12 Aug, 2009

Once more with feeling

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Edinburgh’s big new art show takes the Enlightenment as its theme. Heavy-going? Not a bit – its quiet intensity wins you over

A group of singers have gathered at the foot of a shiny, colossal robot in a light-filled art gallery. A ukulele player strikes up a folksy tune, and one of them starts to sing sweetly about the economic travails of British Airways. It’s a story from the papers, told differently. Gentle lyrics, a smiling singer, the delicate strings: all these elements transform hard news into soft information. There’s another song about the remains of three aboriginal Australians being taken home from their alien resting place, in the stores of a museum. Hear all about it.

As newspapers contemplate a tricky future, this art work at Edinburgh’s Dean Gallery reaches back to a time before they existed. Newspapers were born in the 18th century, in that age of enthusiastic modernity known as the Enlightenment; Edinburgh, along with Paris, was arguably the capital of this rationalist revolution, home to the ­ philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith. This year, Edinburgh’s international festival is hosting an art exhibition for the first time, taking the city’s golden age as its theme: the Enlightenments puts 21st-century artists in dialogue with 18th-century ideas.

Artist Gabrielle de Vietri’s singing news performance meditates on the invention of newspapers, though not kindly. According to the gallery, it evokes “the way information was delivered to people prior to the Enlightenment and mass literacy” — that is, it mourns the older form of the ballad, before papers. You can’t help contrasting the artist’s charming folk singers with the toughness of more orthodox news sources; the human voice, the proximity of the musicians, make the plight of British Airways seem as saturated in pathos as the Jacobite rebellion.

But there’s the problem, right there, with a contemporary art show about the Enlightenment. Who wants to be enlightened? Who believes, now, in the 18th-century cult of reason, of progress and the ascent of humanity? You only have to walk past the Royal Bank of Scotland to be reminded that Adam Smith has not had a good year.

The Enlightenment now functions in contemporary culture more as a whipping boy than a reference point. But Scottish modern artists strike me as far more aware of history than artists south of the border. This exhibition includes a work by Nathan Coley, whose entire raison d’etre has been to commemorate the tree trunks that support the roof of a 19th-century cottage in Perthshire. It ain’t enlightened, though, an old cottage. It’s romantic, it’s irrationalist, it’s the opposite of the neoclassical architecture of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment New Town.

For Scottish artists – perhaps all artists – like to linger in the dark shadows of the gothic, not the bright light of reason. Australian artist Greg Creek’s contribution to this show is a fragmentary drawing in which Edinburgh views interfold with nightmarish horror. It includes a sketch of footballer Zinedine Zidane, drawn from Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film, Zidane. The reference reminded me that Gordon’s art is one long contemplation of the dark side of the Enlightenment, of Mr Hyde and not Dr Jekyll – from his slowed-down 24 Hour Psycho to Zidane, with its disconcerting, anti-climactic ending. Creek’s drawing is similarly macabre and despairing of reason.

Tacita Dean’s film Presentation Sisters towers above everything else here. The 18th-century philosopher Denis Diderot argued that truly worthwhile art must reject the triviality of theatre – of conscious performance – and instead depict characters whose absorption in their activities makes us in turn forget ourselves. This was an Enlightenment definition of serious art, and Dean’s film, a portrait of women living in a religious community in Ireland, fulfils it. Presentation Sisters homes in on mundane daily activities and finds infinite beauty in them: doing the laundry, preparing breakfast, making a cup of tea.

I liked The Enlightenments, though I wasn’t always sure why. The exhibition brings together an oddly diffuse group of artists, whose responses to the Enlightenment range from Joshua Mosley’s glib animation (in which the thinkers Rousseau and Pascal encounter a savage dog), to Susan Norrie’s equally forgettable science-fiction video of a synthetically preserved world. In a newly restored neoclassical hall in the Talbot Rice gallery, the veteran conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth has inscribed quotations from the least enlightened of all philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, in white neon. Looking down from the upper gallery on fragments of glowing, white philosophical rhetoric is like being inside Nietzsche’s mad head.

What then makes the show so likable? I think because it creates a quietness, a pensiveness. The news singers at the Dean Gallery seem to slow down the speed at which we assimilate information. Why don’t we take time to digest the news? Even at its slightest, the art here is about stopping for a moment, and looking inwards.

Dean’s film made an unfortunate comparison with a solo show by Jane and Louise Wilson, part of Edinburgh’s art festival (how many festivals can one city accommodate?). The Wilsons have been researching Stanley Kubrick’s unmade film, Aryan Papers. It is a big subject – the biggest: Kubrick’s planned film was about the Holocaust, which means this is, too. In terms of pure content, there is a lot to engage with, as an actor tells of her meetings with the enigmatic Kubrick. But where Dean gazes with apparently infinite patience at a stained glass panel above a door, the Wilsons can’t keep still, not even when there’s a story being told. Their love of Kubrickian steadicam is a bad habit. Multiple reflections of the main image in mirrors, set in an installation of darkened gauze, constant fading from one shot to another; they need to slow down.

The Fruitmarket Gallery is showing a retrospective of 1960s experimental works, Eva Hesse: Studiowork. This rare artist worked in the immediate aftermath of minimalism, the influential movement whose leaders rejected handmade craft values in favour of machine-made strip lighting or metallic boxed shapes in clean white surroundings, thus creating what is arguably industrial America’s most truthful art. Or not. In Hesse’s art, all the irrational chaos and whimsical making the minimalists rejected has returned, in gooey, fleshy, yellowing forms that seem to grow and sprout before your eyes.

This exhibition concentrates on smaller, and in conventional terms unfinished, pieces by Hesse. Some look like papier-mache bowls. Others just look like pieces of wire or perhaps intestine, or umbilical cords; balls of papier-mache look like . . . oh, balls. In a bag. Anatomical allusions proliferate. Almost nothing is made from visibly organic materials (most of it consists of metal, latex, acrylic paint), but everywhere the body intrudes. It’s like an alien autopsy in a 1960s apartment. Lovely fruit bowl – is it made of Martian flesh?

Art can be truly thoughtful, we discover, by being richly physical. Hesse’s art seems made without any final goal in view; it has nothing to “say”. It reminds me of another 60s cultural figure, Bob Dylan. In filmed interviews of that period he was always being asked to explain what his songs “said”: cue a lot of evasive wisecracks. Hesse, too, seems in these works to have no intention of saying anything. This is art as play, though in play you can discover things the cold mind never will. There are three-dimensional sketches, and tangible doodles (Don’t Touch! plead the signs, and the urge to make physical contact is hard to resist).

The joy and freedom of Hesse’s art is staggering. Any young artist could get an education just by coming to this show a few times. It tells, in stuff, the same truth David Hume put into words in 18th-century Edinburgh: that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.

The Enlightenments is at venues around Edinburgh until 27 September. Jane and Louise Wilson are at Talbot Rice gallery until 26 September. Eva Hesse: Studiowork is at Fruitmarket gallery until 25 October. Details: www.eif.co.uk; www.edinburghartfestival.com.

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