It feels strange having to come to one city in order to visit another. But as Glasgow’s Lighthouse is showing ‘Northern City: Between Light and Dark,’ about Edinburgh, that’s indeed what I’m doing. However, asI walk out of Queen Street Station and see the statue of Walter Scott way up there on top of its column in the middle of George Square,this second northern city feels like a home-from-home. Hame’s hame, be it ever sae hamely . And if I put it that way, it’s because all the other features for the Enlightenment issue of Map have been collected together, and today I want to bear some of these in mind just as much as the work I’m about to see for the first time.
The show, curated by Morag Bain, features collaborations between three sets of architects and three artists. Two collaborations and one non-collaboration, actually, as the contributions of Nathan Coley and GROSS.MAX. are shown close to each other but as separate entities.Coley has gone for a text using fairground lights. ‘WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN’, is in the style of ‘THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE’, which was shown in summer 2006 at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN is a line from Voltaire, the same French author who said, when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing: ‘It is to Scotland that we must look for our idea of civilisation.’ I feel I understand why he said that now, whereas a month ago I might have been looking for irony in such a statement.
Landscape architects GROSS.MAX., who practise in Edinburgh, have created a room for contemplation. The construction is actually based on a painting of St. Jerome in his study by the Italian painter Antonello da Messina and dates from the middle of the 15th century, when the centre of civilisation was located a lot further south and east than where Voltaire had in mind. However, the installation is littered with reminders of Edinburgh in Enlightenment times. For example, a copy of Edinburgh Review, a postcard portrait of David Hume and the desk’s most prominent feature—a specially-made leather-bound book called OLD TOWN NEW TOWN NO TOWN . A textual description of Edinburgh, which highlights the city’s dramatic contrasts, is followed by a series of images that derive some of their impact from using digital technology to superimpose motifs onto engravings found in old books.For example, a sheep (Dolly?) is being savaged by a wolf (Alistair Gentry?), those beasts having been overlaid on an engraving of Arthur’s Seat seen at its wildest and most imposing. The book is sumptuous, romantic, quasi-realistic and ‘fake’. It brings to mind that other great pretender, James Macpherson, or at least his epic poem, Ossian .
I sit in Messina/Macpherson’s study for a while, but I can’t for long resist moving to the installation, ‘Northroom’, a collaboration between artist Victoria Clare Bernie and Metis. The latter consists of work by Mark Dorrian and Adrian Hawker, who are based in the Architecture Department of Edinburgh University, as is Bernie. It was Metis who tipped me the wink that the Robert Adam designed tomb for David Hume—which is the inspiration for ‘Northroom’—has been open to the public recently because of a missing padlock. Accordingly, I’ve paid several visits to the exquisite stone monument in Edinburgh’s Calton Cemetery. You approach the cylindrical building, push open the wrought-iron gate and walk into the monument. The encircling walls push your gaze upwards and—whoosh!—out you rise into the universe, in the wake of the dead philosopher. It’s a sensational space. The interior has the serenity of a James Turrell installation, the focus being a perfect circle of sky above stone walls. But that’s the 1777 tomb itself. What about the contemporary art installation?
The roughly cylindrical walls are made of wooden slats, standing like whale’s ribs, which support 30-odd DVD players at various heights spread around the interior of the ‘cylinder’. Each video screen features a still or moving image of a detail from the outside of the Adam-designed building, or a close up of something natural—like an insect or a flower. There is definitely an outside-to-inside thing going on, as the soundtracks are of vehicles and birds which are sounds from the outside world that have been recorded from inside the monument. It’s the opposite of the whoosh effect you encounter when entering the Adam building itself. Everything from the universe is drawn back into this one place, where the conscious visitor stands. Alive, alive-oh.
From here there is a view through the sparsely studded walls to another installation. The artists Dalziel + Scullion have collaborated with Sutherland Hussey Architects, again based in Edinburgh, tomake ‘Latitude’. Several sequences of film have been shot in the city, whereby a camera rotates for 360 degrees, recording everything near and far that lies in a complete circle. The projector in the gallery is mounted on the opposite end of a pole from a panoramic screen, and this pole rotates slowly on top of a tripod. The angle of rotation is supposed to reference the latitude of Edinburgh on the globe, and the tilt of the pole relative to the vertical is intended to replicate the tilt of the earth as it rotates on its axis. Thus it’s meant to provide a super-objective view. But it’s not so easy to get away from a human perspective, as Hume himself was at pains to point out. ‘Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them,’ he famously said. As far as I’m concerned, it’s me that’s standing on Calton Hill, my head slowly turning from left to right to view the old town…slowly turning round to see the new town and the Firth of Forth… slowly turning round to clock a close up of rock… As the slow turn continues,I realise this particular loop must have been filmed from close to where Alexander Nasmyth stood while he painted ‘Edinburgh from the Calton Hill’. The eye is encouraged to sweep round just as slowly and comprehensively as it is forced to do in ‘Latitude’. The discreet centre-point of the painting is the Hume Monument, plumb in the middle of which I now stand, thanks to ‘Northroom’ and ‘Latitude’ both. I look back to where I entered the gallery. St Jerome’s study, which, because his name has come up so often throughout this whole Enlightenment experience, now simply has to be David Hume’s study. I turn my head to the right and focus on Nathan Coley’s words glowing green: WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN. It’s pretty obvious to me now that we have been cultivating our garden, that we are cultivating our garden and we will go on cultivating our garden. So, from where I’m standing, the imperative is superfluous. On the other hand, when Coley says ‘must’, what he really means is that we’d be mad not to. What a great view, the here and now.
Duncan McLaren is guest editor