BLURRING the lines between mysticism and science, the RSA has some beautifully odd pieces of alchemy displayed in a suitably strange setting
Of Natural And Mystical Things
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
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The Clipperton Project
Glasgow Sculpture Studios
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Ugo Rondinone: Primitive
Common Guild, Glasgow
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It’s very strange down there,” says the tartan-trousered warden who opens the door for me at the Scottish National Gallery, and directs me, cautiously, down the stairs to the RSA’s current exhibition. So I’m also not exactly surprised when the first things I see when I enter the room are a rabbit with webbed feet and a hare with wings.
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s taxidermy hybrids look like the kind of phantasmal creatures the Victorians stitched together for a joke. His point, however, is a very contemporary one. Now, scientists know how to splice together the genes of different species. If – or, as some thinkers suggest, when – this knowledge becomes readily available, what kind of beasts might we end up with? The worlds of science and mythology begin to converge.
Of Natural and Mystical Things, which brings together nine artists – two RSA veterans and seven young bloods – deals with such places of convergence. Alchemy was one such, in which early scientific practices were employed in pursuit of a goal which was highly esoteric. The wood panelled room with its glass display cases is perfect for this Wunderkammer, this cabinet of curiosities, and each body of work here sits somewhere on the continuum between science and mysticism.
Several of the younger artists have been to Florence on the RSA’s John Kinross Scholarship, and cite visits to La Specola, the Museum of Zoology and Natural History, as a key inspiration. Fitzpatrick is one; Ashley Niewenhuizen is another, whose large-scale compositions of exotic animals with dead game birds, are part decorative, part disturbing.
Both are outstanding draughtsmen, as is Lara Scouller, whose vivid animal drawings leave us guessing, in this context, whether the creatures – giant armadillo, ground hornbill – are living, extinct or invented. Niewenhuizen also make small sculptures with elements of taxidermy. Her fur and pearl stole with white mouse heads is just macabre enough to be on the way to being a cult fashion accessory.
Rebecca Cusworth and Lindsay Sekulowicz have both spent time in Florence, too. Cusworth’s interest is in exploring contradictory attitudes to femininity, and how these are worked out in attitudes to women and nature. She has made a series of lumpy ceramic she-wolves. Sekulowicz has made a series of hand-coiled earthenware vessels based on forms of stone maceheads from Mesopotamia.
Ian Howard, the former principal of Edinburgh College of Art, uses the artistic language of alchemy to create richly symbolic prints and collages which remain just beyond the edges of deciphering. Meanwhile, Glen Onwin engages in practical chemical experiments, “growing” paintings with salt crystals, and, over the course of the exhibition, cultivating long blue grass-like crystals in a jar of copper sulphate.
Bridget Steed and Mary Garner are more interested in far-away places. Garner looks all the way to the moon, creating beautiful abstracted surfaces with oil paint and wax, asking questions about the extent to which we can really know the ungraspable. Steed goes only as far as South Georgia, with a suite of prints called Antarctica is the Earth’s Memory and a set of objects related to whaling. Live pictures are beamed into the gallery from a South Georgia webcam, an impossibly long distance shrunk by technology.
A similarly unimaginable distance was covered by The Clipperton Project, a multidisciplinary team who sailed to the island of Clipperton in the North Pacific in March, the result of whose labours are currently on show at Glasgow Sculpture Studios’ new premises at The Whisky Bond. Clipperton is a nine-square-kilometre coral atoll more than 1,000 miles from the nearest landmass, and is home to nothing but seabirds and should be unspoilt. But, thanks to converging ocean currents, it has become a repository for the world’s discarded plastic.
While fish stocks fall and seabirds die from eating discarded plastic toys, Clipperton becomes an emblem of something bigger than itself. Explorer and naturalist Jacques Cousteau visited, and wrote, presciently: “Here on Clipperton creatures including man have little place. Yet by a harsh irony man himself is creating a world hostile to all but the hardiest species, a world hostile even to himself.”
The Clipperton Project is the brainchild of writer Jon Bonfiglio from Gibraltar. Bringing together artists and scientists, it will work with a range of institutions worldwide for the next three years on issues to do with the environment, responsibility and community. “Clipperton is an island,” says the project’s slogan, “it is also an idea.”
In terms of artwork, it’s early days, and this first outing at Glasgow Sculpture Studios is billed as an “international collaborative laboratory” rather than an exhibition. There are a handful of photographs by Naim Rahal (Mexico), three mind maps by Julie Morel (France), and a wooden sculpture by Alan Pfeiffer (Mexico) inspired by the island’s distinctive volcanic rock formation, but the emphasis is on the programme of events, workshops and discussions.
The sculpture by Glasgow-based Charles Engebretsen is more considered, a collection of organic shapes, almost like sea anemones, cast in concrete using discarded plastic bags. The voyage has made Engebretsen think hard about the materials sculptors use, and concrete, like the plastic used in cheap carrier bags, is both pervasive in the modern world and nigh-on impossible to degrade.
One might hope for more artistic responses which make us feel what it is like to be on Clipperton, portray the beauty and isolation hinted at in the project’s film trailer, or help us explore our own anger at its polluted state. Perhaps, as the project continues, and the artists have time to process their experiences, more ambitious works will be realised.
Meanwhile, one might start to wonder if a flock of Clipperton birds have invaded the Common Guild. Small and slightly misshapen, they sit earnestly in the lobby, occupy the elegant front rooms in singles and groups, and turn the staircase into an avian assault course. One is even sheltering under a desk in the main office.
The 57 birds, cast in bronze and sitting on sheets of chipboard, are the work of Swiss-born Ugo Rondinone, a versatile artist whose work takes in everything from target paintings in garish colours to lifesize models of slumped clowns. His birds are crudely made, but they nevertheless have an essential bird-ness about them. They appear to be in the midst of doing bird-ish things, shifting, staring, pecking. We readily give them personalities and assume those in small groups to be conversing.
The work is enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite live up to its high concept intentions. Each bird is named after a natural phenomenon: “the storm”, “the waterfall”, “the mountain”. They are invaders from the outdoors into the domestic realm. They should, perhaps, be sinister Hitchcockian birds, but these homely, lumpy creatures don’t summon much dread. Their connection to Rondinone’s abiding theme of time and mortality feels tangential at best.
This connection is more evident with his stained-glass clock faces, hung by the window in three of the rooms. The windows themselves are painted over, so there are few external clues about the time of day, and the clock faces – elegant, Victorian looking, very suited to Glasgow – have no hands. They capture a moment which is frozen, while time races on, rather like those poor little bronze birds, who look so ready to move, yet cannot fly.
• Of Natural and Mystical Things runs until 4 November; The Clipperton Project until 20 October; Ugo Rondinone until 17 November.