Dreams of an island
The cultural decline of St Kilda has been matched by a burgeoning of scientific activity. PaulWelsh discovers an exhibition exploring the Scottish island’s turbulent history.
St Kilda is a very special place. When this archipelago l l0 miles west of mainland Scotland became the country‘s first world heritage site in 1987 — 57 years after the evacuation of its last native inhabitants ~- its ongoing scientific and cultural significance was continued.
For most Scots. the Kildean’s story is still a poignant one. encouraging respect for the hardships the islanders endured as the nation‘s most isolated community. and regret for the loss of a unique way of life. Once a self-sufficient community. depopulation had left it an aged p0pulation by the early 1900s. with few islanders able to collect supplies by boat from the mainland. By l930. evacuation was the only option.
St Kilda Explored. an interactive family exhibition at Glasgow's Art Gallery and Museum. brings this present and past to the modern day inheritors of those
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St Kilda: the death of a culture and birth of a scientific dream
amazing islands. now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and leased to Scottish Natural Heritage as a national nature reserve. "The exhibition lets adults and children explore the island as a scientist would.‘ says curator. Meg Buchanan. ‘We wanted to make the results of on-going research on the island. accessible and appealing.‘
Today. the four main islands and their numerous sea stacks provide a natural outdoor laboratory for scientists to study everything from the area‘s biology and geology to the architecture of the islanders' abandoned homes. ‘St Kilda is unique.‘ says one participating zoologist who has worked extensively on the island. ‘lt is home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Atlantic and a significant proportion of the world‘s gannets and fulmers. By studying the birds in this habitat. scientists can assess
the affect of developments elsewhere in the world. like pollution.‘ ,.
St Kilda Explored re-creates many of the scientiﬁc studies now being carried out on the island. a tiny microcosm of life showing signs of human habitation dating back almost 4000 years. With the cry of countless seagulls filling the gallery. visitors to the exhibition can learn how to survey a croft house following the example of the Royal Commission which catalogued the island‘s ancient buildings in the mid l980s.
The island‘s rugged beauty is another major theme — the exhibition includes a collection of evocative contemporary photographs. an installation by St Kildan descendant Liz Ogilvie and etchings by Norman Ackroyd. The work complements fragments of poetry surviving from the island‘s highly developed oral tradition. a part of life ()gilvie feels was threatened by religion. ‘My mother felt the church had a lot to do with the final decline of St Kilda.‘ she says. ‘Al‘ter the first missionary. they had less time to recite their poetry . . . they took to the bible instead.‘
For Buchanan. the exhibition‘s significance extends well beyond St Kilda and Scotland. ‘We hope St Kilda Explored will encourage people to cherish and maintain the environment and the sort of biological and social diversity St Kilda represents,‘ she says.
‘3 ‘lt‘s important just to know places like this exist. in
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the same way as the rainforests or a coral reef.‘ ()gilvie. whose uncle was the island‘s last postman. has more reservations. ‘I expect people will be anxious to visit St Kilda after seeing this exhibition. but I‘m a little‘ worried about the island becoming too popular.‘ she says. ‘The past still haunts this place. but a lot of people are not so interested in that. They still see an amazing. unpolluted area with crystal clear seas - an island on the edge of the world.’ S! K ill/(I Exp/arm] is at the Art Gallery and Museum. Kelvingmre. Glasgow until 25 Aug [996.
Liberating the creative urge
Celebrating 50 years of liberation from Japanese occupation, Korea has also found a voice on the international art circuit. During Korean Year of Art, the traditional barriers between east and west are being challenged.
Scotland is getting its own taste of Korean art, with Information And Reality, an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. Sparked by 50 years of liberation from Japanese rule, the show explores social, political and historical issues in Korean society, attempting to make the nation’s art and culture accessible.
Among with work from ten other artists is that of Korea’s most celebrated installation artists, Cho liuck-llyun, who resurrects the country’s history in Memories 0! The
Bul Lee: unchalning the imagination
Twentieth Century. Cho sees the relationship between art and society as crucial to his work. ‘My thought is that l should have a balance between the two points of pure art and political art,’ he says. lie does this by
‘ representing the human face of Korean history through charcoal drawings, created from photographs of traditional Korean people and life.
Presenting the pictures in boxes, he forges a link between past and present. ‘I am interested in time and bringing alive a past time in the present through the representation of photographs from the past,’ he explains. ‘A photograph is just paper but through the image on it I can find imaginatively a real human presence, 3 real human life many years ago.’
If Cho liuck-ilyun is one of Korea's most respected artists, Bul lee is probably its most controversial. The radical feminist performance and installation artist’s work has consistently aroused controversy. The theme of information and reality, central to her work, is explored in I Am A Friendly Asian Woman — a parody of how Asian women are perceived in Western society, and the media representations behind those
‘l try to examine western beliefs, view points, myths, mystique about Asia and Asian women,’ she says.
‘Ihere is a lot of exchange of information across cultures and between east and west. i want to show the disparity between the overload of information and the reality of how western cultures still view the Asian woman, Asian culture, and what they view as Asian art.’
Each of the contributing artists make original, highly expressive statements about Korea and art; information and reality. the subject is of great relevance in Korea, a nation that has in recent history experienced colonisation, war, partition, military dictatorship and rapid industrialisation. It is also a highly pertinent to western society, where infonnatlon superhighways make us more vulnerable than ever to the gap between what we are told and what is the truth.
Don’t simply accept this infonnatlon, though - visit the Fruitmarket Gallery and experience the reality for yourself. (Ian Smith)
Information And Reallty Is at the Fruitmarlret Gallery, Edinburgh until 2 Dec.
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