Rene Magritte: La Gacheuse
Rene Magritte: La Gacheuse (The Bungler), 1935
Image: Courtesy the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales

5/5 stars
Review by Kate Andrews.
Published 07 January 2013

Following the success of last year’s The Sculpture Show, the National Galleries continues to break brave new ground with another sprawling behemoth of a show.

Filling the entire gallery space with bold, bloody and beguiling representations of the human body, From Death to Death unites corporeal gems from the National’s permanent collection with some of the biggest names in contemporary art, cherry-picked from Dimitris Daskalopoulos’s enviable hoard. In the context of such an impressive cast of visiting masterpieces, familiar works are reinvigorated.

As you might expect in a show dealing with the pleasures, neuroses and agonies of the flesh, sex and death weigh heavily. Notably present is the abject aspect of bodily functions and pleasures, making for a deliciously visceral treat for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.

The curation is more experimental than didactic and juxtapositions range from the seemingly obvious (splayed legs through the ages) to the unpredictably obtuse (Kiki Smith paired awkwardly with Paul Delvaux). It traverses the ground of seemingly disparate movements and times amid more genitalia than you can swing a dick at, and yet somehow manages to avoid coming across as salacious.

Marcel Duchamp’s game-changing Fountain, arguably the most significant work of the 20th Century, magically manages to not totally outshine its companions in a crowded room of pristine white forms. In a refreshing break from convention, the infamous urinal has been removed from its typical pedestal and backed into a corner. Elsewhere, the unnerving eyeless stares of Douglas Gordon’s stars of the silver screen face off with a confrontational memento mori by Magritte. A slumped torso by the omnipresent Robert Gober pulls the gaze in further unexpected directions.

The grainy footage of Marina Abramovic’s 1977 performance Imponderabilia candidly addresses the hypocrisy of a collective discomfort with ‘live’ nudity, making clear the vast chasm in our perception between ‘real’ nakedness and the (mostly young, white, beautiful, female) archetypal nudes we are accustomed to seeing portrayed in art.

There are certainly enough world-class artists here (Gober, Barney, Duchamp) to make several money-spinning solo shows, but in bravely sidestepping the neat, safe approach, the show affords a broad audience the chance to experience this giant, heaving, unruly body of work. Let’s hope that these big bold shows continue to knock some of the dust off of the Scottish art world’s public programme. [Kate Andrews]


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