Features / Art

Typography, Tom of Finland and the technological sublime in the British Art Show 8

As I sit in a reproduction of Marcel Breur’s modernist Wassily chair a giant teddy bear with stuffing spilling out of its stomach moves slowly by. A pair of taxidermy pigeons soon follow, as plinth after plinth of absurd or banal objects move around a circular conveyor belt, only visible one at a time through a one metre window in the wall. The feeling is one of overwhelming calm, interrupted only by moments of bemusement or confusion.

Next to me, an accompanying book includes descriptions and anecdotes attached to each of these 32 objects. A troupe of Playmobil figures – “a selection of hybrid, mutant characters made by the artist and his children” – for example, are attached to the artist’s memory of a fancy dress party. This is Ryan Gander at his finest.

Fieldwork, as the installation is known, is drawn from a personal collection of objects Ryan has amassed as the result of his compulsive collecting. It’s a thoroughly original, strangely beautiful work of storytelling, and a standout at the sprawling British Art Show 8, which is currently exhibiting across three venues in Edinburgh.

Now in its eighth edition, the British Art Show is a survey of some of the most influential and current art in the UK and continues to reflect trends in art, as well as the growing number of artists who qualify as British. This year throws up questions about the closing gap between the real and the virtual worlds we live in, and by extension where that leaves material culture.

The exhibition identity and its bespoke typeface have been designed by none other than Fraser Muggeridge.


Will Holder: Our Values Make Us Different (detail). Photo by Jonty Wilde.

Opening the show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, German-born, London-based artist Andrea Büttner has paired the world of modern philosophy with online image libraries for 11 offset prints. Critique of the Power of Judgement, named after Immanuel Kant’s philosophical work of the same name, draws on the philosopher’s personal library, as well as Wikimedia and Flickr to represent images referred to by his writings on aesthetics. Her work sets the tone for much of the work on display at BAS8’s other two Edinburgh venues, Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery.

Of the 42 artists exhibiting in BAS8, a surprising number also involve text-based art or works with a strong typographic element. Typographer Will Holder has produced hand-drawn wall text and a number of short texts by American poet Susan Howe are dotted throughout the three exhibition venues. Just as Howe had originally appropriated her poems from display case labels at a memorial museum in Salt Lake City, Holder has worked with staff from from BAS8’s tour venues and created small, text-based works drawing on pieces in their collections by female artists.

Another text-based piece is Glasgow-based artist Charlotte Prodger’s multi-monitor video installation at Inverleith House, which continues her tradition of putting together narrative fragments, whether from found text, personal emails or internet forums. Northern Dancer looks at the naming of racehorses by combining the names of the foal’s parents. The piece sees names flash across four screens at varying points, while an accompanying voiceover describes modernist writer Gertrude Stein who, scorned by her former lover May Bookstaver, bitterly and painstakingly removed all incidences of the word “may” from one of her manuscripts.

“Too ephemeral” was how one gallery-goer described it, but as “Sudden Impulse” and “Sweet Embrace” flicker across the screens in bold, white type, one is unable to shake off the doggedness of Stein replacing every “may” with “can”. It’s worth bearing in mind this was long before the replace all function on Microsoft Word.


Benedict Drew: Sequencer. Photo by Chris Park

Downstairs in the basement of Inverleith House is Patrick Staff’s film The Foundation, the result of his time spent at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. Exploring the community dedicated to the life and work of the artist and illustrator best known for his homoerotic drawings, the film combines documentary footage, interviews and experimental dance. The objective, Staff explains, was not to make a film about “that place, the people or Tom himself”, but “something made with all of them.” It’s a slightly jarring inclusion in some ways, but a worthy one that transplants a queer presence from LA to BAS8.

As a survey show, there is no overarching narrative in BAS8, no build. It has been curated as such that each show in its three Edinburgh venues can stand alone as exhibitions, but the ideas the show explores around materiality, objects and communication are really nothing more than the perennial questions in art. Other works include those by Linder, Broomberg & Chanarin, Cally Spooner and Jesse Wine.

Standing in stark contrast to the meditative lull of Ryan Gander’s Fieldwork inventory, Benedict Drew’s chaotic audiovisual work Sequencer fills Talbot Rice Gallery’s entire Georgian Gallery. From reconstituted foam wrapped around neoclassical columns to video triptychs, its pyschedlic assault on the senses is most deliberately offset by the installation’s perfect symmetry, which echoes the orderly architecture of the gallery. In between multiple projections one can stand in the middle of three screens, each showing a stream of air being blown into paint, while headphones pick up sound from a pair of plastic ears on the other side of the gallery.

Here the postmodern meets the primordial, and as the installation delves into the way technology mediates our relationship to the natural world, it calls to mind an idea of the technological sublime, bringing us full circle back to Kant, who characterised the sublime as that which is both terrifying and beautiful.

British Art Show 8 is on across Edinburgh until 8 May before opening in Norwich in June, and in Southampton in October.


Ryan Gander: Fieldwork. Photo by Chris Park