Art reviews: Pine’s Eye, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh | Julijonas Urbonas, Collective City Dome, Edinburgh

Ancient and marginalised voices come to the fore in Pine’s Eye at Talbot Rice, while at Collective Julijonas Urbonas imagines a planet created by converging human bodies

Installation shot of Haegue Yang's The Intermediates, 2015-2016 - part of the Pine's Eye exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery PIC: Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery.
Installation shot of Haegue Yang's The Intermediates, 2015-2016 - part of the Pine's Eye exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery PIC: Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery.

Pine’s Eye, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Julijonas Urbonas: Planet of People, Collective City Dome, Edinburgh **

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It helps to know that Pinocchio (literal translation: pine kernel, pine’s eye) is the guiding spirit of the group show recently opened at Talbot Rice Gallery. It features a dozen artists from all over the world, with no little boys made of wood anywhere in sight, yet the wee trickster is here all the same.

The kernel of the show began for curator James Clegg when Rachel Maclean’s Venice Biennale film Spite Your Face (Pinocchio, again) was being shown in the gallery. It tackles a big subject – ostensibly, what it means to be human in times of ecological change – but with a playful spirit. The viewpoints here deliberately sidestep the western mainstream: they come from ancient sources, or marginalised ones, or from a forest or a bouquet of flowers. This is, perhaps, the pine’s eye view.

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Visitors to the show walk straight into a rather intimidating circle of masks made by the Kwakwaka’wakw people from the Pacific North West who visited Edinburgh to perform a ritual a few days before the show was opened. Are they welcoming us in or warding us off? We’re not sure. Either way, they’re assertively reminding us that ours isn’t the only viewpoint in the room.

This is a show full of avatars. Off to one side, there are two striking masks made by former Kwakwaka’wakw chief and artist, the late Beau Dick. Dominican artist Firelei Báez creates subversive figures who populate the pages of history books and colonial maps, documents which have outlived their useful purpose.

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The unsettling paintings of Irish artist Kevin Mooney, which we meet at various points in the show, draw on early Irish and Carribbean indigenous cultures, and seem to be looking at us as we look at the art. Drawings by the late Ana Mendieta, the Cuban American performance artist known for making land art with her own body, are simple and powerful, straight out of the glossary of feminine archetypes.

The show begins with the Kwakwaka’wakw, and ends with another group of figures crafted from synthetic straw by Korean artist Haegue Yang. They look like objects from a folk tradition, but in a contemporary context: the light around which they are gathered and the geometric floor design they sit on are entirely of now. In contrast to the Kwakwaka’wakw, a group who have fought long and hard for the rights of their people, these are postmodern folk figures, a synergy of cultures, gathered to listen to a synthesised version of Yang’s voice reading Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, said to be an inspiration for The Joker.

Others in the show disrupt and provoke by other means. Veteran Austrian artist Lois Weinberger practices a kind of guerilla anti-gardening, sowing weeds in wastelands and letting mushroom spores grow in urban buildings (including fluorescent ones here in Talbot Rice’s round room). American artist Taryn Simon displays meticulous photographs of the floral displays which are present at treaty signings, trade agreements and diplomatic accords. The two featured here are the flowers which witnessed the Reagan government authorising $630 million of weapons for rebel groups in Afghanistan to fight the Russians, and those present at the agreement to form a national unity government in Palestine in 2007, bringing a peace which lasted just four months.

Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta makes industrial labour components from felt. Laurent Grasso paints Renaissance and Old Master-style paintings into which he adds orbs and eyes – a kind of disrupted art history. Filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz tells a series of stories about the way her own land, Puerto Rico, is used and abused for a variety of purposes.

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It’s not a show about answering questions or proposing solutions, it’s about complicating the discussion by pointing out that our present environmental crisis is bound up with colonial history, the exploitation of people and resources and the repression of indigenous cultures who might well have been doing a better job than we were of caring for the earth. But there’s also a welcome cheerfulness to it, a playful reclaiming of pre-capitalist folk and pagan characters, and a generosity which seems to invite the viewer in – even while letting us know that we enter at our own risk. 

The works are of a uniformly high standard, and beautifully installed. One of the most unsettling is Topiary Jig, an installation by Glasgow-based Torsten Lauschmann – a forest made of NHS walking aids, some of which come eerily to life as we walk among them. While a zimmer frame jingles and a pair of crutches engage in a danse macabre, hidden cameras feed back images of us, the audience, into the show’s backdrop. Playing with the disconcerting notion of inanimate things coming to life, it also echoes back bigger issues – an ageing population, an NHS which is increasingly disabled – making it both magical and disturbing.

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Similar technology, which makes the audience part of the art work, is the central component of Planet of People, the installation by Lithuanian artist Julijonas Urbonas at Collective. Urbonas imagines a planet created by converging human bodies, and realises this with a circle of 3D scanners which will add to the swirling mass in the dome above any audience member who chooses to stand between them. 

The hypothesis is based in astrophysics, relating to points in the universe where gravity is absent, though I’m told it would take millions of years to collect enough bodies to converge and make a planet.
In fact, the swirling bodies up in the domed roof are blurry and hard to make out. Perhaps there is some satisfaction in adding one’s own body to the pile, but it all felt strangely dehumanising, as if humanity itself is just a new kind of space junk. While there is much sophisticated technology here, it seems to be in the service of an idea which is not, in itself, very substantial. 

Both galleries closed until further notice