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Lucy Skaer, 'The Green Man' 2018. Part of The Green Man. Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge [gage], a token of the future. [1]

The collections of the University of Edinburgh are a wide-ranging archive filled with the dispersed authority of different specialisms, the culmination of hundreds of years of academic work and considered preservations. They are the result of—to a large extent—individualist and empirical practices developed during industrialisation and colonisation. Talbot Rice Gallery was once the University’s Natural History Museum, designed by William Henry Playfair in a neoclassical style that now evokes a form of conservatism.

Lucy Skaer ‘ The Green Man’ Exhibition View Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery2
Lucy Skaer, The Green Man, exhibition view courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

All of these matters are under consideration in Lucy Skaer’s The Green Man, which— according to the exhibition guide—explores the ‘irrationality’ of collections. The interventions and additions made—both felicitous and casual—work to deconstruct the collection’s politics, or more saliently use the objects within the collection to critique other forms of cultural hegemony. Throughout the exhibition selections from the Edinburgh collections are re-contextualised and mixed with Skaer’s work. These seek to rework the past in the present and provide a new political potential for the objects. This effort is aided and expanded by the addition of interventions and work of other artists, invited by Skaer to contribute. 

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Lucy Skaer, The Green Man, exhibition view courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

The exhibition begins with ‘La Chasse’, (2017) a sculptural work which takes Le Livre du Chasse, a medieval hunting book, as its starting point. Skaer’s work resembles a deconstructed board game where the counters are copper hares, arrows, terracotta tiles and stones. It evokes a detached and oppositional relationship between man and nature, while also creating an atmosphere of pathos around the creatures injured or in flight. ‘La Chasse’ is complimented by Hanneline Visnes’s sensitive paintings on board which depict animals or patterns derived from nature, and which appear as recovered fragments. 

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Lucy Skaer, 'La Chasse' 2015-18 (detail). Part of The Green Man. Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

Another work responding to historical imagery is Nashashibi/Skaer’s film, ‘Why are you angry?’, (2017). It depicts Tahitian women in various scenes—working, dancing, reclining—many of which play on or reference the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin. The jumps in location and cuts from black and white footage to colour prompts consideration of details of presentation, dress, pattern and movement. Often a still figure is under the gaze of a moving camera only for this to be inverted and the figure move and camera remain stationary. This has the effect of disrupting a settled gaze and lends the women agency, speaking back to Gauguin’s exoticising portrayal of them, while maintaining an aesthetic proximity to his paintings. 

Housed in Georgian Gallery is ‘Sticks and Stones’, (2013-15) which resembles Constantin Brancusi’s ‘Bench’(1914-16) taken through various material transformations. A mahogany log dropped into the Belize River (when Belize was still British Honduras) over a hundred years ago has been dredged up and remodelled by Skaer, and then copied in ceramic, marble, aluminium, ply, paper pulp and slate. History is examined through the elaboration of this object, subtly connecting each material to a process of import and export, to management of natural resources and development. This links environmental crisis to the histories of colonialism and capital, suggesting the necessity of recognising such imbrications. 

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Lucy Skaer, 'Sticks and Stones' 2015 (detail). Part of The Green Man. Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

Other pieces and selections continue the process of reworking, reframing and re-contextualising. In the Antechamber, the music, masculine energy and hot-bloodedness of hunting is evoked through archival inclusions: a note from James IV, a collection of horns from the Musical Instrument Collection (set high on the walls), document fragments, and small blood red sculptures by Skaer. Elsewhere, a book put together by Will Holder using dictation software (and therefore containing errors) of work by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), a 20th Century poet and novelist demonstrates another refashioning of the past in the present. Skaer’s drawings ‘The Green Man’, (2018) rework botanical pieces by Henry Bradbury to create strange faces and compositions from Bradbury’s ferns. These in particular bring Skaer’s project into some clarity, as an archive for a new humanity – with different practices and historical, environmental and social awareness. 

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Lucy Skaer, The Green Man, exhibition view courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery

In The Green Man Skaer moves between producer, arranger, selector and collaborator. Through the effort to deconstruct patriarchy and colonialism a compelling and necessary emphasis is placed on care for the nonhuman world and representing the cultural and emotional lives of women. Crucially, Skaer not only pulls objects from collections which demonstrate difference but also makes it clear that the site of the archive itself must change in order to emphasise and allow for this difference. To make a new pledge to the future, as it were. This is clearly stated in Skaer’s ‘New Rooms’, (2018) and also in Fiona Connor’s work, ‘All the doors in all the walls’, (2018), which has opened doors normally closed to the public in the Talbot Rice Gallery and installed others, implying new entrances and exits to the collections. 

While The Green Man implies the necessities of such changes, Skaer’s various manoeuvres can, at times, feel nebulous simply because her ideology floats around the selected objects rather than being gleaned from them. The remit of the show is open ended, responding not to the irrationality of the University of Edinburgh collections alone but to all collections. This expansiveness allows Skaer to display an array of interesting objects, works and practices. Although all the issues handled are of the utmost relevance, the use of historically muted objects to handle them adds a sense of remove to their urgency. The overall effect is one of dispersed meaning: expansions rather than consolidations. 

[1] Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995)

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Calum Sutherland is an artist living in Glasgow. His work and writing can be found on his website