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Lucy Skaer, with Fiona Connor, H.D., Will Holder, Nashashibi/Skaer & Hanneline Visnes) The Green Man Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University AS LABYRINTH

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 11 Jan 2019, 08:56

Labyrinths II: Lucy Skaer, with Fiona Connor, H.D., Will Holder, Nashashibi/Skaer & Hanneline Visnes) The Green Man Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University).

It is possibly true to say that I am imposing on curational and creative work of Skaer and others, one of whom is the dead poet, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) the trope of the labyrinth. In this I’m encouraged by the transformation of the Vatican Museum (133f.) in Higgin’s labyrinth book to a puzzling Troy of corridors that recalls to her the labyrinth poem she favours (and reproduces in translation in an appendix), Catullus’ Peliaco quondam.

However, the labyrinth as a puzzle or riddle to solve runs throughout Higgins’ book even In Arthur Evan’s, cited as an epigram, characterisation of Knossos as a ‘labyrinth’ to which the key is his ‘handbook’. It helps the perplexed ‘visitor who wishes to explore its full circuit’ who ‘still needs the guidance that of old was provided by Ariadne’s clewe’. That ‘clewe’ is the ‘red thread’ of the Higgins’ title – which serves in fiction too as a thread that can be ‘read’ as well as ‘red’.

This seems to be the reason for invoking H.D. into the curation by Will Holder. Amongst the finds lying about the place in the exhibition are copies of a limited (to 500 copies) edition of HD’s Palimpsest, which can be picked up lurking on the catalogue shelves at the end of the exhibition and taken away for free. H.D. took from Freud the image of the palimpsest as a writing surface on which everything written on it throughout its history leaves a trace, including traces of its partial or full erasure, like the unconscious (Ucs.). The synonyms for labyrinth make easy meat of attempts to see how palimpsests include many mazes and tangles, unclear paths that force decisions about meaning. The published Palimpsest in this exhibition has on its back cover a quotation from one of Doolittle’s letter that makes this even more evident:

‘I want to clear up an old tangle. Well, I do not put my personal self into my poems. But my personal self [Hilda Doolittle} has got between me and my real self, my real artist personality [H.D.}. And in order to clear the ground, I have tried to write things down – in order to think straight. I have endeavoured to write straight.

… in the novel I am working through a wood, a tangle of bushes and bracken out to a clearing, where I may see clear again.

I am reading this book currently. I expect, perhaps though even intend, to find evidence of labyrinthine process at the level of meaning and form as I do, but the ‘wood’ and ‘tangle’ are already labyrinths in Higgins.

Another coincidental link of exhibition (and its handbook – available for pdf download on the exhibition site) is the use in the latter of an installation based on the text and images of Le Livre du Chasse (1387-89) by Gaston Phébus. Although with important differences, I see herein some similar unintended similarities with Higgins’ use of Paulo Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest (c. 1465-70) and its effect on C.S. Lewis (164f). But this is by the by.

In describing the exhibition as a labyrinth, I speak of my impression and those expressions I read in the faces of other visitors. There are no labels in this exhibition. One is forced to look at the guide (handed out on entry) for such information as there is, using its charts and maps as clues to the objects and collections of objects found. The initial installation, arranged on the gallery floor and to be revisited again from a high vantage point from a created balcony in the gallery on the next floor up is to be interpreted as a forest scene in which represented objects partake of the qualities of their sculptural medium or material (a theme which will resonate throughout) to invoke boundary-crossing themes between life and death, free and bound, animal and human, animate or still life. The hunt emerges in the next room through collections of horns which are used to call or represent signs of warning (a fog horn for instance), intent or collaborative plan (as in a hunt) or even signs that we accept as meaning art (musical horns). The trick of the signifier – horn originates from a zoological form – its use metonymically is zoomorphic – does not pass you by.

But we are used to doors between rooms as signifiers of liminality between spaces containing differences of meaning. Skaers has made both labyrinth and palimpsest of her exhibition by altering the museum space itself – lowering floors from the original, building windows to and from the outside and ambient light therefrom where there were previously none – and the signs of that erasure being made clear. The best example is a door from the original building now set on the wall where it used to function as a door in its original space, but (now), the floor underneath it having been lowered, exists only as a (door)-framed artwork.

And Skaer has utilised former staircases used for administration of the gallery only into public staircases, although some lead (as in any good maze) to nowhere. Upstairs there is a darkened space you enter with trepidation to find a three-seat sofa and a film on loop. This film uses inhabitants of the same South Sea island Gauguin represents in Why Are you Angry? (1896), with contemporary Tahitian women both creating tableaux of various other Gauguin pictures. These women also use words and, together with documentary imagery, they show why they and their ancestors in Gauguin’s time might be angry at colonial status and the attempts of Western art to naturalise them as ‘primitive’ and passive peoples.

Beyond this are designs of different kinds that focus on built environments for the arts, especially those that might be conceptually appropriate housing of an art piece such as Moore’s Fallen warrior – a model of which is created in miniature.

We enter the upper balconies (once unavailable to visitors) of the Georgian Gallery, via the Dermatome Man from the Anatomy Museum’s collection. This figure illustrates the relation of skin and exterior body surfaces to sections of the spinal column of the nervous system, with its remnant of the human tail showing. It opens a dialogue about the art involved in scientific representations, including collections of organic plant material. A collection of mounted ferns that emphasise issues of space, framing and the effect of creating object forms from animate material. Meanwhile we look down to an installation on the floor of the Georgian Gallery. Before we get there, we cannot help but explore the corridors of the upper balconies, especially those opened to us that lead to dead ends marked (sometimes) by ’Staff Only’ signs. On seats there lie copies of Palimpsest that advertise their availability at the end of the exhibition.

Descending the spiral staircases to the Georgian Gallery, we encounter an installation based on the continual reproduction of an original found object that has been crafted as art. Elements of these reproductions change in their sequence of composition – partly because of the nature of the different materials from which the apparently same form is crafted. We see here transformations as materials and memory of the last model enforce variations small and large, in the margins of the object, its fissures and slots. We leave via a catalogue library where a copy of Palimpsest can be obtained but isn’t always – indeed when I visited – it was rarely (over an observed 20-minute period).

This account is neither critically nor descriptively other than very limited. What I wanted to show was the almost overwhelming range and puzzling (riddling) sequence of the puzzles and riddles objects in a museum collection might pose if arranged with a difference. The handbook summarises this aim as an ‘exploration of irrationality in collections’. We are denied the conventions of the universal museum – a kind of comforting script that explains away difference and makes strange transitions normal. It shows that collecting and curation are now high and collaborative art where responses such as being overwhelmed, lost and puzzled are legitimated rather than suppressed or made signs of limitation in visitors of education (and/or class).

This exhibition should be seen – again and again. Not so that repetition habituates but that it allows differences in the ‘parts’ of collections to become more articulate and mutually challenging. See it if you can. Three cheers to Edinburgh University for such brave investment in art and art collection development. It can cause in the visitor, and reader of Palimpsest, a reaction described by Higgins, in describing the effect on her of Rome (that museum of a city:

Perhaps it is Rome’s shameless airing of all its histories, massed together in a state of wreckage and stubborn survival, that can make it a particularly forceful backdrop to the consideration of oneself, one’s own history and ruined pasts (118).’

Thus, too the labyrinth – being lost and puzzled in a work of art (and Daedalus is he master-artist) can be a force of reconfiguration for not only selves but also societies.

Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others (this).

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings.

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


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