Poor Things @ Fruitmarket, Edinburgh

Poor Things is a new group exhibition of 22 artists at Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, reflecting on the relationships between art and class

Review by Rachel Ashenden | 27 Mar 2023
  • Poor Things

Stepping into Poor Things at Fruitmarket, I run into the exhibition’s co-curator, Dean Kenning. After polite introductions, I nod towards a kinetic sculpture, hell-bent on performing squeaky push-ups, and comment: “This is intriguing.” It turns out this sculpture, titled Renaissance Man, is Kenning’s unsettling but deeply personal invention. The artist made life casts of his own face, hands and feet and attached them to an empty trough with moving limbs. He likens the sculpture’s repetitive behaviour to a feeling of working class out-of-place-ness in an arts environment, of being surrounded and drowned out by people who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths (my dramatic flourish, not his). According to Kenning, Renaissance Man resembles a bad dream, in which we might find ourselves butt naked in an exam hall. 

A black loudhailer with a teal and yellow centre.
Spoiler (Yellow/Green) by Emma Hart, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter, London.

I don’t get to meet Kenning’s friend and curatorial collaborator, Emma Hart, who is also an exhibiting artist in the show. The innovative exhibition text emphasises that Poor Things emerged from their conversations about social class and art. As a result, the tone of the curatorial narrative is distinctly democratic in subtle ways: the curators go by their first names, and the artwork labels pose questions, rather than provide the answers. You can hear from a selection of the artists via audio, too. By far the most disturbing listen is Penny Goring’s apologetic wails in response to her humanoid soft sculpture, Wrong Doll. With increasing desperation, the artist repeats that she is sorry, but never detailing what for. “WRONG FACE”, “WRONG HEART”, “WRONG FEELING”, and “WRONG LEG” are hand-stitched into the doll. I interpret this feeling of wrongness as imposter syndrome, or a sense of not belonging. 

Unapologetic in taking up space, Let’s Get Lost Tonight, You Can Be My Black Kate Moss Tonight by Josie KO is one of the standouts of the show. Ornate and ostentatious, KO’s creation not only confronts the lack of representation of Black women in gallery spaces, but also the fetishisation of Black women under white supremacy. Named after Kanye West’s song Stronger, the sculpture’s pop culture title also harks back to that time The Independent chose to photograph Kate Moss essentially ‘blackfishing’ (when a non-Black person presents themselves as Black) for its cover, instead of photographing a Black model. Sphinx-like in her presentation, the golden sculpture sits forward like the figurehead of a ship, expression halfway between a grin and a grimace. She is a trophy, sitting uncomfortably with her limbs strangely entangled on a two-tiered wedding cake-like plinth.

A figure covered in colourful balloons tries to squeeze through a wire fence in a field.

A feeling of out-of-place-ness sprawls and spawns both comically and sincerely through the ground floor; it bounds upstairs and mutates into larger than life Frankenstein-like sculptures. Intriguingly, I found out-of-place-ness represented most compellingly in a short film of a sculpture in action. Thick-Skinned by Rebecca Moss (pictured above) captures a person wearing a bizarre costume made out of countless multicoloured balloons, clambering through a field and squeezing through a barbed wire fence. They emerge – just – but not unscathed, attached to soggy remnants of the balloons. To me, this metaphor of balloons and barbed wire is obvious yet cunning; it’s the process of making yourself smaller to fit in or pass by in an unwelcoming environment unnoticed, a stripping back of the uniqueness that makes you you. The popping of the balloons is in sonic and metaphorical synchrony to the squeaks of Renaissance Man

Confrontational throughout, this group show thoughtfully does not fall into the trap of virtue signalling. All of the stellar sculptures I detail in this review are installed on the ground floor; I find some of the sculptures upstairs to be a bit more challenging to grasp. In a society which commodifies self-care and theorises the gallery space as a kind of wellness retreat, Poor Things is preoccupied with the cultural capital we inhabit when we visit an exhibition in our spare time. Elsewhere in Scotland, Rachel Maclean recently turned cultural capital on its head in her engrossing sculptural installation Mimi on Perth High Street. Commissioned by Jupiter Artland, the temporary installation in a disused shop showed passersby “art before they even know they’ve seen art". This radical approach to revealing what Maclean calls the “conceit” of the gallery is present in Poor Things – you just need to look a little harder for it.

An oversized ice cream cone with a glittery edge; the words 'eat me now' are written vertically down the cone.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Eat Me Now, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Poor Things, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 21 May, free