NOW | Susan Philipsz, Michael Armitage, Yto Barrada, Kate Davis, Hiwa K, Sarah Rose
National Galleries of Scotland
On now until 18 February 2018
Review by Rosie Priest
NOW is the second in a six-part series of exhibitions presented by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art exploring the work of international contemporary artists. It is dominated by a 5 room display of works by the artist Susan Philipsz alongside works by renowned artists Kate Davis, Sarah Rose, Hiwa K, Michael Armitage and Yto Barrada.
The gallery welcomes you with a warm familiarity in the form of blue and white wallpaper in the corridor, a lush break from the white wall norm that contrasts the work of Yto Barrada, the first artist encountered in the exhibition. ‘Untitled (North African Toys Series, dolls)’ (2014 - 2015) are visually intriguing images of incredibly crafted dolls, completely disconnected from their original context, it is difficult to gage the size or purpose of these toys and therefore they appear daunting.
They were originally collected by the ethnographer Thérèse Riviere on her trips to Algiers in the 1930’s, and now belong to the Musée du quai Branly, Missions Dakar-Dijbouti, Charles le Couer Paris. They provide an insight into the themes that are seen throughout the exhibition – archiving, collecting, deconstructing and curating stories about things – “things” being one of the only terms to describe many of the other works which explore a rich variety of sound, object, construction and film. As a result, Barrada’s striking photography is a perfect gateway for the rest of the exhibition.
The richness and abundance of colour on offer in Barrada’s images are echoed in the paintings of Michael Armitage, however, unlike Barrada’s work which seeks to disorientate the viewer with the scale of the objects photographed, Armitage puts viewers at ease by utilising familiar compositions that often reference crucial works from Western art history. Similarly, as Barrada’s work sheds light upon the harsh realities and socio-economic difficulties that exist within Kenya, she also allows for safe access through familial compositional framing devices.
‘The Bell Project’ (2007 - 2015) by Hiwa K consists of two videos played side by side. It seeks to reclaim and repurpose stories from objects that would typically carry hefty connotations. The work links a 700 year old bell making facility in Italy with a munitions factory in Iraq. Bells have been smelted down to create ammunition during war time, but here K turns this unfortunate tradition on its head. The left-hand video shows Iraqi men gathering metallic detritus fom the war torn country – tanks, bullets, bombs and mines are gathered and melted down to be sold as raw material across the world. The right-hand video shows Italian bell makers receiving raw bronze from Iraq and creating a huge decorative bell from it. Here, K is not only repurposing materials and creating new narratives for the objects which harbour deep and deadly connotations, but also hints towards current cultural desecration across the globe such as the ransacking of Syrian museums and destruction of historically symbolic buildings and monuments.
Sarah Rose, a Scottish artist, presents ‘Memo to Spring’ (2017), an installation created specifically for this iteration of NOW. Immersed by the artist’s voice, the viewer is invited to follow the stories of two lovers based on their written correspondence as well as writing by Rose herself. All share a love for the sea, a trait that is riffed upon by the floor being covered in foam. This not only recalls the foam of the sea, but can be seen to expand on the sea’s vastness and ability hide things, how ships have gone out to sea never to be seen again, and as such, the two lovers unattainable lust and desire for one another is hidden by the seas of reality.
The second Scottish based artist on show, Kate Davis, similarly wants to reinterpret stories. Like Barrada’s work, she is interested in ready-made objects, and again like Barrada, they are the objects associated with childhood. Bizarre dolls are displayed alongside their own portraits and portraits of other dolls. The dolls come from the collection of Edward Lovett, who was fascinated by the way everyday objects were transformed into symbolic and sentimental keepsakes through their owner’s intervention in struggling areas of London in the 1890’s. Here, Dolls have been created from dried beans, bones, rags and even the heel of a shoe and are displayed in a way that sees them as no different, hierarchically, from their neighbouring portraits.
It is the culmination of the exhibition, an extensive display of work by the Berlin based, Glasgow born, artist Susan Philipsz that wins over the viewer. Her truly brilliant exploration of sound, photography and painting directs the viewer hungrily through the remaining galleries, with each space capitalizing on the curiosities provoked in the previous rooms. ‘Deep Water Pulse’ is like a wall of sound that you have to push against as you enter. Usually this pulse is a distress or warning beacon, only emitted under water, but here, it corresponds to your movement, its tempo acting like your racing heartbeat. The sound has no sense of place, there isn’t a noticeable speaker in which you could localize the sound to, instead you are left disoriented.
As you move away from this into a collection of large photographs, there is something familiar about them. The size of the images seem relatable to that of a human body and unlike the work of Barrada that utilised scale to disorientate, here Philipsz uses it to orientate and anchor. Upon discovering that the ship pictured – Elettra – was infamous for travelling around Europe and sharing the potential of radio, the morbidity of these photographs becomes climactic rotten, rugged and rusted, Elettra no longer celebrates sound, but is silenced after outliving her usefulness.
From a silent ship, to a room full of sound, ‘Seven Tears’ (2016) is one of the most impressive works by Philipsz on display. Seven synchronised record players play single tones produced from the movement of a wet finger over a glass extracted from John Dowland’s Lachrimae which was based on the passing of a single tear. Everyone who experiences this work will experience it differently. I watched as adults would often skirt around the edges of the gallery, whilst children seemed eager to explore the seven speakers. Depending on where you are in the room you will hear this piece differently, and by taking the time to follow the sounds from their point of origins, to standing back and experiencing the synchronised sound as one, a truly sculptural element is brought to this piece.