Stone arches hold no human heat. Though a fire is slowly flickering, it is hard to imagine this space ever being warm. Outside, a line of fog sits heavily on the grass. Deer glance at the camera for a second or two before they turn and canter.
Steps hollow out an empty house. The echoes give an idea of the size of the place, and its solitude. We see the owners in their absence, in the smooth running of their household affairs from afar. Here is the arc of their lifespan, from childhoods in papered rooms, with ancient rocking horses and exotic birds, idealised either as textile motifs or as taxidermies, trapped in a glass bubble, mid-flight towards the generations to come. Objects that we can imagine being displayed in the Museum of Intergenerational Wealth, as The Simpsons put it. However, it is not only the materiality, it is also the procedures that live on, visible through time the way a distant star has long ago ceased to burn.
A panel of glass-encased butterflies is placed before the fireplace. It is summer, and the fire may not be lit for a while. Still, we need the flickering.
The workers conduct their task without the owners’ intervention. We see them over and over handle the artworks with expert care and at an effortless pace that is neither fast nor slow but exists in a time all of its own. Paintings are unfastened from their chains and light fixtures, leaving a blank space on a wall otherwise busy with displays of wealth and nobility. Without words but with repetition, creating a many-layered, baroque kind of accumulation and the rhythm, symmetry and movements of an 18th century dance, Bloodlines asks whether the world—or rather, the way in which wealth is held—is any different now than in 1770.
Again and again, the black box stands monolithically before us, waiting to take away the things with which the owners have surrounded themselves. “The horrid objects that will survive us,” as the Italian writer Michele Mari writes in Tutto il ferro della Torre Eiffel, a novel in which Walter Benjamin is reimagined as an endearingly naïve flâneur/collectionist who compulsively buys overpriced relics sold by shady characters in his search for aura in the age of mechanical reproduction.
The black foam padding inside the box reminds of the soundproofing material used on music studio walls to isolate soundwaves and make them brighter and clearer in the artifice of recording. Lending a certain immateriality, the foam allows for transport outside of time, devoid of unnecessary echoes. But the “black box” theory of energy transfer rarely works outside a purely theoretical realm. Foregrounding the black box helps us see ask what happens through movement, when context is removed. Does art continue to exist when not looked at through a mirror, from behind chandeliers, on museum walls or among oriental follies and ponds?
Hanging in the echoes, I think of the workers’ hands, their tattoos, the care with which they do their craft.
The tattoo of a Mexican skull is an incongruous memento mori within the stuffy, sheet-covered grandeur. It is as if nothing else in Bloodlines is aware it may one day come to pass, regardless of the textiles that are already fraying here and there. Not even when the paintings are pulled out of museum storage shelves, wrapped in thick translucent plastic, as though in a morgue, do they acquire any kind of mortality. The pets themselves, but not their portraits, are allowed a final resting place, with their own dedicated cemetery.
We hear a dog panting in the unnatural way pedigree dogs do, as it trundles down a corridor. The only living, breathing beings portrayed within the houses are workers and dogs. Mirroring Stubbs’s paintings, Bloodlines is more interested in portraying them than the aristocrats. Except for a young woman, perhaps some sort of influencer, seen having her portrait taken by a photographer, who instructs her to look strong in her designer dress and unnatural pose, mounted on a horse that stands stationary within the splendour of a stone-arched hall, beside a footman in traditional uniform. However absurd the scene, it allows us to imagine those who would have posed for Stubbs as no different.
