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Art review: From Death To Death And Other Small Tales - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

The suspended lycra nets of Ernesto Netos fragrant It Happens. Picture: Neil Hanna

The suspended lycra nets of Ernesto Netos fragrant It Happens. Picture: Neil Hanna

  • by Moira Jeffrey
 

WANDERING through room after room after room in the vast new exhibition From Death To Death And Other Small Tales is like being caught in endless labyrinthine streets. An abandoned city perhaps, its citizens trapped in fossilised fragments like those of Pompeii.

BRINGING together works from a private collection with others from galleries shines a light on how artists deal with the human form

Wandering through room after room after room in the vast new exhibition From Death To Death And Other Small Tales is like being caught in endless labyrinthine streets. An abandoned city perhaps, its citizens trapped in fossilised fragments like those of Pompeii.

Throughout the show, which takes up the whole of the building known as Modern One at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, things seem eerily familiar. Images recur: the human nude, slumped and awkward, from Otto Dix’s cruelly objectified painting of plump pink female flesh, Nude Girl On A Fur, to Sarah Lucas’s 1997 sculpture Bunny Gets Snookered, a nasty little reminder of the way some men think of women in parts rather than as a whole

There are the mirrors: Magritte paints one held up to us, but we can’t see ourselves, just read the words “corps humain”. The late American photographer Francesca Woodman photographed herself in Rome in 1977, naked in an ancient scarred room with a large mirror. But in the pictures she seems to dance around it and away from it. Where is she? Indeed where are we?

Everywhere there are fragments of bodies: in marble, wax, white plaster and Lucas’s stuffed stockings that look like stone. There are two cot-like beds: one by Mona Hatoum, collapsed on the floor and made of rubber the colour of bone marrow, speaks of illness and anxiety. The other, in white painted wood, is by Robert Gober, a strange cruciform shape that talks of childhood in the same breath as containment and isolation. Both seem like traps; we try to grow up, but just can’t. We try and fail to escape the limits of the human body, but it is impossible.

And there are vessels: the empty buckets and closed sinks of Gober, eerie drains embedded in walls by the same artist. And Fountain, the notorious work by Marcel Duchamp that seems to have got us where we are, a simple white porcelain urinal first presented in 1917 as though a unique work of art and remade in 1964 as a holy relic. It’s a daftness, an artist’s in-joke, which has become as sombre and historically weighted as any marble mausoleum.

Because, make no mistake, these 130 artworks are weighty stuff: the best of our national galleries’ own remarkable Dada and Surrealist works woven in with the Collection, the private collection of the Greek businessman Dimitris Daskalopoulos. It could be a car crash, but the works selected from the latter are largely of the highest quality, including works by Gober, Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois. The gallery’s own historical strengths – works by Duchamp, Ernst and a magnificent Francis Picabia – shine when taken out of their usual homes and contextualised anew.

At the centre there is a literal labyrinth. Ernesto Neto’s lovely installation of suspended lycra netting smells of the sweet things he has used to fill its long “limbs”: cinnamon, cloves, turmeric. You are seduced for a moment, and then it’s on to the relentless grim beauty of an exhibition that ostensibly explores the human body but is not called From Death To Death for nothing.

There are works such as Neto’s that you will want your children to see, art you know will inspire, stimulate and make demands of them, and a handful of works that will give them nightmares.

Whilst the show is far from chronological, it seems historically succinct in the way it shows how the lessons of pre-war European art were learned by subsequent generations of American artists and how once lesser-known practices such as those of the late, brilliant British artist Helen Chadwick, or the African-American David Hammons, are now seen as important links in the historical narrative.

If you took these rooms as a primer on the 20th century it would seem like a sad, desperate, exhilarating, confusing time to have lived in. A time when the distinction between people and things seemed to have broken down, when things and words were sometimes interchangeable and when the struggle to understand the human body in a world of machines was essential and often futile.

Most of this is rewarding and remarkable, in a show that itself is half public, half private in its ethos of collection and display. But we might remember that it’s a terribly difficult line to tread. The desperate dance by which major public institutions across the globe must keep private collectors within their embrace can be a grim spectacle. Institutions gain the chance to show works they could never afford to acquire. Collectors get context and kudos. The trick is for ­everyone to keep their heads. Here, the work itself sings far louder than its ownership.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. Some pairings are a bit trite, such as Louise Bourgeois’s phallic classic Fillette next to Duchamp’s cast of female genitalia. One of the larger gallery spaces is given over to its most tiresome work: the US artist Paul McCarthy’s Pirate Party. McCarthy is a towering figure in the art world; a messy, angry carnival clown whose key films are a necessary corrective to the West’s bloated self-esteem. But Pirates – a silly masquerade where a bunch of art kids and kidults act out unspeakable violence with ketchup and mustard – is a bore.

In contrast, a couple of rooms away, a clutch of works by Mike Kelley – knitted toys on blankets, a doll-like corpse in a tiny coffin – speak far more eloquently of loss, the bleakness of experience and the necessity to deal with it with a kind of grim humour.

Kelley’s tragic death last year reminded us that he was one of contemporary art’s most significant voices. Death is implacable.

Next door, in a small ante-chamber, is a film of Marina Abramovic scrubbing a skeleton clean. In the strange frozen city of this huge and rewarding exhibition, she is like a patient archaeologist. In the surrounding galleries we look at the bones, the traces, and try to understand just what on earth has happened. «

Twitter: @MoiraJeffrey

• From Death To Death And Other Small Tales is at Modern One, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 8 September

 

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