It’s a hot day in Glasgow, and in the city’s leafy west end, Scotland’s greatest living polymath is at his desk. In the coolness of his front room, Alasdair Gray is painstakingly writing words for a label that will accompany the environmental constructions of Glasgow-based artist Siobhan Healy. Gray has missed out the ‘d’ of ‘Scotland’, and takes a minute or two to carefully add the detail in his inky hand-writing.
Such is the evolution of Biodiversities: A Cabinet of Curiosities, a collaboration between Healey and Gray that sees a steampunk-styled laboratory installed with Healy’s glass-based sculptures. With each one etched with Gray’s hand-written missives, they are shown in a series of found display cases. Rather than some arcane excavation, Gray’s customising of Healy’s creations is designed to give a fresh resonance to the environment we’re living in now.
“Biodiversity is the main interest of my artwork,” says Healy, who initiated the project as part of a residency at Edinburgh College of Art. “so I’ll tend to make clear glass artworks depicting rare species, just to highlight them and show the beauty of them. Alasdair’s texts to go with them are really strong, and are warnings in a lot of ways. They’re much more forceful texts than what my quite decorative artwork might portray. We’re highlighting a historical element, but there’s a modern edge to it as well.”
Key to Biodiversity is Patrick Geddes, the radical nineteenth-century Edinburgh town planner who talked of living in a green world, with animals depending on leaves to survive.
“Even at that stage,” says Gray, “people were talking about the effect that humans were having on the environment. Geddes set up an organisation that he called the Social Union, derived from Burns’ To A Mouse. Geddes applied that to human beings as well. He had advice to town planners that I wish they had all taken to heart, that before you demolished anything, you first took a survey to find out what was in working order, and kept that as far as possible. This has not been much obeyed in Glasgow, I’m afraid.”
In her researches, Healy discovered that Charles Darwin wrote a letter of reference for Geddes. Gray points out that this was probably when Geddes became Professor of Botany at Aberdeen University.
“There’s something fascinating about looking into these historical links, and seeing how these visionaries of that time can feed into our knowledge now,” says Healy. “At the time a lot of people probably weren’t listening to what they were saying, but years later they start listening and eventually take those ideas on board.”
With both Biodiversity the show and the science itself works in progress, Gray’s texts look set to be incorporated into a health centre as a public artwork. With the Edinburgh College of Art show running concurrently with an exhibition at Pollok House in Glasgow, which will feature several prints and a painting by Gray, Biodiversity has a clear political aim as much as an artistic one.
“Oh, yes,” yelps Gray, who Healy says “brings in the human elements of the effects of these things.”
As if to prove her point, Gray joins the dots between he attitude to pollution and other environmental effects then and now.
“People then took the line that Trump takes,” he says, “in that they couldn’t afford do do anything about pollution, because it makes too much money, and that the industry causing it should not be penalised. Today, it’s almost gone too far, but the European Union was one of the few power blocks who were doing anything about it. Britain pulling out of the European Union is attempting to follow America in any way it can, but if human beings don’t combat pollution, they haven’t got long left.”
Biodiversity: A Cabinet of Curiosities, The Fire Station at Edinburgh College of Art until August 26th.