Art review: Corin Sworn, Edinburgh

Artist Corin Sworn uses botany and simple science to explore how we make something new out of something else
Artist Corin Sworn uses botany and simple science to explore how we make something new out of something else
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RAG paper is made of cloth. Its long fibres make it particularly durable: linen and cotton have been a popular choice for bank notes. Corin Sworn’s video installation The Rag Papers appositely deals with woven threads of meaning and with the circulation of images and things.

Corin Sworn - Inverleith House, Edinburgh

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First commissioned by London’s Chisenhale Gallery, last seen at the Sydney Biennale and now at Edinburgh’s Inverleith House, it is an enigmatic detective story.

You sit in a darkened room as a sequence of lights, slung low from the ceiling, flash on and off. You hear the voice of a narrator – the soft tones of the Glasgow-based, Canada-reared artist herself – recounting an encounter with a mysterious character; a woman who deals in other people’s stuff – antiques, second-hand goods.

The video screen lights up in the darkness and what transpires is a mysterious story in which the two main characters occupy the same space – a bright, early Victorian drawing room that doubles as a study – but both at different times.

There is a man who smokes heavily, assembles hand-written notes; frantically scribbles and scrawls. He is a writer, maybe, or a philosopher. At his elbow there’s a cassette player, on the sideboard an old turntable and the hiss and spin of a vinyl record.

Then there is a woman, the woman perhaps. She is searching through the man’s things, perhaps to find something of value – she reassembles his notes, rifles through files and sheaves of paper as though trying to reconstruct his final thoughts. She may be a spy, a literary sleuth or a ruthless dealer. We never quite find out why: has the man died or simply stepped out for a pint?

At Inverleith House this is made all the richer by The Rag Papers’ setting amongst Sworn’s new works. In the elegant rooms of the gallery she has hung historic specimens from the Royal Botanic Gardens’ herbarium alongside simple silk panels that she has coloured with homemade plant dyes.

Sworn uses botany and simple science to explore how we make something new out of something else, how dyeing and fixing may create permanency but how individual outcomes are an accident of chemistry. The same plant substance can produce radically different hues when used with different chemicals in the water and “mordant” used to fix them.

The gorgeous violets, blues and greens in one of her rooms are all made from the humble cabbage. There seem to be analogies here with how information can be transformed by context, the way that stories we think of as fixed are often just matters of chance.

At last year’s Scotland+Venice exhibition Sworn revisited and reconstructed the travels of her researcher father.

In her striking exhibition Prologue: An Endless Renovation at Washington Garcia in Glasgow in 2010, she constructed a whole story out of some old photos she found abandoned in a skip.

“It’s more a collection of possibilities than anything of substance,” says the narrator of The Rag Papers. And later, “if you find something you should just use it”.

l Until 29 June