Art review: NOW, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Seven Tears, a sound installation by Susan Philipsz at NOW
Seven Tears, a sound installation by Susan Philipsz at NOW
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The latest NOW show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art builds a compelling and thoughtful show around the work of Susan Philipsz

The second instalment of NOW, a series of six contemporary group shows which will occupy the main spaces at Modern One for a total of three years, is an intriguing proposition. More spacious than the first show, it

seems to punch above its weight, staying long in the mind. Continuing the theme of showing work by Scottish artists alongside international peers, it draws together contrasting works around a set of thematic connections.

Each NOW show centres around a major body of work by a Scottish contemporary artist, in this case Susan Philipsz, who won the Turner Prize in 2010. Philipsz, who trained in Dundee and Belfast, works principally in sound. In Scotland, her work has been more often seen in site-specific commissions for the likes of Glasgow International and Edinburgh Art Festival than in gallery shows, but the work here demonstrates just how well she can combine aural and visual elements.

NOW: Susan Philipsz, Michael Armitage, Yto Barrada, Kate Davis, Hiwa K, Sarah Rose, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh ****

The central work in the central room at Modern One is Seven Tears, made last year for a show in Hanover, and being shown here for the first time in the UK. Philipsz has taken a 17th century baroque music sequence, Lachrimae or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (1604) by John Dowland, and filtered it through a John Cage-ish minimalism, reducing each of the seven pieces (which Dowland names after different types of weeping) to a single note. The notes are then recreated by Philipsz, running a finger around the wet rim of a glass, and recorded onto clear vinyl. Playing on seven chrome turntables and choreographed into a piece of tonal music, it is a work with visual and auditory impact, oozing a kind of meditative melancholy which sets the tone for the rest of the show.

The other works by Philipsz fan out from this, even as the sound carries from room to room. There is a suite of large-format photographs of the ship Elettra, built at Leith Docks in 1904 and used by radio pioneer Marconi to showcase his invention around the world. Philipsz, fascinated by early modes of communication, tracked down the broken pieces of the ship in scrapyards all over Italy. Her beautiful black and white prints are an elegy for one analogue technology produced in another nearly redundant medium. Flowing out from Seven Tears in the other direction is a series of salt paintings made by submerging canvas in vats of salt water and letting the water evaporate, leaving the sparkling salt chrystals.

The rich associations continue in rooms on either side. Deep Water Pulse is the sound of an underwater locater beacon, part of the black box system on a lost ship, pulsing out signals in the hope it will be found. The final work, poignantly named You are not alone, can’t be heard in

the gallery at all. The music – sequences of notes played on early radio stations in periods between transmission – is being beamed across the road via a transmitter on the roof, filling the east staircase of Modern Two with its eerie, disembodied sound.

In choosing works to show alongside Philipsz, curators could, with appropriate sound-proofing, have made a show all about sound. In fact, they do something more interesting, selecting works which echo aspects of the themes, and spread out in a series of ripples: stylistically, thematically and geographically.

Only one other work in the show uses sound, Memo to Spring, a new commission by Glasgow-based Sarah Rose, an installation accompanied by a spoken text. Rose’s concern is for the oceans; her sea sponges made from cast polyurethane reproduction of acoustic foam, while her text contains elements from the letters of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson and her lover Dorothy Freeman, bringing together themes of personal attachment and loss with concerns for ecological fragility.

There is no clear thematic line from these works to Kate Davis’ pencil drawings of “makeshift” dolls, made by children in the slums of London in the 1890s from whatever they could find – a bone, the heel of a shoe, a twist of fabric – and collected as anthropological artefacts. The drawings are shown alongside some of the dolls themselves, loaned by the Museum of Childhood, strange, almost totemic objects which are in danger of outshining any work made about them. But the meaning is clear, contrasting these homespun, instinctive expressions of creativity with the action of the collector, and with the artist; a drawing by Ingres, that great painter of beauty and privilege, accompanies the show. The dialogue continues with the photographs of French Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, doing something very similar in her depictions of home-made dolls and toys collected in North Africa in 1930s.

How values are assigned to materials and how they can be transformed is explored in The Bell Project, an object lesson by Iraqi artist Hiwa K. His dual-screen film shows the project’s two halves: metal collected at a scrapyard in Northern Iraq, the detritus of various wars in mines, bombs, fragments of planes and tanks, which is taken to a 700-year-old bell-making foundry in Italy, melted down and made into a bell. Hiwa K’s thoughtful observations draw out the craftsmanship in both places. The moment when the bell is finally wheeled out of the foundry and rung is moving and transformative.

Perhaps the outlier of the show is Kenya-born Michael Armitage; it is a little confusing that his work is some of the first we see, and Philipsz’ some of the last. But, like Davis and Hiwa K, he is in a dialogue about materials: his expressive, Peter Doig-ish paintings are made not on canvas but on bark cloth from Uganda. He is also engaging seriously with the world, in his case with current events, politics and inequalities in Kenya, expressed in evocative forms and vibrant African colours.

The second iteration of NOW is very much about encountering works we wouldn’t otherwise see (or hear), brought together in a thoughtful and engaged ensemble. They are less a cacophony than a gathering of voices which explore harmony and counterpoint while engaging, each in their own way, with a world which doesn’t have its sorrows to seek.

*Until 18 February