Kurt Jackson, 'This soft sea, this hard plastic', oil and collage on linen
Kurt Jackson, 'This soft sea, this hard plastic', oil and collage on linen

Singing Neptune’s Sad Song at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios

Title:
Mermaids’ Tears

Dates:
2 Oct 2021 – 5 Feb 2022

Times:
Mon - Sat 10:00 - 17:00

Venue:
Dovecot Studios Viewing Balcony
10 Infirmary Street
Edinburgh
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH1 1LT

Coinciding with the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, running from 31st October, Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh is hosting an exhibition by Kurt Jackson, highlighting the ubiquitous disaster of oceanic plastic pollution, with its devastating effects, through painting, collage, and here, through tapestry.

Dovecot Studios’ Tapestry Studio Viewing Balcony

Running round the length of the Tapestry Studio Viewing Balcony, the exhibition has two main components: twenty paintings and mixed-media works produced in the last twenty-five years, medium to large-scale, and two very large tufted-gun tapestries executed in collaboration with Dovecot. I’ll come to them in a minute.

Display case showing media gleaned from the sea, used in Jackson's work
Display case showing media gleaned from the sea, used in Jackson’s work
'Catch a wave', mixed media and collage on canvas
‘Catch a wave’, mixed media and collage on canvas
Detail from 'Catch a wave', mixed media and collage on canvas
Detail from ‘Catch a wave’, mixed media and collage on canvas

‘Mixed media’ is a telling term here: Cornwall-based Jackson is well-known as an environmentalist, having enjoyed a full, long-standing involvement as an activist and artist, using his work both to explore the human relationship with our seas, and to persuade people of the appalling way we treat them – and of the urgency to do something about it. He was artist-in-residence on Greenpeace’s Esperanza, and has worked with numerous pressure organisations). Mermaids’ Tears brings right in front of us the shocking amount of human detritus in the ocean, from the huge abandoned oilskins in ‘All That’s Left’, to tiny resin pellets or nurdles from plastic manufacturing.

Through much experimentation, these were incorporated in the actual materials for the new gun-tufted work, Mermaids’ Tears (see below). Although the exhibition is perfectly-timed to coincide with the climate-change conference, the issue of plastic pollution is surely not far behind global warming as a pressing world-wide issue, and with oceans around us suffering from both, the link between the two hardly needs pointed out.

'All That's Left', mixed media on canvas
‘All That’s Left’, mixed media on canvas

All That’s Left prompts us to think of another dimension to this sea-borne calamity: plastic detritus is tragedy enough, but the thought brought to mind is a chilling one, that these oilskins might have belonged to someone who may or may not have survived the ocean’s ravages – possibly as a refugee hoping to escape poverty’s or war’s ravages back home. Oilskins also mean fishing – will fish and sea creatures survive the conditions we are casually imposing on them in the name of unsustainable food production? If they don’t survive, we won’t.

'Sloughed', mixed media and collage on canvas
‘Sloughed’, mixed media and collage on canvas
Detail from 'Sloughed', mixed media and collage on canvas
Detail from ‘Sloughed’, mixed media and collage on canvas

There’s room allowed for wry humour in some of these works, for instance in two pieces with slippers – adult and children’s – forever abandoned to walk the surface of the canvas, but it only reinforces the notion – ‘they shouldn’t be there’; the title Leave nothing but footsteps, take nothing but memories more suited to a sign on a beach, whose advice has evidently not been followed in this case, but the multiple meanings are on a human scale.

'Leave nothing but footsteps, take nothing but memories', mixed media collage on canvas
‘Leave nothing but footsteps, take nothing but memories’, mixed media collage on canvas (detail)
'Tread lightly', mixed media collage on canvas
‘Tread lightly’, mixed media collage on canvas (detail)

‘Mixed media’ is also a key term in the construction of the two tapestries, Grangemouth at Night Smoke and Lights and the exhibition’s eponymous piece, which is a tapestry re-working of his 2016 work for Cornwall’s Surfers Against Sewage pressure group. For the latter, Jackson worked closely with Dovecot’s weaver and tufter Louise Trotter to combine ocean detritus with wool and jute – something hitherto untried in gun-tufting, occasioning much experimentation and testing equipment to its limits. This, I learnt from Kate Grenyer, the Exhibitions Curator who showed me round, is typical of the open-minded approach employed by Dovecot in pushing the boundaries of what can tapestry can do – their curatorial policy is highly-commendable for bringing tapestry out of the realm of the stately home and sitting it squarely in the context 20th and 21st-century art & design.

Kurt Jackson, 'Grangemouth at Night Smoke and Lights', wool and flax
‘Grangemouth at Night Smoke and Lights’, wool and flax. Note the hand-scripted lettering – a device much-repeated throughout Jackson’s work
'Mermaids' tears', gun-tufted rug, wool, jute, ocean detritus
‘Mermaids’ tears’, mixed-media collage on canvas
'Mermaids' tears', gun-tufted rug, wool, jute, ocean detritus from artist's original, above
‘Mermaids’ tears’, gun-tufted rug, wool, jute, ocean detritus from artist’s original, above
'Mermaids' tears', gun-tufted rug, wool, jute, ocean detritus from artist's original, detail
‘Mermaids’ tears’, gun-tufted rug, wool, jute, ocean detritus from artist’s original, detail

With thanks to the friendly Dovecot team for their assistance. Julian Spalding’s monograph ‘The Sea’ accompanies the exhibition. Spalding has contributed a foreword to the book ‘Kurt Jackson’s Sea’, published by Lund Humphries.

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