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.