Northern City - Between Light and Dark (4 stars)

Light after the Enlightenment


Without a blueprint or plan in site, Alexander Kennedy looks at contemporary artists’ and designers’ dark visions of Edinburgh.

It’s easy to locate the source of the schizophrenic nature of Edinburgh - a city with a valley and a scarring train line running right through its heart. This rocky gully acts as a metaphorical and geographical boundary, a symbolic line barring the city from total knowledge of itself, an abyss where past and present, rich and poor, good and bad, the intellectual and the visceral are at a stand off, linked by bridges and a train station that has the means to take you far away from the conflict.

Northern City, expertly curated by Morag Bain, drags many of these issues to the fore, presenting a group of artists, designers and architects’ interpretations (not solutions) of these problems. This is not a didactical exhibition about city planning, urban renewal and the effects of architecture on society, per se, but a presentation of ways into these problems. We are given philosophically resonant installed objects, prints, and sculptures that relate to and bounce off the architecture of the city, putting a strong and unavoidable emphasis on its Golden Age past.

Gross. Max.’s dark installation takes Antonella da Messian’s painting of ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ as its starting point. The wooden construction acts as a plinth, a stage, a symbolic way of lifting yourself up from gravity’s pull and mundane reality so that purer, more serious thoughts can be considered. There are books, objects, photographs (Le Corbusier in his study) dotted about this wooden womb, there to stimulate and offer up inspiration. But the book at the front of the desk tells a different story. Historic prints of Edinburgh are digitally re-mastered and eaten into by our contemporary situation. A fox hunt shoots over ten lanes of traffic, wolves howl from vantage points in the city and all of Edinburgh, good and bad, comes out to play.

Nathan Coley’s ‘We Must Cultivate Our Garden’ lights the room with a pale electric sentiment. The words are written in a garish chartreuse hue, and throw stars of light and shadow around the walls; the project of Enlightenment is reduced to big fairy lights shining into the darkness. The sentence refers to Voltaire’s Candide, where the protagonist seeks self-realisation, to ‘Complete the Great Work’ before life ends him. We could be skeptical about this neo-humanist sentiment, or go and have a think about the nature of our own life and death, with a pint in hand. ‘Northroom’ by Metis: Mark Dorrian + Ian Hawker and Victoria Clare Bernie go directly to the tomb of one of the Scottish Enlightenments main players - David Hume. Robert Adam’s monument to the philosopher becomes an enclosing curtain of small digital screen with visual information taken from the site. Words, lines and signs sparkle in the darkness, but the world is upside down. The ‘sky’ looks up from the floor, like the reflection of the world in the bottom of a well.

Dalziel+Scullion’s scientific and technological apparatus spins and tilts at the back of the space; a long letter-box landscape screen shows images from around Edinburgh. You wait for the horizon to hit the centre of the image, so that everything in the world will be ok. But it’s not, and Edinburgh, with its illustrious past, fragmented present and unknown future tells us that.

Northern City - Between Light and Dark, The Lighthouse, Glasgow, until Wed 4 Apr 2007


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