Located in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town, the views from the upper floors of the City Art Centre, home of the city’s art collection, are breathtaking and iconic. From Princes Street Gardens and Waverley Station close by, to the monuments of Calton Hill, and the sweep out to the Firth of Forth and Fife beyond - the landscape of the city and country is vividly present. The dramatic topographical character of Edinburgh has exerted a fascination for generations of painters, and there is a wealth of art in the city’s collection that depicts Edinburgh’s evolution and development over the centuries. Embarking on an intensive period of collecting in 2003, enabled by the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland, the then curator at the City Art Centre, Ian O’Riordan, identified the contemporary exploration of our built environment as a continuation of the topography theme, and decided to define their curatorial focus as “Living In the Modern World.”
Living in the Modern World
In contrast to the City Art Centre’s vistas of spectacle and grandeur, most of their recent acquisitions turn towards bleaker prospects and the complex inheritance of modernism. We might shape our environment – the works seem to say - but we are also shaped by it. Many of the works dramatise the uncomfortable proximity between human and inhuman elements in our built environment, between utopian dreams and dystopian results.
It is striking that few of the works envisage the multitude – a sense of abandonment emphasises the impersonal character of the modern environment. The aerial view of Carol Rhodes’ unpeopled landscape, "Town", evokes distance and disconnection. Janice McNab’s photoreal painting of aeroplane seats, "Chairs 3", is unsettling – flashlit for the purposes of the photograph, they languish in a storeroom, obsolete but witness to a thousand sitters. In Will Duke’s computer-generated sequences, "We Fashioned the City on Stolen Memories", the buildings roar up from the ground like mechanised phantoms.
Playing with Modernism
Some works are not without humour, however - albeit ironical in tone. A documentary by Graham Fagen about an estate called "Nothank" in Ayrshire contains interviews contrasting the elevated intentions of architects and planners, with the living conditions of the residents. The artist has created an installation within which to view the programme – a nondescript office, another anonymous place of officialdom – and it takes some investigating to establish that the work is a fiction.
Aspirations of architectural idealism are also lampooned in Nathan Coley’s slide show, "Villa Savoie", which cunningly presents us with the uninspiring slide show of banal mass housing while a woman’s voice enthuses about Le Corbusier’s radical Villa Savoie in Poissy.
"Punching through the Clouds" was the visionary remark of another influential Modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe (1886-1969), expressing the soaring optimism of his groundbreaking skyscraper constructions, and intended to evoke the ideas of punching through the gloom to a brighter future. The text re-appears as emblematic words on a series of brass ventilation grills by Martin Boyce, installed at low levels around the gallery space. Overlooked, apparently functional, yet carrying a poetic message for those who notice them.
This is how we learn to walk on the moon
Joanna Billing’s "This is How We Learn to Walk on the Moon" also invites us to look beyond our everyday: a group of city-dwelling musicians learn to sail on the Firth of Forth, a body of water that lines the city, but is alien to most of its people.
Stepping outside one’s everyday is suggested again and again by many of the City’s acquisitions made by female artists. Rosalind Nashashibi, Rose Frain and Christine Borland all allude to environments of care – hospitals and clinics, where normal life is suspended.
"The Velocity of Drops" series by Christine Borland, consists of photographs of watermelons lying fallen and broken around Mount Stuart House. They are a spectral reminder of its history as a makeshift clinic in wartime. A catastrophic event is suggested, but in recollection. Similarly, in "Humaniora", Nashashibi films the entrances of two hospitals (one Victorian, and one post-war) - visitors, patients and staff come and go, the camera observes, and a new day gradually dawns.
For the project "Strangers to Ourselves", Rose Frain was invited to work with East Sussex Hospital Trust to make a work referencing the contribution of migrant workers in the NHS. The (hoped for) culmination of migration for the asylum seeker is a sanctuary, a place of refuge and shelter. The lightbox diptychs and associated dvd "The Folding Room" show the piles of emerald green sheets used in a hospital. Folding them is a continuously repetitive process that is undertaken with great care and attention. Despite the contemplative rhythmic beauty of the action, the work draws attention to the fact that such basic tasks - essential for the continuous operation of any hospital - are often undertaken by migrant workers.
The works acquired through NCSS are only part of the story. The Jean F Watson Bequest was established in 1962 and has enabled the City to buy works by artists of national standing that are based in Scotland and particularly around Edinburgh, such as Louise Hopkins, Moyna Flannigan, Callum Innes, and Charles Avery.