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> > > Edinburgh Festival: Unlimited Exhibition... Summerhall

Unlimited’s first exhibition at Summerhall is a series of ambitious mixed media installations by the UK’s leading disabled artists. Review by Colin Hambrook

two heads enshrouded in bandages are connected by a red, plastic chord, with a suspended blue hammer

Fragmenting the Code(x) by Aidan Moesby and Pum Dunbar

There is a meditative theme within the visual arts Unlimited showcase on exhibition at Summerhall. Reflections on life and death, youth and old age run through most, if not all, the installation pieces, giving it some cohesion as a whole.

Much of the work has an autobiographical or biographical element. Richard Butchins ‘213 Things About Me’ is carefully and beautifully considered as a piece of art film / sound art. The film gives an insight into the perceptions of Cate Warren - a young woman struggling to come to terms with alienation and an absence of support as a disabled person living in the US. 

Her words taken from diaries and emails and narrated by an actor expose perceptions of self in relation to the world talking with humour and gravitas about the frustrations, aspirations and difficulties of living with aspergers. Next to the video screen are a collection of valued objects inside a glass box on a plinth, giving the installation the feel of an altar piece, set up in homage to Warren’s life.  

The sound work mirrors echoes inside a church, with layers of Warren’s music subtly held in the background with pieces of incidental sound and the narration of text emerging from different parts of the space.

Sheila Hill’s short film ‘Him’ is a meditation on old age capturing the chiselled features of Tim Barlow as he effortlessly ruminates on his life. In contrast to Butchins piece Hill captures the reflections of a man experiencing the joys of old age. 

This contemplative work shot in segments face-on captures the skill of being totally at ease in front of a camera. In one segment Barlow exposes his interests as an ex-actor studying the subtleties of peoples’ expressions in relationship, comparing them to the exaggerated stance of actors on television. There is a poignancy and a dignity to his reflections and thoughts on the the realities of life as he approaches his 80th birthday, looking forward to having ‘a real knees-up.’ 

Craig Simpson’s dance for camera ‘It’s Like…’ is a simple but powerful expression of the joy of the body in movement. The setting for the film is the stage where Simpson performed publicly for the first time when he was at school as part of the national curriculum. And in that sense it has a nostalgic quality. looking back on what he learnt from school that has sustained him through life. 

The beauty of the work is in the simplicity and spontaneity of the dance movement. Again, rather than a piece of dance, as such, the piece is more of a meditation on how it feels and what it means to simply be a human body in movement.

Nicola Canavan’s Between Land and the Living also has the feel of a piece of dance for camera; except here the body is exposed, earth-like, with slow movements expressing a melancholy sense of the body changing through age and impairment.

Bekki Perriman’s The Doorways Project is a series of high quality photos of eight doorways, telling the story of the artists’ life in short pieces of text underneath the photos during her years of homelessness. The grandeur and imposition of the architecture contrasts sharply as an expression of the absence, which each story reveals: the life of a homeless person as a non-life or a life in limbo, rejected by society. Ephemeral moments, like selling a Big Issue magazine to Chris Evans contrast with the terror of watching a friend die in a doorway as Opera-goers look on briefly to ignore what is happening in front of them.

A series of sound pieces in doorways outside the building tell individual stories of homelessness, highlighting the extremes of what it means to live on the streets. For example Ryan talks about his efforts to clean the patch outside the shop where he sleeps and the positive relationship he built with the owners, contrasting strongly with stories of being subject to violence. The power of these recordings is in conveying the all-too-real sense of being 'in-valid'.

Lea Cummings installation: Life Force and Altar/er is influenced by the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ folk art. Using brightly coloured patterning as a backdrop to the work and within a beautifully constructed cardboard skeleton, all the elements are set up in symmetry, again giving a church-like quality to the piece with a central screen showing the washing of bones, and in front, a tray of bones held in rhythmic movement. At the side a full specimen jar parallels the suspended skeleton. The effect of the artwork is bright, playful and disturbing in equal elements.

Aidan Moesby’s digital image, light box Fragmenting the Code(x) is a wonderfully bizarre image that also speaks of alienation, with two heads totally wrapped in bandages, connected by a red plastic chord and a suspended hammer. The image has a playful and surreal, symbolic quality emphasised by the use of colour within the piece. Combined with the collage artwork of Pum Dunbar the work emphasises the richness of a mind in fragmentation: even without the label of ‘autism’ it’s an experience I can understand very well. Some of the collage images are particularly affective printed onto large silk curtains.

Lastly, Katherine Araniello’s The Dinner Party Revisited is run through with the kind of subversive humour that I’ve come to expect from Araniello, taking a grip of disability stereotypes about ‘triumphing over adversity’ and ‘victimhood’ and making fun. 

You could call the piece of performance a meditation on getting drunk as Araniello welcomes her virtual guests with glasses of alcohol that her ‘butler’ then proceeds to drink herself: it’s an outrageously funny nightmarish scenario staged in front of a live audience. The work references ‘Dinner for One’, a classic black-and-white 1963 TV recording with May Warden as the aristocrat and Freddie Frinton as the butler who slowly gets more and more drunk as he helps himself to the alcohol intended for the invisible guests.

Does It Matter? a series of short films commissioned by 14-18 Now in memory of the World War I Centenary also runs on a loop within the installation, with a series of short films by Claire Cunningham, Simon Mckeown, Katherine Araniello, Tony Heaton and Jez Colborne, which explore the relationship between disability and war.

The Unlimited Exhibition... is on show at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 5 October 2015. Please click on this link for more information

Katherine Araniello's The Dinner Party Revisited publication launch and film screening is on Wednesday 9 September at LADA, London E9. Please click on this link for more information