Exhibitions/Edinburgh: Going out? Better wear your hair bikini
Welcome Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
Sunday 15 August 1999
Nina Saunders shows two installations. Both create dysfunctional domestic environments. In Forever, a child's swing has been built into a room installed in the gallery. Its three walls are covered in a pink embossed wallpaper of a formalised floral pattern. The creaking swing, accompanied by Engelbert Humperdinck crooning the romantic ballad "Forever and Ever", has repeatedly hit the wall, cutting into it, revealing layer upon layer, generation after generation, of previous wallpapers.
Her other installation, Smothered, features a large square of wall-mounted rose-patterned tapestry, painted over with thick oil paint, beside a stool covered in a similar but unadulterated upholstery fabric. Apparently the Danish artist's grandmother devoted 25 years of her life to looking after her invalid husband, and gifted her granddaughter the stitched item that eventually engendered Smothered. But the artist's vision encompasses more than her own family history. As in Forever, something English, Victorian, pretty and repressed is invoked, and furiously subverted.
In Emily Bates' "Balcony" series of photographs, lone adult women are shown, face forward but out of shot, wearing only a gossamer garment which is transparent except where hair has been sewn into it. A woman's pubic hair is echoed and her sexuality given gravitas by the fringes of long brown hair which cover her breasts in a way that is strangely reminiscent of sporrans. The women pose confidently against a backdrop evenly divided between an urban exterior and an interior decorated by pot plants and cut flowers. In control of their bodies, they seem poised to explore inner and outer worlds.
Opposite these photographs are a couple of similar-sized ones featuring naked men, adorned with hair in a different way which turns them into sex objects, beasts even. Each is in a claustrophobic room, with his back to the assertive women facing him from the photographs across the gallery. One kneels at a sink, a ponytail emerging in a natural-seeming way from the hairy small of his back, falling between his buttocks and drawing attention to his exposed and vulnerable scrotum. The other lies on a bed, his ponytail - which is a golden-blonde that doesn't match the brown hair under his armpit or on his head - brushed to one side to fully expose his bottom. "Look at the arse on that!" shouts a woman's voice from over my shoulder, as if to confirm how completely female opportunities have been transformed, at least within these enlightened walls.
Looking again at Hoberman's "Bubble-wrap" photographs, I wonder why they're so cold. And I imagine a doe-eyed, serious-minded infant with a sheet of bubble-wrap in her possession, systematically popping the cells one by one in order to release the very air.
Hannah Firth of Stills Gallery curated this show, intriguingly overlapping the work of the three artists. As I leave the gallery the images that go with me are from photographs: the face of a little girl with huge knowing eyes, and the torso of a woman in a hair bikini. But this is partly thanks to the emancipating context provided by Nina Saunders' hard- hitting installations.
`Welcome': Stills Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 622 6200) to 25 September
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