When Able Seaman George Watson left his home in Russell Street, Falkirk, for service in the First World War, he was departing forever.
JOHN SHANKIE: REFRACTORY AND
The Park Gallery, Falkirk
LOUISE HOPKINS: BLACK SEA, WHITE SEA
Linlithgow Burgh Hall
Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
Watson was just one of 700,000 British servicemen to lose their lives and is now a single name amongst an estimated 16 million soldiers and civilians worldwide to die in the conflict.
How and why we might remember them has been part of a powerful debate this summer on the legacy of the war, as candles have been lit, streetlights extinguished and prayers read in remembrance.
For artist John Shankie, whose Lanarkshire grandfather drove an ambulance at Ypres, it has been a case of bringing the war back home. For a few minutes earlier this year a curtain of Belgian lace hung in the upper window of a plain-fronted sandstone building in Russell Street. That curtain now hangs in Callendar house, Falkirk, alongside a photo of the flat where Watson once lived. As Geoff Bailey, Falkirk’s Keeper of Local History, has established a database of the names and addresses of local men lost in the war, Shankie has written to current residents of their former homes to ask them if they would help him mark the loss, acknowledging “the surprise or sadness such poignant historic information might bring.”
This simple work is emblematic of the precise and poignant poetry of Shankie’s show Refractory and Refrigeration at the Park Gallery, once a venue in its own right, now tucked away in a single room at Callendar House. In exploring his own family history, from a found brick imprinted with the word Cleghorn, the name of the village where he grew up, to a brass vase that belonged to his grandmother, Shankie gains traction on much wider questions of memory and inheritance.
There are fragments of a rusted disc plough that has worked the bone-filled soil near Passchendaele, a brass shell-case that was once transformed into a clumsy vase as an emblem of swords into ploughshares. Each work is a single brick in a much larger architecture of history and of word association. In an echo of the wordplay of concrete poets and artists like Ian Hamilton Finlay, there are two beautiful digital photographs that take the ordinary stuff of domestic life – a shell of the kind that you find on the beach and a marble mortar from the kitchen cupboard – and thus invite you to remember how language itself has been soiled by warfare.
When local school children visited the graveyards and battlegrounds of the First World War killing fields they brought Shankie back a Belgian brick. He has tended it carefully and nestled it in Scottish mortar. When he explored the technical skills of brick laying he discovered that each brick pattern has its own distinctive nickname. He has laid them out in serried ranks: the stretcher, the header and the shiner; the soldier and the sailor.
Just a few miles away in the recently refurbished Linlithgow Burgh Hall another exhibition in the Generation project is dedicated to the painter Louise Hopkins. Spanning some 20 years and ranging from the largest of paintings to the smallest most insouciant works on paper, it is a carefully modulated and truly impressive show.
For may years now, Hopkins has worked with materials that already bear images, meticulously painting over and around patterned furnishing textiles, printed maps, photographs and magazine pages. Her elegant exposure of the tension and ambiguity between the printed image and the hand-made mark is a rejection of expressive traditions in painting but is accompanied by an understated yet often emotional undertow. What does it mean when the map of Europe is altered to obliterate the sea between us and mainland Europe? Or when all the oceans appear to run dry? Hopkins finds freedom in discipline, setting systematic tasks like marking in pencil the crumples in a blank sheet, or turning florid chintz into a discomfiting mass of black marks. Three glass vitrines of tiny new works on paper are a delight, each displaying small sewn books that show the pleasures of simple abstract pattern, the ability to lose oneself in a task without losing control becomes the potential to share without power or presumption.
At the Talbot Rice Gallery, the lively, clever group show Counterpoint is also part of the Generation programme, an exhibition that is perhaps denser and less immediately shouty than some of its more colourful cohorts with a welcome emphasis on performance and events throughout its programme and a selection of artists at either end of the career trajectory. While one does instinctually long for some kind of argument or theme Counterpoint resists both thematic or chronological grouping featuring artists as estimable and as diverse as Ross Birrell, Keith Farquhar and a diamanté-clad Michelle Hannah, whose music video performance as perhaps a female Bowie or acid-blonde Grace Jones transforms the adjacent Playfair Library into a laser-lit playground. Hannah’s performance is a deadpan yet seductive recasting of our ambiguous love affair with the future, a gorgeous retro-tinged reimagining of the past.
In the Georgian Gallery Keith Farquhar revisits a work he first made some 21 years ago, two aluminium street lamps lying prone and vulnerable yet still lit on the gallery floor. Adjacent is the work by Ellie Harrison that has captured the headlines and the imagination of visitors to the Edinburgh Art Festival: a row of confetti cannons that will be activated in the gallery if there is a Yes vote, spreading cheer and disorder amongst the art works nearby.
Whether it’s straightforward as a celebratory gesture is not quite clear. The work’s title After the Revolution Who will Clear up the Mess? is drawn from a feminist slogan that refers to the difference between rhetoric and the real, hard work of politics. Ironically if it’s a yes vote then Harrison’s work will have been spent; it is in the event of a no that the irony of potential and potentially explosive possibility would make it a truly poignant museum piece. The artist is inviting people to apply for tickets to a referendum party and to await the fate of both the nation and her artwork. It’s up to all of us now to decide whether we wish the guns to remain stilled.
• John Shankie until 25 October; Louise Hopkins until 2 November; Counterpoint until 18 October