Henry VIII’s Wives

Sometimes an artwork elicits a fine empathy for “all the living and the dead” by realizing its idiosyncrasies full scale. In a unique move of appropriation, Henry VIII’s Wives (a group consisting of artists Bob Grieve, Rachel Dagnall, Sirko Knüpfer, Simon Polli, Per Sander, and Lucy Skaer) have reconstructed the Neolithic Orkney village of Skara Brae, complete with burial house, residential areas, and a communal workshop. This artistic one-to-one reimagination doesn’t pander to fetishized production values but engages instead in a bricolage of both abstract and palpable historical material. The reconstruction itself is made of recycled MDF; untreated surfaces and pencil traces bear witness to the fact that the material was once another artwork at Tramway. The work’s inorganic forms make it vaguely futuristic, like a digital landscape, a stylized crystalline world, but they also evoke the rudimentary props and stage sets used by the film industry in lieu of special effects to be added in postproduction. The uniformly brown topography is a projection surface: The World Heritage Site replica becomes a virtual terrain where history has been stripped of its authoritative gloss.

In two video installations, each consisting of three flat-screen monitors, amateur actors present scripts the artists have put together from bits of conversations overheard during the installation period in Glasgow, in places as varied as an old people's home, a tomato farm, and a criminal court. This is how the city itself is present in the otherwise de-urbanized work—as loose snippets of talk jaggedly recombined. In a generic interior, three blind middle-aged actors have a strange conversation that never quite takes off as a dialogue and has little obvious bearing on the objects they hold: historical jewelry, weapons, and ethnographic artifacts (borrowed from a public gallery, an antique shop, and the Ministry of Defense). A ware that these people could not see the representation in which they participate, one becomes self-conscious about one’s own gaze.The presentation of objects recurs in the other video installation, in which three young acting students ham it up in the company of two magpies in a cage and—suddenly taking the lace of one actor—a live homed owl twisting its neck and looking wide-eyed around the room.

With their bizarre cultural mapping, Henry VIII’s Wives add four millennia of historical resonance to the idea of hybridity, combining the scale and sense of locale of another Glaswegian artist, Ross Sinclair, with the material abandon of a kind of latter-day arte povera. The project is also rendered credible by their authorial identity as a group, forming a micro-movement in the political sense of the word and working on a collective horizon as a force rather than a subject. But what ultimately makes this show, “Light Without Shadow,” a bit static is its refusal to sum up the doubt it casts on mechanisms of personal and cultural memory. In its inclusive attitude and fractured symbolism the project has room for Inuit knives, birds of prey, tomato farmers, and the witness for the defense; all distinctions of contemporary culture seem fickle and provisional from the indifferent, near-eternal point of view of Skara Brae. But perhaps the subversive gesture and spatial thrill of transposing a Neolithic village to an art gallery isn’t followed through: What do Henry VIII’s Wives ultimately want to include in the historical imagination of future generations?

Lars Bang Larsen