Visual art review: Sanctuary / Comraich

A piece from Kate Davis's What is the work of love today? at Mount Stuart, Bute
A piece from Kate Davis's What is the work of love today? at Mount Stuart, Bute
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SHOWING films among the treasures of the aristocracy sounds misguided, but careful positioning gives this project real power

SANCTUARY / COMRAICH

MOUNT STUART, ISLE OF BUTE

Rating: ****

Mount Stuart, the lavish neo-gothic pile built for the Third Marquess of Bute as an island retreat, is not a natural home for contemporary art. One of the most complete expressions of late Victorian Arts & Crafts vision, it is already filled from floor to ceiling with marble, carvings, mosaics, antiques and stained glass, not to mention an outstanding art collection.

But that didn’t stop the Bute family, which still owns the house, launching a visionary programme, inviting contemporary artists to respond to, and place their work within, the house and grounds. The programme has produced an exhibition every summer since 2001, and the results have been remarkable.

If someone had asked me whether an exhibition of work mainly in film would work in Mount Stuart, I would have advised against it. There are too many visual stimuli already, too much craftsmanship, too many precious objects. Installing film here would be like putting a flat-screen TV on top of a priceless Regency cabinet.

I’ve been proved wrong. Thoughtful curating by James Mackay, the producer behind some of Derek Jarman’s most important works, and Mount Stuart’s Sophie Crichton Stuart, has brought a sensitivity both to the work and to the surroundings. The four artists in this show – three of whom have produced film-based works – create subtle interventions in the fabric of the house, prompting the imagination without clashing with the surroundings.

The works are grouped gently around the theme of islands as sanctuaries. Ian Bourn starts from a very personal connection: a section of frayed wallpaper, in his kitchen in East London, which looks remarkably like the profile of a section of coastline with a lighthouse on the Isle of Bute. It’s a slight piece of serendipity, but he uses it to create a thoughtful installation in the “family entrance” – a boot room and entrance hall not normally open to the public.

A quiet film almost at floor level introduces the idea, leading us into an inner room where Bourn examines this section of landscape from all angles. He both films and paints it, while a projection the size of a wall flickers behind a pair of glass doors, making the experience immersive. We are in a kind of mental space where an artist lays bare the process of engaging with a landscape and trying to work out why he has made an instinctive connection with it. The sense of trespassing on a personal space makes the work all the more intriguing.

Different kinds of chance connections are explored in A Dance of Ownership, a Song in Hand, a collaboration made in 2011 by Lucy Skaer and the dancer and choreographer Gill Clarke. The islands were briefly in the ownership of the Bute family following the evacuation of the residents in 1931, and the 16mm film is double exposed: first on St Kilda, then in Mount Stuart.

The results are “an exercise in chance”, carefully edited by Skaer to highlight certain formal juxtapositions. The result is poetic, nonlinear, multilayered: the gestures of a dancer’s hand, the sheer cliffs and circling seabirds of St Kilda, the golden ceilings and marble halls of Mount Stuart. It has a particular poignancy, as it was made in the last months of Clarke’s life.

Shown at the foot of the marble staircase in Mount Stuart’s spectacular main hall, it occupies perhaps the most challenging location, but it has a quiet power. Some visitors just hurry on up the stairs towards the next shimmering antique, but those who give it time will find their imaginations gently engaged.

Kate Davis responds, as Christine Borland did in her residency some years ago, to the transformation of Mount Stuart into a naval hospital during the First World War. Photographs from this period show the grand rooms turned into businesslike wards, with nurses in starched white uniforms tending rows of beds. The question in Davis’ work is in the title: What is the work of love today?

To express this, she makes use of the much copied typographical sculpture spelling the word “love” made by American artist Robert Indiana, and places her own fragmented version among the antiques of the drawing room. A series of prints also uses Indiana’s design, collaging photographs from Mount Stuart in its hospital phase.

The question, itself, however, is bigger than all of this. Davis’s concerns are chiefly as a feminist, but the question ranges much more widely. Certainly, the domestic and caring work done by women has often been undervalued, but what of the craftsmanship of this building, a “labour of love” to build, and now, to look after? And what does it mean to be considering a question like this in the context of ostentatious wealth? This is something that artists invited to Mount Stuart tend studiously to avoid, but Davis’ question might take us there, if we so chose.

Meanwhile, in the Marble Chapel, Nina Danino’s film Communion plays silently and powerfully. The cinematic portrait of a young girl about to take her first communion, filmed in black and white by Oscar-winning cinematographer Billy Williams, seems perfectly married to this space, both aesthetically and thematically.

It manages to be both beautiful and uncomfortable: the young girl in her stiff white dress, clutching her rosary and prayer book, her expression solemn: how much does all this mean to her? Is she simply doing as she’s told? With her wide, almond-shaped eyes, she could be a subject from a Greuze portrait. Cinematically, she might have walked off the set of The Song of Bernadette.

The camera lingers, capturing the way the light falls through a fleur-de-lys lattice, creating shapes of angels. The Pugin chapel echoes neo-gothic architecture around us. We are compelled to watch, and as we do, the young subject grows tired, starts shifting in her frock. Whatever period she belongs to, she is a real child.

Those who stop to watch the film might experience the marble chapel slightly differently. These works of art don’t intrude, but neither do they disappear, they offer a gentle invitation to engage. For the visitors who do stop to ponder, they add a further layer of imaginative stimulus to a visit to this extraordinary house.

• Until 31 October