The Enlightenments

  • The List
  • 21 August 2009

This article is from 2009.

The Enlightenments

Nathan Cole

Don’t expect worship of Enlightenment rationalism from the artistic crowd

A curious exhibition, The Enlightenments. As the extra ‘s’ suggests, it isn’t a homage to the art of the 18th century, and it doesn’t offer a single rational view of what ‘enlightenment’ might mean. The catalogue for this year’s International Festival visual art offering, curated by Juliana Engberg, promises ‘contemporary observations on subjects including religion, philosophy, superstition, architecture, literature, natural history, the cosmos, skepticism, stoicism and social manners’. There are nine exhibitors, three galleries and a Bluetooth-led walking tour of Edinburgh to get to grips with. It sounds a little like the world in a grain of sand.

With this in mind, it’s an exhibition to take slowly and one to pick and choose from. Joseph Kosuth’s installation at the Talbot Rice Gallery is perhaps a good starting point. Classic Kosuth neon brings Nietzschian aphorisms on art into dialogue with tree-diagram doodles from Darwin’s sketchbooks. Science without art, Nietsche wrote, would be utterly unbearable, demanding that science be envisioned ‘under the optics of the artist’. Kosuth puts philosophy, art and science under those optics, and illuminates strikingly the different ways in which individuals express their worldviews: through diagrams, through complex literary sentences, through neon collations of extracted thought. It’s a thought-provoking and historically engaged work.

The bulk of the exhibition is at the Dean Gallery, where the highlight is probably Nathan Coley’s ‘Beloved’ (). A clump of knobbled tree-trunks painted in weather-resistant green paint recalls the Enlightenment fondness for the faux-idyll, rusticity sweetened by the knowledge that the natural world is safely under human control. It’s a great exhibit for a neo-classical art museum.

Over at the Collective Gallery, Susan Norrie’s filmic concerns for the future of civilisation, though intriguing, offer less to engage with, while Juan Cruz’ succinct round-town Bluetooth nuggets will probably provoke mixed reactions; some will find his explorations of the internal conflict between rational and irrational self perceptive, others too reminiscent of the generic literary loser-hero to arouse a noticeable reaction.

See these Enlightenments for yourself, but bear in mind that these are profoundly artistic reactions to the cult of rationality, and where there’s a choice, they’ll almost certainly come down on the dark side of human nature.

The Enlightenments, Dean Gallery, 624 6200, until 27 Sep, free; Juan Cruz, until 26 Sep, free (please see for the Bluetooth locations); Susan Norrie, Collective Gallery, 220 1260, until 26 Sep (not Mon), free; Joseph Kosuth, Talbot Rice Gallery, 650 2210, until 26 Sep (not 31 Aug), free.

The Enlightenments

A collaboration between the National Galleries, the University of Edinburgh and the Collective Gallery exhibiting works by contemporary artists which put a modern spin on the ideals of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. Subjects including religion, superstition, philosophy, architecture, literature and the cosmos…

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