Art reviews: Borderlines at Talbot Rice | Orla Kiely at Dovecot

As Brexit looms, a group show at Talbot Rice brings together work by 13 international artists exploring the subject of borders

Work by Khvay Samnang at Talbot Rice

Borderlines, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Orla Kiely, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh ***

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On 29 March 2017, the date Article 50 was triggered, Tessa Giblin, director of the Talbot Rice Gallery, began work on an exhibition which would coincide with the proposed date of Brexit two years later. That show opened last weekend, and widespread uncertainty continues about what will happen on 29 March, and what impact it will have. As she writes in the accompanying booklet, “news reports pre-empt any introduction we could write.” Borderlines brings together 13 appropriately international artists with works on the subject of borders, how they are made and crossed, how they can be hidden and yet continue to influence our lives, politically, economically and personally. The majority of the works don’t address Brexit directly, but it surfaces everywhere in the show like a many-headed Hydra of doom.

The show opens with photographs of the Irish border by Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty, who works on one side (in Derry) and lives on the other (in Donegal). Customs checks on the Irish border vanished in 1993 with the introduction of the EU single market, and the border was demilitarised five years later after the Good Friday Agreement. Today, it is all but invisible, marked only by two different shades of tarmac meeting in the middle of the road, but the images are (as Doherty’s work so often is) eerily pertinent as Brexit looms and the prospect of a hard border returns.

Other works open up further implications. Who knew, for example, that the EU imposes high tariffs on imported sugar, thanks to laws put in place in Napoleonic times to protect European sugar beet growers from cane sugar imports from elsewhere in the world? Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan embarked on a journey to Nigeria – where surplus European sugar is dumped – to attempt to bring some back classified as a “monument” in order to avoid the high import tariffs. Their Monument of Sugar is laid out in blocks, Carl Andre style, on the floor while a film tells the story of their expedition.

Romania-born Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, who is Swiss, have used the information published by the CIA to create a fabric map of the world on which countries or areas are described according to their dominant industries or resources: oil, minerals, car manufacture and so on. Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui managed to buy the mineral rights (often separate to land ownership) for a piece of land in Tveitvangen, Norway, opening up the subject of the invisible borders which lie under our feet, while Italian artist Rossella Biscotti’s work describes the borders and regulations which divide up the ocean.

Argentina-born Amalia Pica explores what it means to cross borders in Joy in Paperwork, a work inspired by her own lengthy battle with bureaucracy in order to apply for British citizenship. Collecting bureaucratic stamps from all over the world, she uses them to create playful patterns. Irish artist Ruth E Lyons makes bowls using salt crystals taken from the deposits left behind by the Zechstein Sea which, 230 million years ago, covered an area from Poland to Ireland, reminding us how recent our own national boundaries are.

Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang has made a two-channel video installation in the Areng Valley in Cambodia in which dancer and choreographer Nget Rady re-enacts some of the rituals of the Chong people, who define the borders of their lands by communing with the spirits of ancestors and animals. While it is an outlier in this show in its non-European focus, it is also a vital reminder the many indigenous peoples across the world who have lost out because their borders have not been recognised by bureaucratic map-makers with other agendas.

Borderlines is a collection of insights, questions and propositions which shows what artists can bring to the Brexit conversation, even if they, like the rest of us, find it difficult to get their voices heard by the decision-makers. It’s also a reminder of the international context in which contemporary art operates, and just how much we risk losing if we start erecting borders where they had previously been relaxed.

How the fashion world responds in times of political and economic certainly makes a fascinating study: often it looks to designs of the past for reassurance. It’s interesting, therefore, that the 21st century has seen the rise and rise of Orla Kiely, whose bold, colourful, retro-inspired designs have become iconic on handbags, homeware and ready-to-wear clothing collections.

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern, which was shown at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London last year, celebrates the Dublin-born designer’s success since she launched her own business with her husband Dermott Rowan, in 1997. It’s a bright, cheerful, immersive experience, as colourful as the inside of a kaleidoscope.

While it succeeds in teasing out some of Kiely’s inspirations – the colourful kitchens of her childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, mid-century fabrics and furniture, the colours of the Irish landscape – it is rather confusingly laid out. A corridor lined with patterns opens up to a splendid wall of handbags, then into clothing, but nothing is arranged chronologically, making it impossible to spot any lines of development. A room which explores Kiely’s early work, and how the products are designed, lies off to one side and seems oddly sterile, with sample books and fabrics in glass cases. Immense numbers of fashion photographs and a showreel of promotional films start to feel a bit self-congratulatory, while not adding much to the sum of our knowledge, and the series of giant dresses is just plain odd.

The story of how a combination of artistic ability and business acumen made the brand a household name is shown only in fragments, and there is no insight into why customers (who include Keira Knightley, Alexa Chung and the Duchess of Cambridge) love the stuff so much. While there is plenty here to enjoy, one leaves without a real answer to the question of why Kiely’s bright, retro-inspired designs captured the zeitgeist in our frequently troubled postmodern era.

Borderlines until 4 May; Orla Kiely until 29 June