Gannets exhibition review by Ian Stephen

Gannets / Na Suilairean

By Ian Stephan
2 Nov 2010 in Outer HebridesVisual Arts & Crafts

Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh, November 2010 (run ended)

JUST PAST the Grassmarket in Edinburgh as you take the incline by the second-hand bookshops and just before the dodgy dancing pubs you meet the clean architecture of ECA.

The rain is coming on but there’s a guy just standing relaxed looking through the wide window of The Tent Gallery in the art college building. He’s been drawn in by a video loop which is running constantly.

It’s a bit like eavesdropping on someone’s kitchen, but there’s no-one sitting at the wide rough table.  The life is on the walls. It’s a document of a visit and the foam of ferry spray gives way to the acheing broad sweep of Luskentyre sands and the savage blast of a hail shower sweeping on Callanish. The images are well-observed, though, not the stuff of travel brochures.

Foam of ferry spray by Christine MorrisonChristine Morrison captures ferry foam 

You can enter this tent space in college opening hours and get closer to the kitchen table, which is the main component of the exhibition na Suilerean (Gannets) which has just opened.

There is a plain white bowl with a dark liquid. You see mussels and also the remnants of a tea-bag which has helped imitate the shade of a rock pool. But this one is comprised of tea and whisky because, according to the maker, of the potion, Imbal Drue, “that’s all we seemed to drink while we were there”. So who’s “we”?

The artist Donald Urquhart has a strong link with the Hebrides and a long term relationship with an Lanntair. He teaches a masters course at ECA with an emphasis on going out into the environment outside the building or the city.

That’s what brought them for a short visit to Lewis. The range of backgrounds is wide – from Columbia to Israel and Jordan. There’s the USA and there is Taiwan and there is Perthshire and Boat of Garten.

I met the group of eleven, including Donald as tutor, in my capacity as a volunteer skipper for the sgoth Niseach an Sulaire. It’s not the first time this fine vessel has been used as an asset in an artists’ workshop. She featured strongly in the Triangle Trust workshop on Tanera Mor and her iconic lugsail, looking very dhow-like when reefed down, featured as a shape in many of the sketches and studies.

That shape occurs again in the projection and you can also catch references in the kitchen conversation which is going on as a loop in sound – an audio record of a scene  within the Heb Hostel. So we have an island town kitchen re-assembled in the city. This is a form of storytelling  by installation. Let’s look at more of the elements on the table.

Inbal Drue's image of students gathered around the tableInbal Drue’s image of students around the table 

A book is open but marked. It’s a bit like the family Bible but it’s not. It’s a dictionary, but there are interventions. These are deletions of all on the page except for two words and their definitions; isleand island.

Now speaking as a guy from Isle of Lewis, I can appreciate that the difference in the tone and connotations of these two forms suggests the beginning of another exploration. It’s an examination of how words steer the reader or listener to a way of seeing, and it’s also how they map the way seeing has been recorded in language.

It turns out that Laura Trujillo is fascinated by the philosophy of language, so this is her tool for examining the short experience of one island. The discussion reminded me of Clara Sassi’s paper on the notions of islands at a recent conference on the literature of Shetland. And there are echoes of More’s Utopia and Huxley’s Island. This is the stuff of kitchen table discussions.

There is a warm hat which encases a pack of seasickness tablets in a glass. There is a folder of stills of the progress of surf so it can be flipped into movement. A letterbox light box with a film of moving water. A bowl neatly transformed in an elegant tweed and lit with a moonshine rub. A folder of routes taken, but mapped by the wavering trace which is the record of a route recorded by gps mapping. A sheaf of e-mails which is another mapping of the progress of a trip from its conception through arrangements. And lines of tacks and strings map in a low-tech fashion.

Perhaps the mixture of low and high tech ways of recording data and emotion relates to the group’s visit to the Highland Institute of Contemporary Art. Speyside-commuter Christine Morrison gave an eloquent account of  tracking and mapping and a drawing made by coloured balloons on a gey dreich day.  These recent events are documented on the HICA website.

But the mapping on the tent wall shows the Ordnance Survey’s way of depicting Lewis and Harris. It is sided by electronic records of routes taken overland and on the water. As it happens, the elegant sweep of the GPS trace records the gybes and tacks of an Sulaire off Loch Erisort and her route between the Tavays, the Beg and the Mor, Isles or Islands. The students’ competent helming, like the sharpness of their responses, is well recorded.

Sinead Bracken's map imageSinead Bracken’s map image 

This is a provisional outing for the students’ record of their experience. It will be installed in an Lanntair ere long. Hopefully this will be a developing relationship between eca and a gallery on one Isle.

This exhibition will feature research undertaken by ASN 1 students on their first field trip to the Isles of Lewis and Harris, and will culminate in an exhibition at An Lanntair, Stornoway, in January 2011.

© Ian Stephen, 2010