My path to the Gallery of Modern Art led me along the Water of Leith, where evidence of the surge on 30 December remains. Just to the west of Dean Village, a tree, ripped callously from the bank, lies disconsolately in the river, its dense, voluminous roots forming a dam across half of the width. As an accidental work of art, it demonstrates how fragile and powerful nature is. In time, the tree will be eased from its moorings and sent tumbling over the weir down into Dean Village, bemusing the instagramming tourists gathering there.
Along the river bank, the first signs of nature and growth are emerging. Snowdrops litter the banks in many places. The first shoots of wild garlic are evident, though its pungent aroma has yet to fill the still chilly air. I carried on across the bridge near the Britannia Hotel, now repaired after the middle section of its 'deck' was swept away in the surge.
Outside Modern 1, Charles Jenks' Landform
was receiving its first trim of the year, the smell of freshly mown grass another sign of spring approaching on the calendar, if not in the air. The pallid grass exposed by the blades of the mower indicates that vigorous growth is still to take place. Unlike the tree in the river, Landform
was designed and manmade. Inspired by nature, it is increasingly being further 'naturalised' by its environment. Its condition and colour reflects the seasons. At present, it shows signs of winter scarring, which will take till mid-spring to heal. Will this summer bring a discolouring drought or verdant growth?
Inside, the ground floor of the gallery is being readied for new exhibitions. The focus is on Conversations with the Collection
, which builds on exhibitions of previous years. It also features a number of works that are rarely seen by the public. The recent report that millions of museum artefacts are 'gathering dust' shows how much fantastic material spends its time in storage in such cultural institutions. Conversations with the Collection
brings some artworks out into the open.
The varied and rich exhibition is almost too much to absorb in one viewing. Though broken up into loose thematic sections, you are sometimes besieged by what you encounter in every room. The juxtapositions are arousing; the unexpected connections intriguing. The audio commentary on each room is worth accessing to help you navigate. I needed to sit and absorb the exhibition afterwards. Images (such as Sarah Lucas' photos), objects (Mona Hatoum's deeply menacing Slicer
) and ideas were rattling through my brain as I sat.
I found a quiet spot in Art Space 2, away from the collection. Art Space 2 follows previous efforts to carve out places of reflection in the gallery, such as the Resources Room that existed pre-Covid. All exhibitions provoke and inspire. This, with its sheer multiplicity, did more than most. The room itself also caused me to reflect. The space is focused on youth engagement. Its primary function is as a place for families to paint, draw and create. On a table nearby, a mother and young son sat. Both were sketching enthusiastically but in time it was the mother who retained focus, trying to continue as her son explored the room mischievously.
A video promotes the Your Art World
project, seeking to encourage under-18s to engage with art and to experiment. Art materials are laid on and the video outlines ways to find inspiration. This is surely a laudable idea. But it can create the impression that art is something that should be enjoyed by the young and then practiced by those with a clear artistic aptitude. Generally, the wider public is seen as having a more passive relationship with art; visiting exhibitions, reading, appreciating. Such a divide is surely unhealthy.
The power of art has been demonstrated through art therapy by organisations such as the Teapot Trust. But should it not be seen as something everyone should be encouraged to actively engage in? Should art be restricted to those deemed to need it or those who are professionally involved with it? As I sat in Art Space 2, I found myself annotating my scribbling with some very poor 'sketches'. Like many, I wish I'd done more to overcome a childhood sense that I couldn't draw and had no artistic capacity.
The idea that 'everyone is an artist' was expressed by Joseph Beuys. A stark poster of his 7,000 Eichen
(7,000 Oak Trees
) project is one of the most eye-catching in the exhibition. A manifestation of Beuys' idea of 'social sculpture, of art's potential to challenge and transform society'. It's one of the key features of the Creative Terrains
segment which focuses on the relationship between humans and the natural world.
The original 1982 project centred on a plan to plant 7,000 oaks throughout the city of Kassel, pairing each with a piece of basalt. He chose the oak because of its longevity and because the tree 'has always been a form of sculpture'. As each tree was planted, the pile of stones diminished. A living, growing object replacing an unchanging 'crystalline mass'. The project sought to illustrate the excesses of urbanisation and sought to help alter the living space of Kassel.
What it helps reveal is that art is not a luxury, but a key aspect of society. In many cases, the artistic imagination engages with themes which most have not even identified, let alone explored. Artists as social pioneers in some sense, testing the boundaries. Beuys was a pioneering environmentalist and a key figure in the formation of the German Green Party. His themes of the 1970s and 1980s are now thoroughly mainstream. His political and artistic visions were fused, not compartmentalised.
As an illustration of the way that Beuys' 'avant garde' work has entered the mainstream, I received a notification about 'free trees' being offered at Inverleith Park. It's part of a 'million tree city' project, involving Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust and The Woodland Trust, which seeks to further enhance Edinburgh's greenness. I'm sure that Beuys would approve of such 'participatory' activity and the way it causes us to look beyond our own lives. As he put it, 'once the tree grows tall, the planter will be long gone'.
Seeing the artistic potential in 'found everyday items' and things we might well chuck away is one theme of the exhibition. For example, Beuys' use of a paint colour chart in his work Runrig
. Art as a manifestation of an ethic of recycling is also evident in Paul Neagu's creations. His new category of sculpture of 'palpable and tactile objects' was formed from waste materials, including discarded matchboxes. These were moulded into strange, imaginary architectural structures. In one of the sculptures in the exhibition, he used mashed up newspapers from Edinburgh newspaper titles. These works were clearly completed during his time in the city.
The NLS recently started its annual appeal for donations to assist with preserving their massive newspaper archive which remains a valuable resource for researchers. Old newspapers are not just a way for us to access the past. Neagu provides another way to draw meaning from these ephemeral, 'transient' materials.
There are clear parallels with the mysterious paper sculptures left covertly at libraries and other cultural institutions around Edinburgh in 2011. One of them remains in the stairwell of the Central Library and causes me to pause every time I pass it. I think of the words of the anonymous sculptor, that the pieces represented 'a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums'.
This idea of recycling and reusing is clearly evident in the exhibition. As is bringing together artworks in new combinations and seeing what emerges. It also shows that art can reveal to us aspects of society not yet appreciated. On the way back, I again contemplated the emerging shoots of wild garlic, thinking of the rich pesto I'll make from it when the time comes. Its potential is clear. What else of concealed potential do we pass by as we wander through life?
Conversations with the Collection
continues at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One).
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics