Writing in Absence
Anna McLauchlan visits 'Ours' , curated by Grace Johnston, the first of five commissions in Collective’s Satellites programme
Reading the interpretation, the show contains a text by Sophie Collins, half concerning Pauline Réage’s 1954 sadomasochistic novel Histoire d’O (Story of O). On the train to Edinburgh, ordering a hard copy of the book and taking in the first few pages from an online pdf preview…
Moving up Calton Hill’s steep stairs, there are lots of people. Temporary red buildings surrounding the City Observatory, soon to be Collective’s home. The present gallery is a complex of portacabins clothed in columns, a faux mirror of the National Monument of Scotland opposite—blending in.
The inside feels reserved, clean. An installation of Sophie Collins’ two sided pale blue pamphlet faces the gallery entrance, many copies filling a wide low void in a large flat pillar acting as a partial room divider. Sitting on the adjacent seat, reading from the front, turning it to read from the other front—on the face of it neither text has priority but the one about ‘O’ is longer and seems more compelling. ‘At the beginning of the book, O is not standing but sitting, in a car (a cab), her skirt gathered up in order to allow her bare genitals to rest directly on the vehicle’s leather upholstery.’ 
On the seat, shifting to the left hand side (facing), an image getting up and moving closer. Carol Rhodes’ small painting ‘Forest’ 1995 looks like an aerial photograph, a gigantic figure below ground, the dissonance between the smallness of the board and its seeming representation of something large. Can it be landfill? Countless people’s sheddings—gathered, buried, then forgotten—‘Forest’ suggesting trees with roots made to grow horizontally to maintain the clay cap, the fake naturalism of that toxic store needing constant management. Initially dark, drawing nearer the painting becomes subtly colourful, many layers, khaki lattices on top.
Turning to the right, three framed prints on paper, photographs of Beatrice Whistler’s house, 110 rue du Bac, Paris. ‘Photographer and date of creation unknown’. Images reproduced, to scale, with permission of the University of Glasgow Library Special Collections, providing a visual link to Grace Johnston’s trip to this site in Paris. The impossibility of gaining access, seeing this unpeopled view from the adjacent building. But this searching marks the absence of something more significant, Beatrice’s ink sketch, ‘A birdcage’ held in The Hunterian Art Gallery collection in Glasgow and unavailable for loan:
The interpretation has in-depth description of this missing artefact. The drawing purportedly made ‘at her home in Paris between 1892 and 1893’ functioning as one of many designs for a garden where Beatrice kept ‘songbirds for company and observational drawing’. ‘The ‘masculine’ quality of her line’ often leading to a confusion between her work and that of her husband, the famous painter James McNeill Whistler. Before coming here, he, surname Whistler, exists without her, forename Beatrice. She was unknown. The press release, readings about her, represent her as a force, using φ as identifier or the gender neutral pseudonym Rix Birnie. But does she, or will she, ever exist to many, to any, without the link to him? Has his story, tragic and joyous, now become of ‘them’?
The enormous window of this portacabin gallery frames the outside. Movement—some quite erratic—a practising of rituals in a circle in front of that strange, unfinished, National Monument. Entering the Story of O, the window at Roissy, the view from the torture chamber. Pedagogy, discipline and progressively moving towards extremes, some idea of ‘graduation’. Some parts familiar, a lite version of De Sade’s The 120 days of Sodom. The book then filtering into lite-er tales of less anally absorbed female banality that are, as with O, authored by women. Twilight, Fifty Shades…
Being there and taking on a character. Reading translates, textual stimulus becomes somatic, conditioning what is thought or felt. In no way associating with their look, the only real place to be found in the Story is that of O or other female counterparts. What does it mean for those women authors to objectify others? Does it, did it, promote the same early ‘anxieties over woman painting the female nude’?  Is it also ‘a challenge to society’?  Or, is it merely a well-worn form of titillation where those self-identifying as woman (and those that don’t but are recognised as such) are expected to get off on their own subjugation?
Is it about being a woman or being a masochist? Do these texts make these formally interchangeable? A myth of habituation, a means of blaming many who take responsibility, to be caring, courageous, pragmatic or hard working.
Remembering a talk, artwork by a woman is more celebrated when it contains a visual reference to her own female form. 
Looking around the gallery, the figure, the woman, always there but never really present: the pictures of the buildings and garden peopled only by narrative; the painting of a buried figure or perhaps things thrown away by a collective body; the pamphlet crammed in to a slit in the pillar with the discussion of O and its many interpretations, perhaps a lack, perhaps a (w)hole.
Anna McLauchlan is a teacher and learner who currently lectures in critical human geography at the University of Leeds
Satellites is Collective’s development programme for emergent artists and producers based in Scotland
Ours, Collective, Edinburgh, 25 February-26 March 2017
Thanks to Barry Burns, Katherine MacBride, Clare Stephenson and Zac Taylor for commenting on an earlier draft of this text.
 Ours or ‘l’ours, translates from French to English as ‘bear’, but the animal with fur rather than ‘to bear’ or ‘to take responsibility for’.
 Sophie Collins, 2017. Part of Speech: a whistle in the gloom.
 Taken from information on a wall panel ‘Laura Knight 1877-1970, Self-Portrait 1913 Oil paint on canvas’ at Queer British Art 1861–1967, Tate Britain, London 5 April-1 October 2017.
 Simone de Beauvoir, 1990 , 'Must We Burn Sade?' in Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings. Compiled and translated by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. London, Arrow Books. p.28.
 Emily Watlington, 2017, Shigeko Kubota and the 'Tokenization of Women’s Body Art'. Presentation at Speak, body: Art, the Reproduction of Capital and the Reproduction of Life. School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies University of Leeds. April.