Joanna Kane: The Somnambulists
National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 6 Apr
This small exhibition features newly commissioned photographs by Joanna Kane of the collection of 19th century life and death masks currently on loan to the National Portrait Gallery. Using new digital techniques Kane’s photography reinvests the masks with the sense that they were once living, breathing objects. These large photographs render the subject’s skin delicate to the touch, as though they were taken from life rather than 200 year old deathbed masks. Selected for display are notable individuals, including the poets John Keats and William Blake as well as anonymous faces, such as an Unknown Sami boy whose likeness was taken for ethnographical study.
Only a few of the masks themselves are on display here alongside a brief explanation of their role in the pseudo-science of phrenology, of which Edinburgh was a leading centre. Shown in oddly shaped perspex tubular display cases the masks are morbidly fascinating, their dull clay exterior revealing their age with the intimation of archival dust. It is in this context that the transformative effect of Kane’s work is revealed. A brief look into the accompanying catalogue reveals a much larger range of photographs, and it is disappointing that more of these are not on show. Despite this, Kane’s work revisits a fascinating part of Edinburgh’s history, shedding silvery light on ‘science’ from our past.