Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Punched In The Gut In Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens

Yesterday I escaped the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh’s Festival induced crowded streets with a two hour sabbatical in the Botanic Gardens. Whenever I’m in Edinburgh in August I usually spend some time in the Botanic’s in an effort to recapture my inner calm when I’ve had all I can take of the pedestrians who stop dead directly in front of you without any warning. There I expected to people watch in a relaxed atmosphere, where young kids torment pigeons & ducks and where big-kid-at-heart grown men attempt to feed tame squirrels. What I did not expect to find was yet another exhibition. I should have known better. Every possible square inch of the city seems to be home to an exhibition or show of some kind. If I’m being honest I’d had my fill of exhibitions for one day but I was drawn to this open air exhibition by the sight and sounds of those staring and discussing it with a hushed intensity.

Within seconds of looking at the first image of the exhibit called Hard Rain, I too was staring just as intently at it as the others. Forget Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth you won’t learn anything new there, its all been seen before and is largely only going to preach to those already converted. In contrast, Hard Rain should be shown in every school, as well as to every government official, whether national, regional or city, no matter whether they are elected or just a civil servant. That is if we are serious about wanting to change the world in a fairer manner and reverse some of the damage we are doing to the earth.

As an exhibition its made up of a series of photographs in response to Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Some of the images you might have seen before, I certainly have but in no way did that take anything away from the power that these images had.

The concept of the exhibition, is devastatingly simple. Environmental photographer Mark Edwards takes the words of Dylan's apocalyptic song and illustrates each line with a single image. There is also a succinct commentary, calmly condemning "wilful, inane and immoral carelessness towards people and planet by both our leaders and ourselves". And that's it.

So how come I think everyone should see this exhibition, especially those who are in a position to change the way we do things? Well quite simply, because each image powerfully portrays a world gone desperately wrong. The overall result of the exhibition as you walk away from it is our shared responsibility for climate change, for poverty (both spiritual and material), for habitat loss and for the abuse of basic human rights. The message is that environmental and human poverty reinforce each other. Many sensitive and informed people are aware, to at least some extent, that if only through their consumption patterns they contribute to the raping of our environment and to appalling mistreatment of our fellow beings, human and non-human. These images, from many countries and many contexts heighten that awareness, and bring it into acute focus like someone punching you hard in the gut.

On a personal level this exhibition allayed some of my fears that I had in regard to the overuse, and manipulation, of images was taking away our ability to be shocked by horrible events,

The first time I can remember images that shocked me I was around 7 years of age. I had just had a lecture for not eating the food on my dinner plate when I turned on the news and for the first time in my life I saw the effects of famine in Africa. It was 1984, the famine was in Ethiopia, the pictures of those malnourished babies I can still remember today as well as the way they made me feel, I literally felt sick to the stomach. Since that day there have been many famines and the effect has never quite been the same since that first time. When you’ve seen and heard it all before you learn to switch off. Same as you can go shopping in the best parts of Glasgow and pass by the homeless man selling the Big Issue without giving him a second glance. It’s a learned response to something that we don’t want to see.

This exhibition though, brought Ethiopia 1984 back into the present here and now. A written line of Bob Dylan’s song and a single silent image had a power all of its own. It is as if he, and Dylan, take us by the hand and lead us to the many dark places we prefer not to know about. Edwards, a superb photographer, is aware that in our daily lives, and through our democratic political systems, "we pay attention only to the short term, the visible and the nearby".

You see a picture with the Taj Mahal in the background, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, but in the foreground, by the edge of the River, lies a human corpse, half silted over, with a scabby dog nosing it. Just beyond the dog, on a sandbank, stand three vultures, waiting. Its masterful photography that you don’t really want to look at and yet at the same time, as you head takes it all in, you can’t pull yourself away from it.

Edwards's pictures are about the destruction of people, animals, plants, forests, oceans, rivers and communities and about the destruction of dignity and hope as well as of life. That is why they are each so disturbing.

If you are in Edinburgh I urge you go and have a look for yourself. You’ll find it in the Botanic’s, just outside the Palm House. If you aren’t in Edinburgh then you can still see it for yourself in book form, ask you local library for Hard Rain by Mark Edwards.


Just a Girl said...

Sounds like they put it in the perfect sort of place; all that life around you and all that destruction in front of you.

Will check the library.

Drama Queen said...

Finally got to see the Edinburgh festival as a tourist and it geat ;-)