Body Bags: Simonides

September 2011

Publication: The Times

As visitors enter one of Edinburgh College of Art’s north-facing painting studios – with the Castle as its dark, craggy backdrop – they are met by a mildly shocking sight: four body-bags laid out neatly on the floor, on a carpet of sand.

 

It’s usually an emotionally jolting  experience to confront in reality what one normally experiences as a removed and mediated image, whether on television or in newspapers. Here, the bags, with their efficient design of perimeter zip and plastic wallets at head and toe, are sombre reminders of many conflict zones. The epitaph which accompanies them, an elegiac couplet translated from the Greek into Scots by the poet Robert Crawford, reads: “Ootlin, tell oor maisters this: / We lig here deid. We did as we were telt.”

(Stranger, tell our masters this: We lie here dead. We did as we were told)

 

It’s a stark phrase, intensified by Crawford’s iambic pentameter, which catches the rhythms and cadences of the language most people in Scotland still recognise, or speak. Despite its contemporary tone, it was written by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the 6th century BC during the Greco-Persian wars. These particular lines refer to the Spartan war dead at Thermopylae after their defeat by the Persian army. Although it’s nothing new to draw parallels between past and present events, the torrent of imagery from Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya, make the imagery more urgent and potent.

 

Crawford has collaborated with the photographer Norman McBeath and there’s a wonderfully tangential relationship between word and image so that unusual associations are created by mere juxtapositions. A series of bottles tucked into the pigeon-holes of a dovecot is set alongside ‘Bonnie Fechters’: “Wha gied yir youthheid aince, fir yir cauf kintra…”; while an iron trough for feeding livestock has the lines: “Frien, this is nae grand laird’s mausoleum. / A puir man needs nae big lair. This’ll dae”

 

Sometimes, the relationship between the photographs, and the antique casts amongst which they are set, sets up some odd but moving associations. The picture which accompanies ‘Cairn’ – “Here the mool smuirs Pythonax an his brither…” consists of two ancient standing stones; while in the room itself, the cast heads of two horses, much changed through time and wear, eerily echo the forms of the giant boulders.

 

This is a gentle but powerful combination of word and image. Augmented by the hauntingly beautiful presence of vases of lilies – and the college’s long-undervalued but thankfully restored collection of casts of classical statuary – it makes for a deeply contemplative and rather humbling experience.