On the Edge of the World

June 2010

Publication: The Times

Since opening last autumn the John Hope Gateway at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has had a good press; it's a multi-function 'eco' building which now serves as the main entrance to the world- famous garden. 


But it is a less than ideal venue for exhibiting art. A restaurant, retail area and conference rooms vie with each other for attention under a busy architecture which also hosts a new 'gallery' - but serious art demands the viewer's undivided attention and here, that's simply not possible.


This is all the more irksome because a good deal of the work in this British Council-originated show is of high quality – and much of it, like the complex issues and ideas it seeks to explore, is delicate, subtle and necessarily absorbing.


The exhibition deals with the fragility and interdependence of the world we share with other life forms; and it celebrates Charles Darwin's incomparable contribution to evolutionary biology following the bicentenary of his birth in 2009. Specimens collected by Darwin on the Beagle, (he was 22 when he embarked on the expedition), can be seen alongside numerous other bell-jarred items, culled from the Garden's stores. Some have never seen the light of day. 


However, you'd be hard pushed to connect these (physically or conceptually)  with other parts of the show as they're displayed separately and there's little information to guide the viewer. One judiciously chosen item, the poem 'Lavender Light in a Leap Year' by Ruth Padel does provide a link of sorts, conveying Darwin's sense of wonder:  “Botanical forms gyrate and pour/ through rivers of otherworld bark/ and a wrestling musculature of pure/ live wood...”


Many of the artists certainly have collecting and taxonomy uppermost in their minds. Christine Borland's series of plant drawings 'The History of Plants According to Women, Children and Student's' reverses the practice of crediting only botanical artists and others, but not colourists. Here Borland has employed a team of women from the botanical drawing class at the Garden to colour her work and has named only these as the authors. It's a somewhat strained point, to say the least, but it accords with Borland's previous practice of acknowledging the disenfranchised.


Alexander Hamilton has long been fascinated by natural history, especially plants, and here he turns to one of the earliest photographic processes, the cyanotype, to record his take on a bird's nest fern found on the island of Stroma in the Pentland firth. These images have been created by resting the plant on blue photosensitive paper and exposing it to light. The result is a delicate but strong, direct and detailed image. Hamilton has hit on a technique which gives him extended scope to explore his endless fascination while referencing the Victorian polymaths he so clearly admires.


Tania Kovats' drawings of battered books she took on a journey around South America in Darwin's footsteps (including a Penguin edition of 'The Voyage of the Beagle') are a testament to her humility.  Read in conjunction with her catalogue essay these drawings explain her real difficultly in attempting to depict the South American landscape in any conventional sense. 


If some of the work here is tiresome and pretentious (Simon Starling) or too ordered and cerebral (Alison Turnbull) most (including Dalziel + Scullion, Anya Gallacio and Michael Landy) reflects the beauty, wonder and diversity of the world it seeks to celebrate.