Nicky Bird & Art Walk Projects, Portobello

How much do we really know about our surroundings? Living in towns and cities, there are fragments of past lives and clues to how the environment has changed scattered all around us, if we look carefully. That careful looking, backed up by detailed research is how artist Nicky Bird is spending her LAND MARK residency with Art Walk Projects, based in Portobello. The starting points for her project are the two bottle kilns close to the shore (dated 1906 and 1909), the only fragments left of the large Buchan Pottery complex, which dominated the area close to the shore, but closed in the early 1970s.

One of the bottle kilns, an alien industrial fragment adrift in a sea of new builds

Portobello is a seaside town between Leith and Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh city centre. It’s a beautiful walk along the promenade, more a place of leisure than of work, but until relatively recently it was an important industrial hub – there was a paper mill and a chocolate factory all within easy reach of the Pottery.

Today a small group, led by Bird, helped to revive a memory of that recent industrial past, through a walk event which told the decorators’ stories. These were the women who painted the ceramics before they were fired in they kiln, who occasionally raked through the spoils to try out their own designs and have them fired on the sly. Like a band of investigators searching for clues we walked around the area and examined maps from different phases of the area’s history.

Classic Buchan Portobello pottery, set against the backdrop of the beautiful kiln bricks

We also looked at examples of the pottery the women had decorated, and two fellow participants told me they recognised the design – it used to be sold in all the tourist shops in the 1970s, but they had never realised it had been made in Portobello itself. It felt good to participate in reviving that part of the town’s story, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for pieces of Buchan pottery in Edinburgh’s shops from now on. Even the most everyday objects can be brought to life through giving a voice to their past, which is why art projects like this one, which evoke memories that have been lost, are so important, especially for communities that have changed as much as Portobello.

Nicky Bird’s residency with Art Walk Projects is culminating with an event in February, so this walk was really a launch for her project. The completed work promises to be one that shakes off the dust that has settled on Portobello’s recent history, and I’ll look forward to seeing what else is revealed.

Senga Nengudi, Fruitmarket Gallery

Walking into the Senga Nengudi exhibition at Fruitmarket Gallery, I was struck again by how weird art is. Immediately visible were two pieces that looked so utterly different, you would never think they were by the same artist. One was a large section of the gallery floor covered in sand, with what looked like little mole hills spattered with colour. The other was like three giant ice pops that had melted in their plastic sheaths, with bubbles that had formed where the garish colours met the surface of the clear plastic. This work was wholly artificial where the other was primarily natural. My first urge was to reach out and touch these kitsch water features, to poke the plastic and watch the bubbles move and see the tube take a different shape. However, being a natural rule-abider, I didn’t. Didn’t want to be told off.

I often feel that by being a postgrad History of Art student, I ought to know what’s happening with ALL artworks. What are they about? Could I explain them to someone else, who maybe wasn’t as keen on art as I am? But at this stage of the exhibition, I was quite lost and I couldn’t really get my head around the artist’s aesthetic choices. Perhaps the invigilator noticed I looked baffled and handed me the Gallery guide, which was helpful. This has happened to me a couple of times at the Fruitmarket and I always think how great it is that the invigilators are encouraged to interact with the public.

The guide explained that the giant melted ice pops were part of a series of early works known as Untitled Water Compositions.

“When they were first made and shown for short periods of time, they were designed to be activated by the audience, to be pliable and responsive to touch as flesh might be, challenging the static, intransigent nature of much minimalist sculpture of the 1960s. The works we are showing have been recreated for this exhibition. We ask you not to touch them as they become extremely fragile over the longer time of the exhibition.”

This really irks me. What’s the point of something which was conceived by the artist as kinetic, which is now static? The meaning and substance of the work is completely altered. For artists like Nengudi who work with performance, the fragility of the piece is surely essential to its conception? Plus, on a practical note, these aren’t even the ‘original’ pieces, so that plastic can’t be that fragile. It is sometimes difficult to know who makes these decisions. Is it the host gallery, the external curator, the gallery representing the artist, or the artist herself? The whole thing reminded me, in a bad way, of one of my most frustrating exhibition experiences at the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate. There was a key piece of sculpture which took up an entire room. The conceit of the work was a pendulum that swung and hit the different objects in its path, thus creating different patterns of sounds and a unique journey through the space each time it was set off. The sculpture was not permitted to move because the estate of Alexander Calder didn’t want it to be damaged: the ultimate example of how monetary value can totally eraticate the aesthetic value of a work.

I made my way upstairs feeling a bit pissed off about the whole thing. But the upstairs was where the exhibition really started to come together, the R.S.V.P sculptures Nengudi has created with tights/stockings having the biggest impact. These were first created in the mid-1970s, way before Sarah Lucas created her tortured forms using stockings (I’m thinking of Tate’s Pauline Bunny, 1997). The tension between the stretched nylon and the stones/sandbags weighing them down was palpable. Particularly striking and important was the use of dark brown tights, depicting black skin. It brought to mind the difficulties women of colour can face when trying to do a simple thing like buying tights: “flesh coloured” is a loaded term, and many beauty products still haven’t caught up. These seemingly simple works allude to absent female bodies which are simultaneously weak and fragile, powerful and tenacious, able to withstand their own tortured forms. They say a lot even though their forms are simple, their materials part of the everyday. That was the part of the exhibition that will stay with me and helped me to better understand the other works I had almost dismissed.