What is Life? (4 stars)

This article is from 2008

What is Life?

Scottish sculptors take on biological investigation

Exploring a common interest in plants and scientific enquiry, Inverleith House curator Paul Nesbitt has drawn together works by Scottish sculptors Christine Borland, Graham Fagen and Simon Starling. In a bold and considered move, he’s chosen to eschew traditional gallery space and exhibit these sculptures in the dimly-lit Exhibition Hall, usually reserved for botanical displays. The strength of this exhibition lies not only in the ability of the artists to pull off a little garden-shed chic, but in their ability to investigate the question ‘what is life?’ as fully as any of their displaced scientific counterparts.

Starling’s exquisitely-carved African walnut canoe (pictured) conjures up images of early 20th century explorers going upstream to source specimens, and represents the tip of the Turner Prize-winner’s ongoing fascination with biological exploration. Fagen’s offering is a green neon scrawl, ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war’, the life-affirming phrase borrowed from WW1 chaplain Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton. While the humorous understatement of both these works elicits immediate pleasure, they also point to each artist’s interest in historical enquiry.

Similarly, knowledge of the genesis of Borland’s sculptures, a list of medicinal plants used during childbirth in 1502, adds greatly to our understanding of her forms – a set of leather dissection beds, their porcelain headrests scratched through with depictions of the remedies.

The unassuming setting functions to prolong interaction with these sculptures, which present artistic enquiry as engaged, participatory and imaginative. Cool, calculating reason has been tossed out with the white wash.

Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, 552 7171, until 31 Aug, free.

Edinburgh Art Festival

Scotland's largest annual celebration of visual art offers work by the best contemporary Scottish artists as well as exhibitions of the most important international artists and movements of the 20th century and other historical periods. This year, ten artists from previous Edinburgh Art Festival editions will present…

What is Life? Christine Borland, Graham Fagen, Simon Starling

  • 4 stars

Three Scottish sculptors are brought together by a common interest in plants and scientific enquiry. There's immediate pleasure to be had in the understated humour that particularly marks Fagen and Starling's work, but the longer-lasting value is to be found in the way all three approach artistic enquiry.