The Enlightenments, The Dean Gallery, Edinburgh
Devoted sisters see the light
Monday 31 August 2009
You need the patience of a saint to sit through Tacita Dean's film The Presentation Sisters. With its longuers and silences, some may feel it's the aesthetic equivalent of watching paint dry. Others will see in its small acts of quiet devotion and ritual, which define these elderly Irish nuns' lives, a poetic evocation of the Sisters' spiritual existence.
The Presentation Sisters is a teaching order and the sisters spent their working lives in far-flung places such as Africa and Alaska. The film opens with the sound of bird song. Early morning sunlight plays on the gravestones of the convent's small cemetery:a reminder that the five women are approaching the end of their lives. Following the rhythm of their day, we witness the cycles of cooking, cleaning and praying, as they vacuum already spotless rooms, bake scones and make endless cups of tea. Dressed in neat blouses and skirts, with the same cropped grey hair and glasses, they have all come to resemble one another.
The predominant mode of the film is silence, which reverberates down the convent's polished halls. Dean lingers on empty rooms filled with heavy mahogany furniture like something out of a dark Victorian painting, and on beams of light flooding through stained glass windows into stairwells to create pools of mulberry-coloured light.
We see the sisters in a row at prayer in high-backed chairs, but more surprisingly find them enjoying a football match on TV. These are evidently worldly nuns, though even here their enthusiasm is decorous and muted. They joined the order when it was enclosed and when the garden inside the outer wall formed the perimeter to their physical world. Brides of Christ, they all wear wedding rings. Though they choose not to wear the veil, they are unable to recruit young novices in this secular age. Their life of devotion and ritual based around meals, domestic tasks and prayer is fast becoming an anachronism and it is this realisation that gives the film its poignancy.
Dean's work forms part of a group show at the Dean Gallery that comes under the Edinburgh Festival visual arts programme's umbrella title of The Enlightenments. Edinburgh epitomises the ideals of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, and the theme offers contemporary observations on religion, philosophy, architecture and scepticism. This leads to a rather dry show, where the Turner prize-nominee Nathan Coley's painted tree trunks strain unconvincingly to question belief systems and investigate architectural structures inhabited by faith, while Joshua Mosley's digital film of animated clay figures, representing a fictional encounter between Rousseau and Pascal, seems like a version of The Magic Roundabout for philosophers.
But as well as The Presentation Sisters, there is a poignancy to Lee Mingwei's Letter Writing Project. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes and enter a Shinto-looking shrine to write letters to whomever they choose. These are left for visitors to read. Some of the confessions and outpourings are full of regret for the remembrance of things past and genuinely moving.
To 27 September (0131 624 6200)
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut