Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns is today celebrated as an opponent of injustice and a defender of the downtrodden. However, this is perhaps not the full story; he was close friends with many plantation owners who became hugely wealthy from the exploitation of slaves, and Burns himself, when facing financial difficulties, made plans to travel to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on one such plantation. As part of the 2017 Edinburgh Art Festival, two works exploring this darker side of Burns’ life are being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
The first of these is Graham Fagen’s ‘The Slave’s Lament’, a video installation shown across four screens. ‘The Slave’s Lament’, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015, is the result of a collaboration between Fagen, reggae artist Ghost Priest, composer Sally Beamish and producer Adrian Sherwood. The Burns poem from which it takes its name charts the journey of a slave taken from Senegal and forced to work in Virginia. The poem’s words are sung by Ghost Priest, accompanied by a string quartet. Each performer has their own screen and is shown in fragments; a mouth singing, a hand holding a bow, creating an impression of one Frankenstein performer. Heavy dub beats mix headily with the smooth sound of the strings. In this contrast Fagen draws attention to the contradictions in Burns, a man who railed against the injustices facing poor Scots whilst considering emigrating to work for a plantation owner.
The piece is exhibited alongside several other works by Fagen.‘Rope Tree’, a sprawling, stark sculpture forms the centrepiece of the low-lit room. It offers up compelling interpretations, suggestive of the displacement felt by people whose ancestors were taken from their homeland and shipped to a foreign place, linked only to their roots by the long rope of slavery. Three screen prints from the 2006 series ‘Closer’ are also included. They depict three ships, Nancy, Bell and Roselle, symbolic of the three passages Burns booked from Scotland to Jamaica, and hint at what could have been. Together these three works form a strong and evocative narrative, a sole criticism would perhaps be that little information is provided to visitors about ‘Rope Tree’ and the print triptych in the exhibit.
Douglas Gordon’s ‘Black Burns’, a sculpture of the poet carved from black marble, is shown alongside John Flaxman’s 1824 statue. Gordon’s work is a total inversion of Flaxman’s; where the latter stands tall and proud, presiding over the Great Hall and shining in white stone, Gordon’s Burns lies on the floor, broken into pieces. Yet despite these differences they are twins; ‘Black Burns’ is an exact replica of the famous 19th century monument, down to the marble used, which came from the same mine. Continuing a theme highlighted in Fagen’s work, Gordon contrasts the popular opinion of great and good men with the sordid realities. The Great Hall is the perfect exhibition space for such an irreverent display, its scale and emphasis on propriety and tradition make the smashed statue on the floor seem even more visceral. The marble busts depicting the great and good of Victorian Scotland which are dotted around the room are all turned to face away from ‘Black Burns’, as though they cannot bear the sight of the display.
‘Black Burns’ and ‘the Slave’s Lament’ are both great pieces, reminding us that reverence of the great and the good should always be paired with scepticism, and that even our greatest cultural heroes were not without fault.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Until 29th October 2017
Photo credit: Olivia Langhorn