The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 11 Jan
‘Why has not man a microscopic eye? For the plain reason man is not a fly.’ The early 18th century poet Alexander Pope’s wrote that, perhaps in a moment of peevishness. Between Pope’s witticism and writer and critic William Hazlitt’s assertion that: ‘Art is the microscope of the mind’ – the link between microscopy and art was always a given.
The latest in the Fruitmarket’s series of group exhibitions attempts, largely successfully, to draw a line from William Henry Fox Talbot’s experiments in illusion through to the contiguous body art of Mona Hatoum, Kate Craig and, most mischievously, Wim Delvoye. It’s a journey that takes in avant-garde conceptual art and its contemporary offspring.
Starting with the ‘straight’ scientific stills and documentary films that inspired many of the artists represented here, the entry space brings the Virgilian joy of discovery of the late 19th century prints of flora and fauna by Lt Col JJ Woodward, Karl Blossfeldt, William Henry Olley and many more. Most crucial here are the natural history images of Jean Painlevé whose collected filmworks were restored by the BFI last year, Painlevé was, for the surrealists and Dadaists at least, by far the most influential of them all.
The big boys take over the second room. Man Ray is represented by his seminal 1923 film Le Retour à la raison and the rampant egoism of his Rayograph pictures. Brassaï is here with his Thimble and his Madrépores. Bunuel and Dali’s legendary Un Chien Andalou buckles up against Dora Maar’s uniquely disturbing Portrait d’Ubu. Two different kinds of modernity are represented in the side rooms. Stan Brakhage’s stunning four-minute short Mothlight (1963) blends natural forms (well moth wings), colour and movement to give off a light and life of its own; and Simon Starling’s tape slide Inventar-Nr. 8573 (Man Ray) 4m-400m (2006) uses microscopy to pay deep homage to Man Ray with mind-boggling effect.
Upstairs is given over to close up representations of the human body with work by Mel Bochner, Mike Kelley, and Carolee Schneemann bringing politics to this trajectory. But it’s in the films of the aforementioned Craig, Hatoum and Delvoye that this wonderful exhibition squares the circle. Their films are frequently repulsive but ingenious close-up studies of the human body in all its spawny filth and beauty. As through the eyepiece of the humble microscope, all nature is here.