The cluster of galleries on Market and Cockburn Streets are, coincidentally, all showing work about exploring worlds, private, public and extraterrestrial.
At Fruitmarket, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned the gallery into a Wunderkammer of immersive installations, small but complete environments for visitors to explore. Some are simple, like the specially-commissioned new work The House of Books Has No Windows, a fairy-tale cottage made of tales. A cute, miniature incarnation of Borges’ Library of Babel, visitors are encouraged to enter the tiny house. Once inside the dark, claustrophobic Wendy house, the work makes use of the one sense that artists tend to ignore: smell. That dry, musty, mildewed scent of old paper and cloth is strong enough to catches in the back of the throat, prompting memories of opening a never-borrowed book from the library stacks, or rummaging for hours in second hand bookshops. After this simple, subtle piece, Opera for a Small Room is a bit of a shock. In a pitch black room, a plywood shed is packed to the gunnels with a vast record collection, various dusty turntables and vintage radios, and an array of speakers which blast a heady sound collage of field recordings, rock ‘n’ roll and opera, all overlaid with an unseen characters memories of lost love. Upstairs, things take a turn toward the spooky, with The Dark Pool, a haunted attic space, with strange clanking noises emanating from stacked boxes, disembodied voices conversing through metal horns, and quasi-medical apparatus gargling with water.
Around the corner at the Collective Gallery, artists and performers have gathered to explore outer space. The Golden Record project takes its name from the disc carried by the Voyager spacecraft, packed with sounds and images designed to represent life on Earth to any aliens who might happen upon it. The 116 images of earth included, compiled by astronomer Carl Sagan, have been reinterpreted by as many artists, inspired by the curious titles - Old Man with Beard and Glasses, Physical Unit Definitions, Underwater Scene with Diver - rather than the original images. In the second gallery, grouped around the Carpenters classic Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and intended to replace the Golden Record’s recorded greetings in 55 languages, is a series of very short films, most by comedians, offering advice and instructions to the little green men. Topics include a history of sex toys, a guide to hair removal techniques, and musings on the evil of mobile ‘phones. The result is like spending an hour drifting around YouTube, but genuinely entertaining.
At Stills, a return to private, interior space. Instead of an exhibition, the gallery is housing a library of nigh on 8,000 books and periodicals from the collection of New York artist and author Martha Rosler, which has been touring galleries since 2005. On one level, this is a new kind of self-portrait - there can be few things more personal, or more revealing than a collection of books - but, in Edinburgh in August, it also offers an oasis of calm and quiet learning, a welcome antidote to the festivals that surround it.
The Golden Record is at The Collective Gallery until 13 September, Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller are at Fruitmarket until 28 September and the Martha Rosler Library is at Stills until 9 November.
This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2008.