The term epoch, before it came to define the banal and easy categorisation of historical time, was to the ancient Greeks an astronomical term, epokhē; which described a moving position from which one might observe other moving things. ATLAS Arts’ new project ‘Muinntir Mo Dhuthaich’ (People of my Place), a series of artist commissions in response to archeological sites on Uist and Isle of Skye, perhaps unwittingly, manifests this same conception of a past, present and future in anarchic flux.
The most recent double exhibition in the series continues ATLAS’ collaboration ‘Broad Reach’ with Taigh Chearsabhagh, an art centre and museum in North Uist, in presenting a solo show by Niall Macdonald and site-specific installation by Bobby Niven. Niven and Macdonald have responded to two distinct archeological sites - Rubh an Dunain on the Isle of Skye and The Udal on Uist. In negotiating these sites both artists seem to approach the same question albeit in different ways - that is to ask how we might talk about the contemporary? Or perhaps more poetically, to try and describe what it feels like to look out on the world from a particular moment in time.
This is most vivid in the works of Niall Macdonald. The Udal has a specific resonance for him, as he grew up near the site and remembers exploring the area and playing with maps and technical equipment in cabins left over from the archeological digs there in the 1970s. This haptic experience of object place and time is very evident in his work ‘Untitled Fragments in Acid Green’ - a series of white plaster casts wall mounted behind perspex vitrines in lurid, lucid green. Here, colour and form create a visual filter, through which we cannot help but reflect on our contemporary vision in all its peculiarity.
Hermetically sealed behind the perspex is a cast fragment of a contemporary moment, our own recognisable ‘disjecta membra’, in the form of a discarded Sony Ereader, circa 2004. This platonic form, the first of its kind, reminds us of our own domestic archaeology, of the domiciliary strata atop dresser draws, kitchen worktops, and bed side tables. That ubiquitous, desiccating pile of defunct technologies: mini disk players, old iPods, Kindles, Mp3s, useless but hung onto, amongst old bills, postcards, shopping lists and discarded love letters.
How spare the contemporary soul is, and how quickly we atrophy into the redundancy of history, that dreaded archive. Gone are the Neolithic, Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, we can now claim to mark our advances in iPhone4, iPhone5, iPhone5s, iPhone6, and as of last month iphone6s (l’Age d’or). Macdonald’s work manifests the idea of these quotidian objects as future artifacts that might mark an age as X or Y, but in looking at them we cannot escape our own kinetophobia (the fear of time) in perpetual chaotic motion breaking down the ‘order’ that artifacts, timelines and epochs represent.
Crossing via the cafe from Macdonald’s gallery space into Bobby Niven’s exhibition ‘Proceedings of The Society’ we are cajoled into a more spiritual contemplation. The space, which has large sash windows on both sides and white washed walls that extend up to high rafters, recalls a village church or a rudimentary sanctuary, conveying a quiet reverence upon the works. In contrast to Macdonald’s rumination on the sparseness of the contemporary being, we observe in Niven’s work its reinvigoration, a series of symbolic objects bestowed by abstracted large whittled wooden hands protruding from the gallery walls. These outstretched palms, a leitmotif in Niven’s work, present these objects to the viewer as sacred bodies, psudeo-archaeological artifacts, animated with meanings both enrichingly enigmatic, and startlingly opaque. In an arc around the space each hand is adorned with various flotsam and jetsam collected from the Rubh an Dunain site, recognisable but also reformed and elevated. On one hand there is a glass whisky bottle with a snaking coiled stopper of seaweed cast in bronze, on another a loop of neon plastic cut from ship’s buoy is draped like a ceremonial shroud. On an adjacent wall, brilliantly perched on top of a twisted bronzed kelp, is a foxes faeces made of digested compressed plastic blue rope which has formed the likeness of polished Lapis Lazuli. What emerges from these playful shamanistic objects and narratives are a series of abstract notions, loops, cycles - a conflation of the man made and the natural. These ideas, like the lengthening shadows cast by the wooden hands, dance like emboldened spirits in the space, a pageant of extended thoughts, proffering, reaching, pointing and alluding, but never dictating their reason for being.
The overall effect of the works is startling not least because it counters the commonly expressed opinion by ‘townies’ like myself, that the curation in rural arts organisations is provincial or in someway lacking (a perceptions ATLAS Arts has been countering for sometime). Conversely, these contemporary projects are far more sensitive to site, audience and context then many shows I have experienced in arts institutions in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and in many ways more conceptually rigorous too. In simply putting forward an archaeology of the contemporary and a contemplation of our place within it, Niven and Macdonald also ask us to consider our wider connection with a place and time, and to question our pre-conceived, ill informed, and timid notions.