The British Art Show 8, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.     
February 2016

This quinquennial survey show, originated by the Hayward Gallery in London, aims to present a snapshot of current artistic activity in the UK. This year’s event, which began in Leeds and tours to Norwich and Southampton, has been assembled by the London-based curators Lydia Yee and Anna Colin. Although there is clear and fair attempt to represent the constituent parts of the UK, there is an overwhelming emphasis on London. The criteria for selection by the British Art Show are broad – artists must come from, or be based in, the UK. Given the fluidity of real and virtual borders, and the increasing internationalisation of culture, one must ask the questions: is the BAS still relevant, and what is its purpose? Looking at the assembled work of forty-two artists across three venues, the issue of national identity remains problematic. If work made in Glasgow, New York, Reykjavik or Berlin is made with the same ‘non national’ reference points, is it worth having an event which is no longer defined by geographical, ethnic or stylistic borders? There are exceptions to this ‘non-identity’. Rachel Maclean, one of several Glasgow-based artists, creates accented, satirical video fictions offering a critique on game show celebrity culture and the sexualisation of society. It’s tempting, as with any show of this nature, to pick out themes, concerns, common media and technique. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies here is the popularity of textiles, ceramics and other substances such as stone, wax and metal as media – what the organisers term ‘materiality’. The irony rests in the fact that many British art colleges have only recently closed or redefined teaching departments that specialise in the use of such materials. What is disappointing is that the exponents of these media use them in a way which relegates the craft of their art to a secondary position. Aaron Angell’s ceramics, for example, seem merely clumsy rather than cleverly ironic. The same might be said of Jesse Wine’s wall-mounted tile paintings – their appeal comes from the very fact of the use of the materials and techniques, rather than honed and practised expertise. There are arresting, philosophically engaging and technically excellent works here. One is a room installation by Imogen Stidworthy, based on the work of Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Stidworthy worked with Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalya, who voiced sections from his novel The First Circle that are overplayed with film showing a reconstruction of speech analysis techniques used in Stalinist prisons. A loaf of bread, half eaten by Solzhenitsyn, just before his deportation to Germany in 1974, and later preserved in his archive, has been digitally imaged in 3-D.  The resultant imagery presents a haunting trace, or index, of the dissident’s actions and history. There are few subjects left untreated by artists and correspondingly few materials that have not been used to create art. This show demonstrates the breadth of this approach and how such experimental diversification does not necessarily always translate into successful, engaging artwork.