Cindy Sherman’s early work at Stills shows the genesis of her career while her influence on younger artists is evident in Hannah Tuulikki’s show, writes Susan Mansfield
Cindy Sherman: Early Works, Stills, Edinburgh ****
Samson Young: Real Music, Talbot Rice, Edinburgh ***
James Richards: Migratory Motor Complex, Collective, Edinburgh **
Hannah Tuulikki: Deer Dancer, Edinburgh Printmakers ***
Cindy Sherman’s star has risen steadily in the art world over the last 40 years, to the extent that she is currently the subject of a major show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Over that time, she has shown impressive consistency in the way she works and her chosen field – less photography or self-portraiture than a kind of performance art – has had an enduring influence on subsequent generations of artists. It is something of a coup for Stills, therefore, to be showing some of the work with which it all began.
The earliest work here is Doll Clothes from 1975, made when Sherman was still a student at State University College, Buffalo. It’s a two-minute 16mm film made using the kind of paper cut-out doll plus
clothes which many of us had as children, but the “doll” is her own photograph. Next, we see her dressing up for real as a series of character types from a Cluedo/Poirot murder mystery: the detective, the dashing leading man, the drunken wife and so on. While they are more crudely realised than some of her later work, they clearly prefigure what’s to come.
And what’s to come is Untitled (Film Stills), the work for which she first became known internationally. It runs to some 80 images, four of which are shown here. Although still in her early twenties, she has clearly stepped up a gear. Not only are these entirely convincing in terms of their production, Sherman is exhibiting the chameleon quality of her later work, wrapping the world around her character, disappearing into the image. She is embracing the medium in which she works and critiquing it at the same time, setting out the stall which she will explore with increasing ingenuity and sophistication for the next four decades.
If Sherman’s lifelong concern is the exploration of visual image-making, Hong Kong artist Samson Young is concerned with music. The three large-scale works at Talbot Rice Gallery are all investigations into music and how it is made, starting with Muted Situations #22, a film of Cologne’s Flora Sinfonie Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which the most audible layer of sound – in this case the music – has been removed. We’re left with the other sounds: breathing, the clicking of keys, the beat of a drumstick (though not the sound of the drum itself), a wind-like whoosh as all the violinists bow forwards at the same time. What it reveals, perhaps, is the human effort which goes into creating orchestral music.
This is interesting – for a little while. The symphony runs for 45 minutes. And this is the issue with all of these works: the investment of time (both ours and the artist’s) versus the journey we are taken on. The World Falls Apart Into Facts is a lengthy investigation into how a Chinese folk song, Molihua (Jasmine Flower), was transcribed (inaccurately) for western audiences in the late 18th century, became wildly popular in Europe and ended up being transported back to China in its bastardised form. There is a dual-screen film, half documentary, half performance of the song by musicians in fruit costumes, and a small exhibition of objects from the Edinburgh University collection which have a similar kind of back story.
In the Georgian Gallery, Possible Music #2 was made in collaboration with Edinburgh University’s Next Generation Sound Synthesis (NESS) research group. It’s a big installation of sound and sculpture, sometimes silent, sometimes booming out cacophanous sounds, some of which are analogue (from “real” instruments), others digitally generated. But why these sounds in particular, and how (if at all) do the sound and sculpture engage? There’s little by way of structured composition, little to hold onto.
Young’s drawings, upstairs in the Georgian Gallery, might be the most interesting work here. They are visual depictions of sound, using colour, line, collage and haiku-like sentences, and include studies of the sound generated by people on mass protests. They are puzzles too, but at least they give us something to look at while waiting for the next blast of noise from downstairs.
James Richards’ Migratory Motor Complex at Collective’s City Dome, which represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2017, is another experiment in sound art. There’s no doubt that the circular brick-lined space of the City Dome is an ideal space for it acoustically, with speakers round the edge of the room and a grid of benches so you can listen from different spots. Doing so, one notices how the sound changes in different parts of the room, how some sounds seem to migrate about.
But, beyond that, what to make of it? There are snippets of found sound, snatches of piano, deep electronic growling, some fragments of song. At times, it sounds like listening to a film when you can’t see the screen, or to someone channel-hopping in the room next door; there isn’t enough coherence to take you into further imaginative worlds. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the work takes its title from the pattern of electro-mechanical activity in the digestive tract: it’s all a bit hard to digest.
Hanna Tuulikki’s Deer Dancer at Edinburgh Printmakers is the result of a long investigation into dance traditions in which men imitate deer. The artist has studied three in particular: the indigenous Yaqui people from Mexico, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a folk dance from Staffordshire, and the Highland Fling (although the deer imitation origins of the dance are now thought to be a myth).
Tuulikki has designed five costumes for masculine character types: monarch, warrior, young buck, fool and old sage, and performs in all of them in the dual-screen film, using movements from the three dances and others she has developed from observing deer and those stalking them. She has also made the soundtrack of a capella vocals, and a series of embossed prints mapping the positions held in the dances.
Everything is beautifully made. The costumes in particular, which are on display in the first space, are glorious quirky combinations of deerskin, tweed and sequins. The question is where all this takes us. The dances, Tuulikki concludes, probably go back to hunting rituals, to cultures which understood and respected the animals they killed for food.
Now, these relationships are fractured: in many parts of the world, deer populations are declining as wilderness habitats are destroyed. The Scottish Highlands, meanwhile, are overrun with red deer, bred for sport, which are damaging the area’s ecology. The work, she says, is both a kind of protest dance for a damaged world and a study of posturing, destructive masculinity. I’m more convinced by the first than the second. n
Cindy Sherman and Hanna Tuulikki until 6 October; Samson Young until 5 October; James Richards until 13 October