There is a difference between simple and elementary, and while he occasionally lands on the right side, Luke Fowler’s playing with RD Laing’s concept of the divided self more often than not misses the mark, discovers Duncan Macmillan
ONE of the first rules of contemporary art is take yourself very seriously indeed. If you do, others will too, no matter how fatuous your art may actually be. Luke Fowler at Inverleith House helps demonstrate this rule. There’s no doubt he takes himself very seriously. He expects us to do the same and, indeed, some of his show is pretty fatuous. He makes films, and my own second rule of contemporary art is that artists shouldn’t make films. Film is a sophisticated medium and any artist approaching it is bound to be a tyro. Up to a point Fowler is an exception to that rule. He does have some skill and it is not the two- hour film, All Divided Selves, in his show that is really fatuous, but I still mistrust this way of using the medium. .
His film is the third in a trilogy devoted to RD Laing, the psychiatrist who rebelled against psychiatry. Laing was from Glasgow, so is Fowler. Laing had radical views on the causes of schizophrenia and on its treatment. Film by its nature is equipped to cut and rearrange reality and so can replicate, as no other art form, confused states of mind. That is what this one seems to intend to do, but if so that’s an odd sort of compliment to Laing.
The film is a collage of clips of Laing speaking, of his unconventional and sometimes startling methods of therapy and of life generally in the 1960s. These are interspersed with short clips of what seems to be almost anything. Arbitrary is not the same as inspired, however. Laing’s ideas are also contrasted with other psychiatric practices, occasionally to sinister, sometimes to simply comic effect. The stuffed-shirt doctor, for instance, who suggests genially to a pretty girl suffering from depression that she should try sex. A few people are recognisable, but no-one is identified, nothing explained. Laing himself is always impressive, but is so much cut and pasted that it is difficult to follow what he is saying, particularly as the soundtrack and acoustics in the gallery are not good. It is all pitched to identify him with 1960s counterculture, rightly or wrongly, and in doing so resembles one of those random films of the period full of people supposing themselves profound that look as though they were made in a cloud of pot and probably were.
You can glean fragments of Laing’s often remarkable insights and also something of his fiery personality. He clearly did not endear himself to his colleagues when he said, for instance, that psychiatrists are one of the principal causes of madness. He also said that schizophrenia means literally a “broken soul”. He renders this as broken-hearted. It follows that the cure lies in mending the broken heart, not breaking it further, or bashing it with a chemical cosh. He ended up on the side of humanity against the chemists, or indeed worse, the surgeons. Lobotomy was still a respectable practice. He was a remarkable man. This film does give some sense of what he was about, but offers confusion where there should be clarity.
It is in the rest of the show that Fowler does get really fatuous. Ridges on the Horizontal Plane is a collaboration with sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda. Against a gentle musical humming, random slides are projected onto both sides of a sheet flapping gently in the breeze from an electric fan. It is an image of the unstable, insecure divided self, no doubt, but really not an insight, just a ponderous pun.
There is also a series of photographs taken with a half-frame camera. Briefly fashionable in the 1960s, these cameras split a 35mm film to double the number of single exposures. Fowler, however, prints both exposures in one frame to create a series of randomly associated double images, a fatuous metaphor for the divided self, and another laboured pun. Simple and elementary can sometimes be synonymous, but are not the same. Simple can be profound and very beautiful. Elementary never graduates from the bricks on the primary school floor. This is elementary.
The exhibition also includes portraits by John Hayes, not only of Laing himself, but of other cultural figures of the 1960s. If for no other reason, the show is worth the visit just to see Hayes’s photo of Samuel Beckett. Sharp as a pin, Beckett’s face hangs against darkness looking more like some fierce bird from a David Attenborough documentary than a mere human being. It is an extraordinary image.
If it once seemed that madness and genius were akin, now we are quite specific in the mental disorder we most favour. It is obsessive compulsive behaviour. A good example is Roger Ackling at the Ingleby Gallery. He has taken everything from his garden shed, the forks and spades, the rakes and the hammers, even the old tomato boxes, and has apparently used a magnifying glass, following the sun to burn rows and rows of close packed parallel lines along their wooden handles and flat surfaces. Implicitly their sequence measures the cycle of the sun’s annual trajectory in a sort of fiery calendar. He has also pinned a black thread along the wall to suggest the horizon against which that trajectory is measured. But what about the weather? A burning glass needs sunshine. There are never so many sunny days in any British year. That thought casts a doubt on his whole project.
Nevertheless, the garden tools make a charming spectacle arrayed along the pristine white walls of the gallery. The suggestion of the sun’s movement is nicely apposite to gardening too, but such gentle metaphors are really upstaged by the evidence they also offer of his obsessive application to his task.
Showing alongside Ackling is Andrew Miller, an artist who recycles the things we discard and turns them into art. He makes a sculpture out of a tower of lampshades and an abstract picture out of a piece of patterned vinyl, for instance. He does it all with a certain charm, but it is scarcely an original idea. His photographs are more intriguing – a tree trunk with “no future” written on it, or a ramshackle house in Jamaica with an exactly matching chicken house alongside.
Roger Ackling is introduced as a friend and contemporary of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, both artists who make, or have made art, by taking a walk. At the Open Eye Barry McGlashan is also a walking artist, but he is a painter. For him, the walk is not the art but an opportunity. He takes his backpack and sets off, but the results are not so much about him or even a record of what he has seen, as just an opportunity for inspiration. His pictures like Drifter, for instance, a man and his dog in a desert, are unpretentious and often humorous, but they have the ring of truth. Alistair Grant, in Eye2, was teacher of printmaking at the Royal College for 35 years until he retired in 1990. He was brought up in France and so his etchings made in the 1950s of children playing in the streets or on the beach at Le Touquet are not the usual artist-on-his-foreign-holiday kind of thing, but observations of life as it is lived. They are quite brilliantly alive and informal, but taste changed and he became an abstract artist. The abstract prints he produced in the 1960s now look sadly dated, but his etchings of children are as fresh as the day they were made.
Luke Fowler (With Toshiya Tsunoda and John Haynes)
Inverleith House, Edinburgh
Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
Barry McGlashan; Quiet Please
Alistair Grant (1925-1997)
Open Eye, Edinburgh
• Luke Fowler runs until 29 April 2012; Roger Ackling until 21 April; Andrew Miller until 10 March; Alistair Grant until 24 March; Barry McGlashan until 7 March
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