Now in its eighth iteration, the British Art Show finds itself facing a range of new challenges – not least the question of what ‘British art’ means in a post-Indyref union
British Art Show 8 | Rating: **** | Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
In 1968, on an unspoilt jewel of an island called San Carlos in the Sea of Cortez, work began on gathering what was to be the biggest group of B-25 Mitchell bombers assembled since 1945. By the time the project was finished the planes were part of an air force that was reputedly the sixth biggest in the world.
Was Mexico planning an airborne invasion of its northerly neighbour? Had the Cold War suddenly got hot? No. San Carlos was the setting for Catch-22, the 1970 movie adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel. The island was to stand in for Pianosa, the Tuscan idyll where Heller set his absurdist story, based on his own experiences in a Corsican-based squadron in 1944.
At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this spring you can see what’s left of that air force and what has been lost in San Carlos. For the work Dodo, one of the undoubted highlights of this eighth edition of the British Art Show, London-based South African artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin worked with an archaeologist to dig up what the remains of a crashed B-25 on the island.
There isn’t much: a row of rusty nails that sit on the ledge of the wainscoting that runs around the gallery and a low plinth covered in shattered and fragmented pieces of metal. San Carlos is shown as a green paradise in a film sequence, edited from fragments from the cutting room floor, that the artist’s call a “nature documentary”. By the time the movie left, San Carlos had a massive access road, a landing strip and an infrastructure that eventually fell into the hands of the cartels. From one fake war to another one: this time the war on drugs.
Above all this, the elephant in the room: an awe-inspiring giant B-25 propeller that spins and throbs, sending air and sound around the gallery. How do we talk about history, when the evidence keeps circulating, changing and dispersing?
The British Art Show sits on a tricky bridge between past and present. Organised by Hayward Touring, the five yearly travelling exhibition is an overview of contemporary art in which freelance curators – this time round Anna Colin and Lydia Yee – attempt the unenviable task of summing up both what is brand new and what has surfaced from more established artists who have made keynote works in the preceding years.
With its emphasis on non-metropolitan venues, BAS was the once the only means by which provincial audiences could catch up. My own life was changed in 1985, when the British Art Show 2 rolled up to the RSA building on The Mound, Edinburgh, and my school art teacher asked me if I would like to go along.
Now, the structure of the art world is far more globalised, regional gallery infrastructure in Britain has expanded exponentially and the making of art is far more devolved with the rise of Glasgow as a key production site. BAS has a harder task. We no longer believe in such a things as British Art as audiences might have done in 1995 when British Art Show 4 showcased the Damien Hirst generation. Indeed, as if we need to be reminded, many of us no longer believe in Britain.
None of this exercises the current crop of artists who are broadly concerned with the impact of technologies on the question of making stuff, and on questions of history and documentation. And thankfully at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art the show has had a far happier landing than its cramped and inarticulate first release in Leeds Art Gallery last autumn. Here, 22 artists out of more than 40 (my review of the other Edinburgh venues will follow next week) are blessed with much more space and given the chance to shine.
Among the younger artists, Rachel Maclean, the Edinburgh-trained and Glasgow-based film-maker, is a standout. Feed Me, Maclean’s most ambitious and proficient work to date, sticks to the lo-fi rules she has established in her bedroom using cheap, readily available software. The cartoon colours of pink and blue abound, as Maclean targets the Simon Cowell culture of TV talent shows and pre-packed pop, the Disneyfication of even the darkest of fairy stories and the eternal battle of girls to be seen as more than the polar opposites of cute or bad.
What is striking second time round is less the work’s grotesque detail than its admirable efficiency. The musical numbers are bang on, the satire on Silicon Valley’s obsession with eternal adolescence is sharp. Its images of feral Britneys causing havoc on the burning streets of austerity Britain are simply priceless.
But it’s also the oldsters at this venue who shine. Linder, the punk musician, graphic artist and best mate of Morrissey, has worked with Edinburgh’s Dovecot Tapestries to create a gorgeous helix shaped carpet, part Axminster part surrealist nightmare. The performance of her ballet Children of the Mantic Stain on the weaving floor at Dovecot on 30 March promises to be a hot ticket.
Imogen Stidworthy’s unsettling installation A Crack in the Light takes us back to the question of material evidence and missing histories. It looks at the technology of voice recognition, one of the tasks set in Soviet prisons. A central image in the work is a 3D laser-scan of a piece of prison bread pocketed by the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during his last meal on Soviet soil in 1974. Can pixels tell us anything about the feeling of that dry crust scraping the palm of a hungry dissident? Perhaps they can.
• Until 8 May. Next week Moira Jeffrey reviews the rest of British Art Show 8 at Inverleith House and the Talbot Rice Gallery.