Situated in Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery, The Recent brings together thirteen artists from across the globe in a contemplative look at our Earth, its deep past, and what we have done to affect its inevitable future. Set against a backdrop of Scottish-born geologist Charles Lyell’s personal notebooks and rain print samples, and in the context of our current climate crisis, the pieces encourage us to develop a sense of ‘deep time’ by looking at the Earth’s past in order to work towards something which can survive once we’re gone.
Do we share a common flesh with all other inhabitants of this planet, simply by sharing the same earth? Artists such as Angelica Mesiti and Eglė Budvytytė look towards a future in which humans develop a symbiotic relationship with other species, as individualism dooms us to extinction. Mesiti’s Future Perfect Continuous records a group of young adults playing a children’s clapping game designed to mimic a rain storm. The group display an uncanny connectivity with one another and become entwined with these life forces of the rain and the sky in an instinctual, co-dependant manner. One almost feels the urge to join in, as if pulled by the elemental force of a storm.
Budvytyte also utilises the medium of film in Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars. She manages to portray an extension of human life that simultaneously resembles our distant past and our deep future. Her players act not as humans but as projections of inter-species beings. Dressed in remnants of modern clothing, they mimic newborn turtles finding their way back to the sea, later interacting in a lake as if going back to where life began. We witness an imagined evolution through de-evolution where the boundary between animal and plant is blurred. Through this, Budvytytė poses the frightening question of what future life for the human race might look like, and whether this future is only possible through fostering inter-species connectivity as opposed to exploitation of the ‘other’.
The exhibition familiarises visitors with the term ‘Anthropocene’, meaning our current epoch, classified by the significant and irreversible impact that human activity has had on the Earth. ‘The Recent’ is one of Charles Lyell’s own terms, used to describe the geological epoch that preceded him. Its use today brings about questions as to what it really means, considering our own time on Earth is a mere blink of an eye in comparison to the lifespan of the planet. Katie Paterson uses scent to portray the impact we have had in this short period of time in one of two pieces she displays; To Burn, Forest, Fire. Here, the ‘first’ and ‘last’ forests are memorialised in incense, specially crafted to include notes of algae, sea water, lichen, and decaying vegetation. Each time a major forest fire takes place anywhere in the world, an incense ceremony is held within the gallery, enlightening viewers to the depletion of our natural landscapes in real time.
Regina de Miguel’s work also illustrates the destruction of the environment as she presents us with twenty-five individual paintings featuring the South Pacific islands, which are constantly under threat of submersion by rising sea levels. Just one metre of sea level rise could swallow up some of these islands, which are home to millions of people. De Miguel brings a solemn note of acceptance to the collection, rather than one of hope. The islands are almost pinned like butterflies behind glass in the university’s former Natural History museum, becoming relics of what used to be, as we sit back and watch them drown.
The showcase takes several attempts at making visitors feel the insignificance of the human race in comparison to the immense vastness of the Earth’s natural features. Otobong Nkanga’s tapestry piece looms over viewers and submerges us in an underwater scene. With the use of both natural and manufactured fibres, she weaves glistening trails of coral and hair-like seaweed around almost mechanical-looking human limbs. Due to the sheer size of the piece, the decaying body on the sea-floor is not immediately apparent, reversing the superiority we exert over life on earth. Death allows for life as coral grows on the person’s head, once the site of revered human intelligence, now sustaining a form of being that doesn’t even have a brain. The sea has swallowed up man, and everything man has made, and still the viewer longs to know what is illuminated outside the piece, a comment on the extractivist mentality of this longing.
Similarly, Nicholas Mangan captures particles of Zircon as they disintegrate and circle the air. When viewing the piece, the particles seem to fall onto our shadows, moving within and around us. The projection is easy to miss in the grand Georgian Gallery, but its simple composition encapsulates both a birth and a death, the beginning and the end of time. The principle does not need to be over-complicated but is simply shown: we are dust, and unto dust we shall return.
The Recent is available to view for free at the Talbot Rice Gallery, from 28th October 2023 till 17th February 2024. More information can be found here.
Dorothy Cross, ‘Stalactite‘, 2010. Single channel HD video with sound, 5 min 22 sec. Installation view. Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb