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Bathing nervous limbs

By Susan Mansfield, 11.08.2021
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Balneum, 15th C., f.3v, detail. © The University of Edinburgh.

The starting point for this group show, which includes the work of more than 20 contemporary artists, many of them recent graduates, is the Balneum, an illustrated manuscript from the early 15th century about the therapeutic benefits of different bodies of water.

The show is a mixture of new work made in response to ideas in the Balneum and existing work on relevant themes. The artists vary widely in their styles and approaches, from video documentation of a 2017 performance by Zoe Williams to Natalia González Martín's delicate, hyperreal bathing nudes.

Anousha Payne Makara, 2021. Pigment and watercolour on stretched cotton, and glazed stoneware ceramic. Courtesy ZAC and ZAC photography.

There is a series of bronze mirrors by Nina Royle and a collection of decorative plasterwork vessels by Melloney Harvey. 2016 Fleming-Wyfold Bursary winner George Ridgway presents a film on a smart phone about volcanic fumaroles. Paloma Proudfoot has made an impressive wall-mounted ceramic of a figure disrobing. Anousha Payne’s serpent beast, painted in watercolour pigment with a glazed ceramic head, is an incarnation of the Tamil sea beast Makara, which (cleverly) merges with the water, even as the water embodies it.

Meanwhile, painters dive into the waters of myth, superstition, spirituality. Kate Walters' mystical evocation of baptism is one of the best works here. There are mysterious and well executed landscapes by Ithell Colquhoun and Danny Leyland. Jessie Whiteley’s egg tempera paintings combine elements of myth and surrealism with urban modernity. 

Danny Leyland, Between Two Worlds, 2021, Oil on canvas, 70 x 40 cm.

Co-curator Ella Walker describes working with the Balneum as an act of multiple translation: from its original Latin to an existing French translation, into English with some help from Google and then into the artworks, by the artists themselves. The show illustrates the spectrum of ways by which artists translate ideas, through the cipher of their own interests, instincts and experience. 

But there is another, final act of translation which sometimes gets scant attention at the cutting edges of contemporary art: that between the work and the viewer. Here, if one continues the water metaphor, we are cut adrift, with little information about any of the art we are seeing. We must make of it what we can, which is fair enough, I suppose, though, one suspects there are some fascinating insights which are lost in translation.

Ella Walker, Bathing Melusine, 2021, Acrylic on paper, 32 x 24 cm.

Bathing nervous limbs runs at Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh, until 29th August, as part of Edinburgh Art Festival