The Great Divide

June 2002

Publication: The Sunday Herald

The Great Divide


The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh


This show takes as its central idea, implied in its title, that there exists an ever widening gulf between humanity and nature.  'The Great Divide' is also the title of a photograph by Graeme Murray - curator of the exhibition and director of the Fruitmarket Gallery - showing seven men on horseback against a Rocky Mountain backdrop.  So the metaphor is clear: the human species is separated from nature by a vast, insurmountable barrier.  The knowledge that the men shown in the photograph are, apparently, Texas oilmen serves to heighten our perception of this split. 




This type of analysis is fine, as far as it goes, but is also subject to a number of deep philosophical flaws because we as human beings are also part of nature and our acts however reprehensible, ecologically destructive or wantonly exploitative are also, however way we look at them, part of some kind of  'natural' order.  Indeed, the idea of 'nature' is never really explained or fully explored here, leaving a potential audience to bring and, mostly, take away preconceived and often conflicting definitions.




Having said that, the show is highly ambitious in its scope and in the sheer number of exhibits and the diversity of the work  its brings together.  The work of  fourteen photographers, sculptures, potters, cabinetmakers and organisations is complemented by  fourteen feature and documentary films, as well as a number of DVD projections. 




Taken on a individual basis, almost every exhibit has a high degree of merit either in terms of craftsmanship or conception.  One example of many is Andy Goldsworthy's Borderline response to the last year's foot and mouth crisis, seen from the perspective of the artist's Dumfriesshire home.  A corner of the gallery is given over to a thick coating of roughly combed sheep's wool which has been singed along the outer edge: it's a chilling but moving testament to the many wrecked lives and livelihoods which resulted from that particular tragedy.




Although all the artists and makers represented here are, in one sense or another, attempting to link the perceived gap between themselves and the natural world, Nigel Bridges, in particular, has achieved an unusual resolution of this dichotomy.  Bridges is a rare combination: an installation artist, sculptor and cabinetmaker and his piece 'Hebrides - Lighthouses - Literature - Shelves' somehow brings these disparate elements together.  The work is really what it is says it is: beautifully crafted elm, ash and yew shelving with bone inlay, decorated with hand-turned wooden bowls of Californian redwood and oak.  Significantly, the literature of the title is sparsely represented by two carefully chosen texts: Bella Bathurst's 'The Lighthouse Stevensons' and R. L. Stevenson's 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.  And although the theme of the split nature of the Scottish psyche is too well-worn, the ideas of art and science, engineering and imagination are nicely hinted at.



The diversity of this show and the lack of any real and solid tangible theme is both stimulating but highly frustrating.  The effect is rather like dipping into a huge anthology of collected writing but without the help of either an index or a page of contents.  The result is an experience which is neither fish nor fowl and the resulting tensions between the differing media and intents are as often conflicting as they are creative.