by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Close-Up at Fruitmarket

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The first piece in the show at Edinburgh’s Fruit­mar­ket Gallery, Close-Up, looks like an il­lu­min­ated wall painting, an abstract made up of circles and dots. It is, though, not a work of art at all, but a lantern slide from the col­lec­tion of Victorian hor­t­i­c­ul­tur­al­ist and gardener Ellen Willmott showing the structure of Volvox globator, a type of algae.

Willmott’s slide serves as a manifesto in miniature for this ex­hib­i­tion. It trains its lens on the ex­per­i­ment­al mi­cro­pho­to­graphy of early nat­ur­al­ists, its adoption by educators seeking to inform art and design with natural patterns, the use of mag­n­i­fic­a­tion as a means of dis­or­i­ent­ing and dis­tur­b­ing audiences by Dadaists and Sur­real­ists, and their fas­cin­a­tion with the human body that endures in the work of con­tem­por­ary artists. It’s a warning, too, that things, when seen in close-up, are not what they seem.

The marriage of art and science, or the pos­s­ib­il­ity that art and science can be the same thing, is made explicit in the images taken from Laure Albin-Guillot’s 1931 book De­c­or­at­ive Mi­cro­graphy, where cross- sections of seeds and cells are rendered in layers of charcoal and metallic pigment, and in the plates culled from Karl Bloss­feldt’s Art Forms in Nature, which see budding twigs tran­s­formed into totemic sculp­tures and a seed pod meta­mor­ph­osed into a mosque’s minaret. Stan Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight, in which insects, leaves and twigs flash onscreen as abstract forms, is, in this context, an echo of William Henry Olley’s sci­en­ti­f­ic studies of a bee’s sting, a fly’s cornea and the scales of a butterfly’s wing.

The capacity of pho­to­graphy to reveal the obscure is taken up in the next room by the Sur­real­ists, in two senses: psy­cho­lo­gic­al and physical. I’m not sure if Man Ray’s pho­to­grams count as close-ups - they are made without a lens, by placing objects on pho­to­graph­ic paper and exposing it to light - but they are pseu­do­s­ci­en­ti­f­ic in­vest­ig­a­tions of objects, and, thanks to the Sur­real­ist strategy of jux­ta­pos­i­tion, reveal hidden meanings in everyday materials.

Stran­ge­ness is to the fore in Brassao’s “in­vol­un­tary sculp­tures”, made with Salvador Dali. Small things - smeared tooth­pas­te, rolled-up paper, a torn matchbox - are tran­s­formed by chance gestures in a sort of sculp­tur­al take on automatic writing, then tran­s­formed again by mag­n­i­fic­a­tion into mo­nu­ment­al works.

The power of the close-up to transform is applied re­peatedly to the body. Jaques-Andri Boiffard’s untitled pho­to­graph shows a pair of eyes peering, terrified and ter­ri­fy­ing, out from behind a dense tangle of hair, and his de­lib­er­ately un­pleas­ant portraits of ugly big toes il­lus­trate a George Bataille essay, captioned as medical specimens. In the infamous opening scene of Buquel’s Un chien andalou, a woman’s eye appears to be slit with a straight razor, ants scurry from a hole in a man’s hand, and, in a merger of nature pho­to­graphy and the Sur­real­ist’s body obsession, the camera lingers on a death’s head hawk moth. These, the most dis­tur­b­ing images, are shot in un­flinch­ing close-up.

Simon Starling is no Sur­real­ist, but he shares space with them here, and bridges the gap between the artists and the sci­ent­ists, the past and the present. His 2006 work Inventar-Nr 8573 (Man Ray) 4m-400nm is a slideshow which opens with a shot of Ray’s pho­to­graph Geo­lo­gic­al Fold, then re­lent­lessly refocuses, ending on images of cloud-like forms, the magnified molecular structure of silver gelatine used in the pho­to­graph­ic printing process.

Upstairs, things take a dramatic turn, away from the Sur­real­ists and toward the con­cep­tu­al artists of the 1970s. Where the avant garde of the 1920s and 1930s used the close-up to fetishise things, making them strange, mys­ter­i­ous or hor­ri­fy­ing, their des­cend­ants opt for pol­it­ic­ally-motivated de­mys­ti­fic­a­tion.

Giusseppe Penone’s Svolgere la propria pelle (To Display One’s Own Skin) is a pseu­do­s­ci­en­ti­f­ic survey of the artist’s own body; hundreds of pho­to­graphs that show Penone placing a mi­cro­s­cope slide over every square inch of his epidermis. Carolee Sch­nee­mann uses similar tactics, isolating and cata­lo­guing male and female body parts. These works are a reversal of Boiffard’s toes, in which a body part is shown in isolation to reveal its un­can­n­i­ness. Penone and Sch­nee­mann present multiple body parts to normalise them, ex­pli­citly rejecting the idea that par­t­ic­u­lar parts should be viewed with shame or disgust.

Kate Craig takes an even closer look at her own body in Delicate Issue. A camera, operated by Craig’s husband, skims over her body, set to the rhythm of the artist’s heartbeat and breathing. Craig’s aims are clear, but, just in case anyone misses the point, she in­ter­rupts the reverie with a voiceover that poses pointed questions, asking: “What is the dividing line between public and private?” While Delicate Issue must be placed in the context of the feminist, con­cep­tu­al art-making of the 1970s, the piece signals a return to the sur­real­ism of the body in close-up - folds of Craig’s skin look like desert land­s­capes, wrinkles offer abstract imagery - taken up by the con­tem­por­ary artists that follow, who add humour.

Mona Hatoum’s short film loop, projected on the gallery wall in a small circle, again turns the body into a landscape, a strange, shifting alien one. This time, the mes­mer­ising subject is scrotal skin, moving in response to changes in tem­per­at­ure. A private part made public, and made almost un­re­co­g­n­is­able in close-up, Hatoum’s piece has much in common with both the surreal images in the lower galleries and the pol­it­i­cised bodies that surround it.

Next, Wim Delvoye, who is best known for Cloaca, a bio­mech­an­ic­al digestion machine which ingests food and excretes the obvious, turns again to the body’s waste products in Sybille II. The film shows people squeezing black­heads on their noses in extreme close-up, to the sort of wishy-washy soun­dtrack­ used in nature doc­u­ment­ar­ies, re­in­for­cing the im­pres­sion that these towers of sebum oozing from pores are kin to strange sea creatures, or growing insect larvae.

I am not the squeamish type, but I left the screening room feeling decidedly queasy. It’s a reaction that would have made the Sur­real­ists proud, and Sybille indeed brings us full circle. Dali, the artist who haunts this ex­hib­i­tion, though he appears here only in col­l­ab­or­a­tion with Brassao and Buquel, wrote in the 1934 essay which inspired Delvoye that squeezed black­heads are “alien bodies in space”.

This sort of neat, light touch by curators Dawn Ades and Simon Baker is what makes Close-Up an en­or­m­ously sa­t­is­fy­ing show, and reveals their deep, broad un­der­stand­ing of the subject at hand, which is matched with a wil­l­ing­ness to let visitors draw their own con­clu­sions.

Coralling a century and a half of sci­en­ti­f­ic in­vest­ig­a­tion and avant-garde art, revealing sur­pris­ing con­nec­tions between very different movements in art history, and deftly crafting a narrative around an ap­par­ently simple artistic tactic, Ades and Baker have mounted one of the best shows seen at Fruit­mar­ket—or, for that matter, in Scotland—for years.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 31st October, 2008.