George Stubbs was considered a mere sporting artist, secondary to all the great artists of his time. Because he was self-trained, and his main subject of interest was animals, he did not reach the towering status of his contemporaries—at least not for a couple of centuries. Depicting horses in movement with that level of precision, many decades before the advent of photography, required a lifetime of studies in anatomy. Not only did he spend his childhood tanning horse hides with his father, but, like a monk, he spent 18 months of seclusion in a house he rented in Yorkshire for the purpose of dissecting horse cadavers in order to understand and draw each moving part of the animals’ bodies. This dogged obsession yielded its fruits, as the publication of his book The Anatomy of the Horse led to steady commissions from aristocrats for portraits of their most beloved dogs and horses. What the critics and academies believed not to be ‘true art’, the aristocrats valued regardless: Stubbs’ portraits of their companion species were not mere anatomical studies. We can see pathos and suffering, and humanity, in the eyes of Stubbs’s animals. We can see the relationships of both partnership and servitude between the animals and their owners, even when the latter are outside the frame.
In contrast to the deer and horses seen roaming free and flocks of birds flying over what look like idyllic wildlands, but which are in fact enclosures and inherited estates, the caged hounds are howling late at night. Into the van they go. In the pink morning, the horses are led into the same black box, the same as the horses on the paintings.
The red, white, taupe and black of the riders go well with the horses’ braids, which lend a suitably rococo air. The lines they run, with such quintessential Englishness, bring us the thrill of the hunt, the adrenaline of power, the native wilderness pushed out of the enclosure. The owners stand like sentinels. They use all the forces at their disposal, which have been in the family for generations. They honour the ancient practice of harnessing the power of the beast; they channel that energy along the line of a straight paved road.
Then, again, we return to peacefulness encased in stone, and to a huge, unlit fire. Where does one go for warmth in this house? To our companion animals of course. These were the Duke’s favourites.
Juana Adcock is a Mexican poet, translator and editor based in Scotland. She is the author of Manca (Tierra Adentro, 2014), and Split (Blue Diode, 2019), which was a Poetry Book Society Choice and was included in the Guardian’s Best Poetry of 2019. She is co-editor of the anthology of poetry by Latin American women Temporary Archives (Arc Publications, forthcoming 2022), and is currently translating the Mè’phàà poet Hubert Matiúwàa’s The Dogs Dreamt (Flipped Eye, forthcoming 2023) and Laura Wittner’s Translation of the Route (Poetry Translation Centre, forthcoming 2023). Her most recent publication is Vestigial (Stewed Rhubarb, 2022), a suite of poems responding to the work of Alasdair Gray.
Amie Siegel, Bloodlines, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 12 Mar-04 Sept 2022
Amie Siegel (Chicago, 1974) works variously with film, video, photography, sculpture, painting and installation. Recent solo exhibitions include Medium Cool, Blaffer Art Museum, Houston (2019); In Focus: Amie Siegel – Provenance, Tate St. Ives (2018); Winter, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2017); Strata, South London Gallery (2017); Double Negative, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich (2016); Ricochet, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (2016, 2011); Imitation of Life, Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin (2016). Siegel has participated in numerous group exhibitions including at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux; Museum of Contemporary Art, Manila; Witte de With, Rottderdam; Swiss Institute, NY; Vancouver Art Gallery; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; CCA Wattis, San Francisco; ICA, Boston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; MoMA/PS1, New York; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Hayward Gallery, London; Aspen Art Museum, CO; CA2M Centro de Arte 2 de Mayo, Madrid. Her work has been featured in the 34th São Paulo Bienal, 12th Gwangju Biennial; Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh; Glasgow International, Scotland; 5th Auckland Triennial, New Zealand; and the Whitney Biennial. Her films have screened at the Rottderdam, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes and New York international film festivals. Siegel has been a fellow of the DAAD Berliner-Künstlerprogramm and Guggenheim Foundation, a Fulton Fellow at The Film Study Center at Harvard University, and a Smithsonian Artist Fellow. Bloodlines (2022) is currently on display at the Scottish National Museum Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, through September 4. The Silence, a solo exhibition of the artist at ArkDes, the Swedish Center for Architecture & Design, Stockholm, runs through October 2022.
Tender a response probes and parses the reciprocities that can be found, cultivated and rendered between art and writing—what art may lend to language and what happens when language leans into art. It is led by reviews editor-in-residence Sara O’Brien.