Living in the Modern World (4 stars)

City Art Centre, Edinburgh, until Sun 4 Mar


The spaces we inhabit and the buildings that surround us shape much of modern life as we know it. This is the basic premise for this densely packed exhibition, which spills out over two floors of the City Art Centre. Yet there are some random and incongruous works popping up here and there which jar with this ambience. Callum Innes’ visceral, abstract ‘Exposed Painting’, 2001, for example, looks out of place, as does Moyna Flannigan’s ‘Happy Valley 1’, 2005, which depicts a beaming, aristocratic lady with a Dalmatian.

Yet, despite this incongruity, there are many powerful and apt artworks here. Jock McFayden’s ‘Great Junction Street’, 1998, is a huge oil painting of the shabby old Bingo Mecca in Leith on a glorious summer’s day, romanticising the local and capturing a bygone Edinburgh building. Similarly, Nathan Coley’s photographic print ‘Waiting on the Scottish Parliament’, 1999, captures Edinburgh before the parliament was built, the artist leaning nonchalantly against a wall at the end of the Royal Mile with mock boredom. Coley’s ‘Villa Savoye’, 1997, is similarly tongue in cheek. Here he juxtaposes a pre-recorded voice over describing Le Corbusier’s exclusive French Villa Savoye with seemingly endless slides of generic British houses and estates.

If Coley serves us an apocalyptic vision for today’s architecture, other works warn of things to come, like Will Duke’s absorbing short animated film ‘We Fashioned the City on Stolen Memories’, 2005. An aerial shot reveals grey, shabby high rise buildings as far as the eye can see, the buildings themselves then further multiplying by shooting up out of the ground with phenomenal force and power. Kate Gray’s, ‘Mission’, 2001, is similarly disturbing, a photograph, taken from behind, of two blonde girls in white vests and pants holding hands whilst gazing at Torness power station, which is backlit by a lightbox. The exact meaning is unclear, yet the unlikely combination of half dressed puritanical girls and mechanical power station creates an uneasy post doomsday atmosphere. This gritty industrialist mood prevails throughout much of the show, leaving us with a slightly cynical, less than optimistic vision of modern life.

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