Affinity and Allusion, Collective, Edinburgh ****
Emma Hart: Banger, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh ***
However, November brought one of the year’s most anticipated openings, the emergence of the former Collective Gallery (now simply “Collective”) in its new home at the city observatory on Calton Hill. The product of eight years’ work, negotiation and fund-raising on a Grade A listed site, the project has been beset by delays and opened just in time for some of the wettest, windiest weather of the year so far. Nevertheless, it has been warmly received, not only putting contemporary art at the heart one of Edinburgh’s most scenic tourist destinations, but bringing a new lease of life to a city landmark which was fast falling into dereliction.
The gallery proposes to invite artists to respond to the site’s unique features and history, whether directly or allusively, and sets out the terms of this in the opening show, Affinity and Allusion. The range of spaces and diversity of the work make it feel more like a constellation of solo exhibitions than a group show. Seating areas in the grounds designed by Tessa Lynch and an extension of the Observer’s Walks programme which ran on the site during the refurbishment are also included.
In the City Dome – circular and stripped back to the brickwork, it feels like one of the spaces in the Venice Arsenale – South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape has created something that might be a shrine or a temple. [when spirituality was a baby] (the brackets are part of the title) is a multi-layered installation which brings together groups of elements – clay, spices, feathers, candles, precious stones and soil from various parts of the world – in a pattern based on an astrological star chart. It’s a dense show full of detail which also uses sound and projection, and, while we don’t know what it all means, the care with which it is arranged speaks of the way people imbue ordinary things with meaning beyond themselves.
German artist Klaus Weber, in the gallery’s moderately sized white-cube space cut into the side of the hill, strikes a very different note. On a site which is surrounded by monuments, he presents a “Nonument”: a subversive maquette for a fag-smoking snowman crowned with a broken beer bottle (the “snow” is created by sub-zero temperature alcohol). Fagman cocks a cheerful snook at the city’s ponderous stone monuments to dead white men and dead ideologies, though the alternative he posits is a kind of cheerful nihilism.
In the suitably studious space of the Library, Glasgow-based James N Hutchinson presents Rumours of a New Planet, drawing directly on the lives of some of those associated with Calton Hill. Hutchinson has walked in the steps of botanical artist Margaret Stewart, wife of the leading astronomer John Herschel, in South Africa, drawing the plants he found, and traced the journey across Europe of geologist Jessica Duncan, wife of astronomer Charles Piazzi Smith, collecting rock samples. As well as presenting these, he has written a book describing the journeys using his own reference points, and worked with members of Lothian Blind Ramblers group to celebrate the achievements of astronomers who were visually impaired.
In May 2019, the Fruitmarket Gallery will close for a £3.7million refurbishment which will include extending the gallery into the former nightclub space next door. Meanwhile, the gallery presents the first show in Scotland by London-based Emma Hart. Hart has worked in film, photography and installation but has recently turned to ceramics, drawn by the tactile nature of making.
Named as the 2016 winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Hart spent several months in Italy researching traditional maiolica ceramic techniques and spending time at a clinic in Milan which works therapeutically with troubled families. Mamma Mia! (she loves puns) is the work she made as a result, a group of ceramic heads suspended from the ceiling which also look like lamp shades and measuring jugs. Painted on the inside in bright patterns, they are lit from within, casting shadows on the floor in the space of speech bubbles. The shadowplay is extended further with a series of spinning fans with arms made of giant cutlery.
The heads are a family group, perhaps a family tree, some closer, others distant. One lies off to one side on the floor, connected by a red zig-zag of cable (used in a genogram to signify a hostile relationship). The work is clear in its intent: it’s about how the domestic can be fractured, how entrenched patterns of behaviour or even just thought can bring the knives out round the family dinner table. While it’s well-produced, one can’t help feeling the artist has gone to considerable lengths to tell us something we already know.
Upstairs, a new installation, Banger, explores our relationship with the car. A series of double-sided ceramic sculptures have been made to look like windscreens: looking “in” we can see silhouettes of people, looking out we see endless road, or rain on the windscreen. Looking from different viewpoints (metaphorically as well as literally) we see different things.
There is clever attention to detail – the magic tree air freshener, the box of tissues on the dashboard – and some tongue-in-cheek fun: a pair of headlights in the rear-view mirror is titled Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t After You. Two steering wheels (also made of clay) with the imprints of clenched hands on them, are called Race You to the Bottom. As a whole, the work touches on various interesting aspects of driving: how it can be both dangerous and banal at the same time, how strangely isolated one is from everything external. But while these ideas swirl about like petrol fumes, the work never quite gets (as it were) right under the bonnet. - Susan Mansfield
Collective shows: Klaus Weber runs until 20 January; Dineo Seshee Bopape until 10 February; James N Hutchinson until 31 March. Emma Hart at Fruitmarket runs until 3 February