The more closely you look at Robert Burns, the more he seems to shift and fragment before your eyes. Ploughman dreamer or highly literate wordsmith? Tax man or socialist? A philanderer who penned some of the most beautiful love poems ever written? His image has become instantly recognisable all over the world, but the handful of artists who depicted him during his lifetime seemed to agree on very little about what he looked like. He is embedded in the Scottish psyche like no other figure, but is it possible that the Burns myth says more about us than it does about him?
“In the last year, I have found myself searching for Burns,” says the artist Derrick Guild, who has created one of the most substantial and interesting bodies of work in Burns Unbroke, a cluster of Burns-themed exhibitions at Summerhall in Edinburgh. “The closer I get, the further he moves away.” Yet, that evasiveness creates spaces for imagination to grow, gaps in which the artists in this show – more than 30 of them, including Graham Fagen, Adrian Wiszniewski, Douglas Gordon and the Chapman brothers – propose their own questions and inventions. The work here is a mixture of new commissions, pieces created for previous Burns-inspired shows (the curator, Artruist’s Sheilagh Tennant, has done several) and the work of artists who have chosen to engage with Burns on their own initiative. For an artist interested in Scottish culture, there is no escaping him. ‘As Ithers See Him’, in the War Memorial Gallery, is perhaps the centre of the show. It brings together works by a range of artists as diverse as David Mach, who presents two matchstick heads of the Bard, one of which has been set alight, and a photocollage work; cartoonist Greg Moodie, whose Cool Burns wears X-ray specs and a “Make Love Not War” badge; and the delicate, handmade objects and collages of Brigid Collins.
Adrian Wisniewski’s romantic, doe-eyed Burns contrasts with Peter Howson’s troubled, self-doubting figure. Jake and Dinos Chapman deface his visage on a ten pound note (he ends up looking like a devilish scary clown) much as Burns himself once scribbled furious lines upon a bank note. Douglas Gordon’s work is uncharacteristically subtle, another response to the Flaxman statue, a replica of which he smashed to pieces last summer for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. These broken pieces from a miniature version in white marble – a shoe, a hand, his bunnet – look poignant and fragile, like the last remaining fragments of a precious icon, long-destroyed. Tennant has also made a point of including younger artists: Shannon Laing has created an exquisite pencil drawing of Burns as a young man, based on drawings she has made of contemporary young men with similar features; Rosie Dahlstrom explores the Bard’s feminine side in an intriguingly androgynous portrait.
Upstairs in the Laboratory Gallery, Derrick Guild makes excellent use of the glass cases to show “Gang Dry,” the result of his thoughtful investigation into Burns. This collection of paintings, sculptures and found objects seems to orbit Burnsian themes – sex, class, mortality, the natural world – exploring the spaces between the lines. From iconic Burnsian images – a red (red) rose, some beautifully drawn mice – to the more surprising, this is a body of work which repays time spent, and could easily stand alone. Ciara Veronica Dunne’s mural, in the same room, collapses elements of Burns’ life and work, and other mythical symbols of her own, into a single painting exploring love as the “delicious source” of all his inspiration. Another body of work which could stand alone is Graham Fagen’s “A’ ye wha live and never think,” giving him a chance to bring together in one place a collection of Burns-related pieces. It begins with his bronze cast of a rose made for a show at the Fruitmarket in 2002, and finishes with The Slave’s Lament, made for the Venice Biennale in 2015, for which Burns’ song was arranged by composer Sally Beamish and sung by reggae musician Ghetto Priest. Shown here in a split screen format to fit into a smaller space, it never fails to move.
A nearby room of “Inspired Editions” includes Calum Colvin’s Burnsomania, which addresses the kitschifying of Burns head on, with the Bard’s profile on teacups, shortbread tins and (appropriately) empire biscuits. Colvin has a knack of splicing together past and present in his work; the next work, Twa Plack, shows us the Bard’s relevance to the independence debate and the 2008 financial crisis. Kenny Hunter’s Monument to a Mouse is as restrained as Colvin’s collages are energetic, but it makes its point with no less assuredness. Also in this room are Jo McDonald’s sculptures made from cut up poetry and sheet music, and composer Simon Thacker’s multi-layered audio exploration of The Highland Widow’s Lament, penned after Culloden and collected and rewritten by Burns. “Inspired Editions” continues downstairs in the cafe, with prints by Holly Johnson and Catherine Sargent, and Robert Powell’s map of Edinburgh, commissioned for this show, intricately and playfully mapping the city’s Burns connections.
Three further ground floor rooms house three responses to Burns’ epic poem “Tam O’Shanter”. Spiceboys is a new film by young artist Ross Fleming which updates the tale, shown on a suspended screen amidst a scale model of the ruins of Alloway Auld Kirk. Here, young Tam has his brush with temptation in the form of young, androgynous dancers and throbbing nightclub beats, before attempting to make his escape on his bicycle. Sculptor Laura Ford’s Auld Nick (Devil Dog) manages to look both sinister and poignant, earnestly playing his pipes under a spotlight, his little cloven hooves crossed and long canine face solemn. Laura Graham’s film installation, a new version of a work originally made for the Auld Kirk in Alloway, offers a raven’s eye view of the story, nodding to the bird’s wider role in superstition and mythology. And one could go on, because there are more works in this show than would fit in this column. And, for all the diversity and ingenuity on display, there is so much still to explore. Where is the analysis of Burns’ politics? Where are the artists dissecting his contradictory attitudes to women, or the responses to the hundreds of poems which don’t involve mice or roses or dancing ghosts? The gaps in the Burns’ legend have allowed contemporary artists many entrance points, but the good news is, there are plenty more. With material as rich as this, one could go on until Summerhall is full – and, quite possibly, till all the seas gang dry. Until 10 March. There is also a programme of Burns Unbroke events. For more information, see www.burnsunbroke.co.uk