaze of the Super8 camera makes you look hard, and think about what you're looking at. The work echoes with a sense of unnamed threat: the image of an American Airlines plane taking off unaccountably makes us think of terrorism; a short, tense section conveys unspecified distress in a Middle-Eastern country. In a film of less than five minutes, it reaches unexpected depths, while delivering a miniature portrait of anxious times.

Edinburgh-based artist Rose Frain is engaged in a long-term project called This Time in History. Her new show, staged in a room in her Stockbridge flat for the Edinburgh Art Festival, focuses on a recent residency at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new library in Alexandria, Egypt which opened in 2002. In particular, she is interested in the gap between the idea of Alexandria as a cradle of civilisation and the poverty of the city today, where a year ago people were rioting over bread.

The Alexandria of old was a centre of scholarship, holding one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world which was destroyed by fire at the time of Julius Caesar. But Frain's key metaphor is light, not enlightenment via books. The discovery by Egyptian scholars of the heliocentric planetary system, many centuries before anyone in Europe, is a key indication of the country's advancement. The Pharos Lighthouse, lit by fire at night, and by a mechanism of mirrors by day, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. An installation of lights and scaffolding recalls this lost monument, but also evokes the makeshift electric lighting found in the city's slums today.

In a body of work which includes paintings, an artist's book and a collection of freely associated objects laid out in a museum-like display, the other key theme is food. As controversy rages about the opening of a McDonalds in the food hall at the new library (check out the McArabia Chicken Meal), many people have little more than an empty black cooking pot in a cold, fireless hearth. Though not didactic, the exhibition has an energy which comes from desire to communicate this contrast to those of us with at best hazy notions of everyday life in Egypt today.

Meanwhile, sculptor Andrew Ranville is interested in more abstract notions of how we explore space and how we see ourselves in relation to it. His wooden sculptures mimic skateboarding ramps, though they are too steep, too narrow. Despite the tantalisingly placed wooden skateboard, anyone who tried the stunt would surely end up plastered across the gallery walls. There is a portable "bridge", made with wood panels linked by rope, though it covers only the length of a longish human stride.

But Ranville is interested in the very fact that we're making those calculations. The object suggests a use, so we make the journeys in our imaginations. The very fact of a bridge suggests things which might be crossed, and places which might be explored on the other side. As sculptures, they are the conduit for that journey from "here" to "there", which also has the result of making us more vividly aware of what it is to be "here".

Ranville, born in the US but now living in London, is increasingly interested in making work with and within the natural world, taking inspiration from the likes of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. One work involves a floating wooden crate containing a willow sapling. Anchored appropriately in water (it comes with a ship's anchor) it will grow you an island. Another offers conifer saplings as art-works-in-potentia: in 20 years' time, if you and the tree are still standing, Ranville will make an artwork in the tree.

A film running on a 16mm projector is triggered by a motion sensor – it starts as you walk past, and will shortly stop unless you move again. This is an exploration of being simultaneously aware of "here" and "there": the act of being in a gallery in Leith watching a film recorded in the Australian bush. It's an interesting idea, but the film shows little more than shaky footage of bush tracks, trees and bits of sky. The danger with this kind of experiment is that neither "here" nor "there" are particularly interesting.

The show is accompanied by an off-site work in Gayfield Square Gardens. Ramp (Landscape) is a wedge of ground breaking free of the surface as if pushed up by a tiny, localised earthquake. Yet it reveals no great secrets about what lies beneath, nor does it tantalise the imagination like the wooden ramps in the gallery. Judging by the muddy track over the top, it looks as though some local skateboarders have already had a go at breaking down the distance between image and reality.

Nashashibi/Skaer runs until 25 September; Rose Frain until 5 September; Andrew Ranville until 10 September.

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