Anne Brodie and Yael Rosenblut: The Visitors

16 Jul 2009 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Timespan Gallery & The Ice House, Helmsdale, until 2 August 2009

Anne Brodie - 'Archive 1' (Photo - Giles Sutherland)

Anne Brodie - 'Archive 1' (Photo - Giles Sutherland)

THE ICE HOUSE in Helmsdale has been described as the town’s ‘monumental deep freeze’. Owned by the Sutherland Estate, it once acted as a store for the salmon catch from the Helmsdale river and, as its name implies, as a storage facility for ice which was ‘harvested’ from a shallow pond above the building and funelled into the structure from above.

The building’s other incarnations have included its use as a fish and chip shop. Now the impressive double-vaulted chamber acts as one part of a venue for the last in a series of art projects, marking the end of Ruth Macdougall’s two-year residency at Timespan as artist and youth arts curator. Macdougall herself showed a new work, Elephant Test, in¬†Timespan immediately prior to the current show.

During a short one-month double residency Anne Brodie and Yael Rosenblut have produced work which derives from and explores the immediate cultural and physical locale. They have done so using methodology and media which challenges preconceptions about what art ‘should’ be.

Brodie has focussed (in all senses of the term) on the activities in a local smokehouse run by father and son Sandy and Alexander Cowie, who “represent the current thin layer of Helmsdale’s once rich fishing industry.” Brodie has spent time as a salmon farmer on the West coast of Scotland, and more recently as an artist in residence with the British Antarctic Survey. Both of these experiences have informed her approach here.

A video work entitled ‘The Smokehouse’ is a carefully observed piece of documentary, edited and refined to such an extent that only the detailed technique of filleting remains. The camera has been placed at table level so that all extraneous information has been removed, including the identity of the worker whose repetitive task, honed over decades, seems sparse, perfect – and almost mechanical.

As the large, pink-gloved hands go about their task, the image has been overlaid with a soundtrack of fly-fishing, providing a disconcerting juxtaposition. In one sense the film can be read as a universal metaphor for the co-existence of brutality and gentleness, or indeed, humanity’s contrasting and conflicting attitudes towards nature.

Elsewhere Brodie presents a series of slide transparencies on a light-box (‘Archive 2′), creating a photographically-derived installation which reflects her interest in the village’s cultural identity, as well as it economic history. She has commented:

“I was struck looking at the archival photographs of Helmsdale, of the enormity in the scale of the fishing industry in the 19th and 20th Century. I wondered how many people in the images would have had to have moved away, and that out of the ones that stayed, most would now no longer be alive. This, combined with the huge amount of people coming from all over the world to Timespan to identify ‘lost’ relatives, informed the work … I wondered about the absence of identification, and the intensity of how much that mattered. There is a deliberation in the absence of faces.”

This work finds its companion piece in ‘Archive 1′, which, by marked contrast, consists of fish-bones and fingernails, the very physical fragments of fish and men. Perhaps it is the similarity between these objects, or their still quiet presence framed against a window, which gives them their impact.

Yael Rosenblut, who is based predominantly in Santiago, Chile, has chosen to concentrate on another archetypal aspect of Highland culture – dancing. Her three large PVC-mounted Lambda prints titled respectively ‘The Highlanders’, ‘The MacKay Garden’ and ‘La Mirage’ show colourful, even garish aspects of this strong sub-cultural grouping.

Rosenblut’s poetic accompanying text goes some way to explaining her fascination with the subject matter and, given the artist’s background, can only be read with the additional context of her own country’s troubled recent history:

A subtle tenderness is all that is left after the dance is over.
The tired, little feet are back on ground again.
In each girl it repeats an immemorial gesture that closes and reflexes with all their ancestors.
The identical sign of her mothers and grandmothers.
The loving tiredness of a strong heritage.

Both artists, in their differing ways, have engaged with their surroundings meaningfully, adding to the way in which we engage visually, emotionally and intellectually with its culture.

© Giles Sutherland, 2009

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