The Bluecoat’s exhibition breathe, spirit and life 呼吸、靈魂與生命 is curated by Katherine Ka Yi Liu 廖加怡, and reimagines the gallery space as a place of decay, but paradoxically one with the hope of greater potential. Such themes of decay and rebirth can be applied to varied, interwoven concepts: art institutions, communities, and the self. The exhibition creates an environment that encourages viewers to gather with a shared sense of connectedness. Its immersive artwork inspires personal reflection as well as consideration of the show’s main themes and concepts, prompting viewers to consider how to better live with a new found awareness. Inspired by Taoist practices of ‘self-cultivation’ and ‘harmony with nature’, Liu repurposes the gallery space as a communal site for ‘decolonial healing’ (as stated in the accompanying literature). Both informative and emotionally driven, the exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in a collective experience and discussion. The Bluecoat’s direct historical connection to the transatlantic slave trade – proceeds from which funded the 1716-17 building of the gallery, originally a school – is another point of inspiration for the exhibition. By addressing themes of decolonial healing, the exhibition feels like a place of opportunity for personal catharsis, not just for those who have contributed or those who will connect to the exhibition, but for the gallery itself, too.
Soojin Chang’s unsettling film ‘JADE BABY BAMBOO SPINE’ (2022, made in collaboration with Jade O’Belle, Aditya Surya Taruna a.k.a. Kasimyn, and Georgie Rei-n Lo), in Gallery 4’s cinematic black box gallery space, comes with a content warning on the information handout. In the film we see two people dressed in traditional ceremonial garments which are inspired by death rituals from ‘multiple geohistories’, that appear to be created using natural materials. They perform rituals of sacrifice that, at times, involve natural organic objects, at other times their own bodies, all taking place across varied natural locations. Some shots are reminiscent of classic cult horror films; other close-up shots of organic structures emphasise nature’s inherently abstract aesthetic qualities. Contorted bodies and harrowing audio juxtapose beautiful landscapes. At times we are lulled into a false sense of security by waves lapping on a beach, the water glistening in the sun, only for this image to be broken by a figure staggering past. The screen shows more unnerving human activity as more vivid rituals are performed. The video’s transitions increase the captivating nature of its subject matter, which explores varied death practices, rituals, and the theme of ‘colonial modernity’: the desire for land, and home, with contemporary geographical and socioeconomic constraints. The work suggests a difficulty in maintaining a spiritual connection to life, and death, within a modern society less focused on such ideas, whilst also enabling the continued practice of such rituals in modernity – as suggested by the use of a modern day lighter.
Encountering Sulaïman Majali’s installation ‘ripe fruits before battle’ (2022) in the white-walled Gallery 2b is like walking through a dream: or, more accurately, a nightmare. Items are strewn about the space in a way that lends them an uncanniness. Dying organic flowers lie at one point on the floor, crumpled plastic gift flowers at another, juxtaposing life and waste. A trolley full of rows of dodgeballs stands in neat rows, until you notice the one deflated near the bottom, utterly neglected. The work’s title is taken from the last line of a poem which has been written by hand onto a flip-chart pad in the gallery, forming part of the installation of scattered symbolic objects. The installation conceptually and visually is reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (1998), with scattered, meaningful objects-as-clues. But rather than walking through one individual’s psychological state, we are walking through a representation of wider sociohistorical issues confronting us, namely climate and decolonisation. Two sets of flowers echo issues of nature in competition with consumerism, and a toy gun mocks the goals of war and violence. Majali’s installation portrays the struggle and discomfort individuals experience in finding peace with their local surroundings, their spirituality, with each other, and the climate as a whole.
Beautiful, captivating cello music emanates from Thulani Rachia’s seven films in Gallery 2a, which together comprise ‘obuyile, a composition for four cellists’ (2021-22). Videos of performances at Edinburgh’s 2021 Art Festival play in loops on two screens – the original performance shown in fragments on days one to six, and then in its entirety on day seven. Viewing all the films creates a sense of separate but connected harmony, as the musicians create sounds ranging from melancholic foreboding to light, hopeful opportunity. Rachia explores the ‘psychological therapeutic impact of sound’ with his use of composition and dreamlike music in relation to architecture. Here, the composition becomes an emotional journey through the Bluecoat and Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral, which is continued in the accompanying installation of the garments worn on screen. Designed in collaboration with Asia Przytarska, the garments’ design was drawn from a dream Rachia had which featured his ancestors, and became the project’s inspiration. By presenting the garments worn on music stands before us, the gap between the gallery space and the spaces within the films is bridged – the intricate materials become performer and audience member with us. Looking to the Apartheid regime and colonial rule of South Africa, Rachia’s work investigates how such built environments carry history and continue to shape modern day social relations. The use of cellos, chosen by the artist as the instrument closest to the human voice, in the performances is symbolic of how expressing violent histories is difficult, restrained, and at times dangerous – themes which echo with Chang and Majali’s work elsewhere in the exhibition. But the work’s later, more hopeful harmonies suggest the need to confront such histories, and the positive outcomes of doing so.
