Thursday, 21 February 2008

The sloping brow of a stagecoach tilter...

photo copyright Joanna Kane.
Somnambulists is a fantastic little exhibition of work by Joanna Kane a photographer and artist based in Edinburgh currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
It features photographic digital prints of life and death masks from the collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.

The photographs have been subtly manipulated to create an illusion of life from these casts. Through this seemingly straightforward process Kane has extracted an extraordinary amount of humanity from a subject that mightn't appear that gripping. Phrenology is seen as an unfashionable and embarrassing excess from the gold rush of scientific enquiry throughout the enlightenment. The notion that someone's character can be alluded to through their skull structure is laughable but Kane has created the impression that there's something more to these masks than the simple imprint created by the subjects head.

There's a variety of people featured, a fair few doctors and phrenologists, a couple of mining engineers from Leith, some unknowns and a remarkable smattering of early 19th century writers. The photograph of James Hogg's cast was a wonderful surprise as I have been fascinated with him since moving to Edinburgh and first reading The Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Hogg's face is as I'd imagined it, a long drawn spade of a man reminiscent of Noel Browne in his later years. This got me thinking about the kinds of visual games you play with yourself when you go abroad and meet someone who puts you in mind of an old friend.

This also struck me when looking at some of the poets featured. Wordsworth's face is an absolute joy and was completely unlike I'd imagined him, somehow he's just too manly in real life. Keats and Coleridge are also there along with William Blake. Blake's portrait is superb, a stern blank canvas upon which you can project pretty much anything. There's a touch of Brando (as Kurtz) and more than a hint of Terry Gilliam too in his stern sleeping mask. The book accompanying the exhibition refers to a friend of Blake's expressing his disappointment that the cast captures none of Blake's good-naturedness. The book features extensive notes about all the photos and features a hilarious spat between Hogg and the Phrenological fraternity.

The whole exhibition is a fantastic evocation of a period before photography where many exciting ideas were flying around. Kane's photography is based around Phrenology and alludes in the title to Mesmerism which was a fashionable movement at the time.
It also has a great sense of Edinburgh as a place at that time with it's engineers and it's doctors and it's poets and philosophers.

I've always had difficulty imagining real people in the past. I've always had this irrational notion that somehow people looked different. This killed that notion stone dead, the photos could be of people you see in the street- all the more so in Edinburgh where I'm sure I've seen some of the "unknown" casts on the number 25 bus in the morning! They have a life to them that had me imagining them yawning and winking at each other after we had left and the lights blinked off.

If you're in the portrait gallery go into the gift shop and look at the portrait of Edwin Morgan by Alexander Moffatt over the door. It's a stoater.

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