In the liminal space of the cloister, which runs down the side of the Bluecoat’s other galleries, Roo Dhissou presents three manjis: ‘Ahram (to rest)’, ‘Seva (selfless service / hospitality)’, ‘Sangat (community)’ (all 2022), and a collection of brooms in ‘Sweep’ (2019). The brooms are placed in between windows along the corridor, allowing each broom individual recognition, with the Manjis below on the ground. Manjis are practical, communal; a place for gathering, for chores, dining, and a place for rest. They resemble, but are not limited to the purposes of, a bed or table, with sturdy woven material stretched over four wooden legs. Manjis serve both the community and the individual for various needs. ‘Please remove shoes before taking a seat’ is written along the walls beside the manjis, inviting visitors to become a shared part of the invisible social bonds manjis create. The theme of community is also presented by the brooms; they are all created with natural materials native to local environments in the countries of their origin. Some are found or gifted; one, for example, from curator Katherine Ka Yi Liu 廖加怡 from China via Hong Kong. These far-travelled brooms encourage us to consider this universal, practical, domestic item, and to see the nuanced similarities and differences the range of brooms share. In these ways, Dhissou’s installation serves as a metaphor to reflect ourselves and our shared experiences within our local communities. The use of the cloister’s liminal space creates a literal and symbolic thread through the exhibition, linking the gallery spaces, artworks and artists together, while including communal items reinforces their functional and community aspects. The space feels calming and still, the work more focused on healing than the discomfort explored in previous works in the exhibition.
Kiara Mohamed Amin’s otherworldly film ‘Black Presence’ (2022, narrated by Kiara Mohamed Amin & Katucha Bento, and co-written by Azeezat Johnson, Francesca Sobande & Katucha Bent), in Gallery 1, another black box film space, embodies the act of ‘radical living’, choosing joy and community in spite of experiencing intersectional marginalisation. The film is the artist’s first talisman – a portable or permanently installed object connected to religious powers for healing and protection. The work, a eulogy for Azeezat Johnson, a Black British feminist, is light, positive, almost mythical. Calming and inspiring messages are spoken alongside colourful abstract visuals of patterned animations, layered over footage of natural locations. A voice from the video inspires us to ‘think beyond time’; comforts us with the observation that ‘different rhythms aren’t legible to everyone, and there are reasons for that’. Like Rachia’s work in the cloister, Mohamed Amin’s film offers a place and process for healing.
In Gallery 3, Emii Alrai’s immersive installation, ‘An Ancient Quiver’ (2018-22), questions the preservation promised by museums and art institutions, as well as the ethics of acquisition. By completely reforming the gallery space, with cardboard tiles covered in sand and plaster hiding the white walls, it is aesthetically transformed into what appears to be some form of excavation site. There is a sense of being somewhere natural yet hidden. Raised platforms of various heights supporting objects surround viewers, alluding to a rediscovery of the items on display. Yet Alrai’s work lives and performs the concepts of decay and entropy: her work has travelled from gallery space to gallery space and bears the signs of transportation and wear. The gallery site has become simultaneously an immersive parody excavation site, and a place for deterioration. In these ways the work ultimately asks questions regarding history, empire, preservation and representation, around which histories have been removed from their geographies. The objects displayed represent theft and decay, calling into focus the need to respect relationships between objects and their places of origin, and questioning whether excavated items will be looked after properly. Set in a windowed gallery, with the busy world visible outside, Alrai’s installation reinforces the power and importance of quiet reflection on these issues.
The Bluecoat is a bright and open site, and breathe, spirit and life 呼吸、靈魂與生命 encourages immersion and reflection, meditation and detoxification. The artworks on show encompass a vast range of mediums and themes, but the underlying message throughout is clear: a message of community, and the need to reflect on one’s own self to better serve our local communities, the climate and the state of global affairs as a whole. Chang, Majali and Alrai’s work lean towards unsettling the viewer, asking them to look at the consequences of neglecting the needs of the local and wider communities. With slightly different moods, Mohamed Amin, Rachia and Dhissou’s work focuses more on the positive outcomes of community focused practice and healing. The exhibition is a warning, a reminder, yet also a message of collective hope.
breathe, spirit and life 呼吸、靈魂與生命 continues at the Bluecoat until Sunday 29 January 2023. Quotes in the text are sourced from the gallery handout.
Katie Shirley is an artist, curator and writer with interests in philosophy and culture based in Merseyside.
This review is supported by the Bluecoat.