The Normal


Close-up images of pollen
Tonya McMullan, 'The lure of tomorrow's harvests' [pollen images], 2020, digital print. Image made by The Roslin Institute Bioimaging Facility. Courtesy of the artist and Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh.


Larry Achiampong, Amy BalkinAnca Benera and Arnold EstefanBoyle FamilyAlexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp, Gabrielle GoliathFemke HerregravenJarsdell Solutions LtdKahlil JosephTonya McMullanSarah RoseJames Webb

Talbot Rice Gallery presents The Normal, which has been curated in real time, and is a vivid reflection of life during the pandemic. Through artworks that express hope, grief, survival, violence and solidarity, the exhibition situates our lived experience within a global artistic dialogue, and includes: Larry Achiampong, Amy Balkin, Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan, Boyle Family, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp, Gabrielle Goliath, Femke Herregraven, Jarsdell Solutions Ltd, Kahlil Joseph, Tonya McMullan, Sarah Rose, and James Webb.

Artists are exploring ideas about pausing the train of progress, resurgent communities, an ever-increasing proximity between humans and wildlife and the asymmetrical effects of this pandemic due to socio-economic and racial inequality. All of this remains underscored by the need for a profound re-orientation towards planetary health following the loud wake-up call.

Tessa Giblin, Director of Talbot Rice Gallery: “We want to look at what this pandemic year has meant to us from a variety of angles. This includes viruses and their symbiotic relationship to evolution, the asymmetry of this pandemic and proof that we can in fact step off the train of progress, with artists attuning us to the natural world’s abundant production of bird-song or urban honey yield during 2020. It also includes the very human experiences we have collectively encountered during lockdown: grief, pain, isolation and exhaustion. And finally, an urge to support a new, sustainable relationship to the production of art. We’re still holding out hope that this ever-increasing proximity to viruses as the polar caps melt, as wildlife are interfered with through marketisation and deforestation – this horrible awakening – will all lead to change.”


Larry Achiampong’s ongoing series, Detention (2016- ), sees lines - inspired by memes and trending hashtags which reflect fleeting subjectivities, nebulous communities and a scarcity of language – painted on traditional classroom blackboards, highlighting the artist’s view that anti-racism isn’t something to be picked up and dropped in a fickle moment, nor traded in for cultural capital. During The Normal, the old-school punishment of writing lines will be meted out to members of management staff at Talbot Rice Gallery and the University of Edinburgh, shifting hierarchies of labour and forcing the institution to reflect upon its own privileges and political efficacy; whilst also broadly echoing the tedium of lockdown and the echo chamber effect of social media during this time. As the blackboards point to evolving platforms for communication and education, there is a sense of hope that somehow – if repeated enough – lessons will be learnt.

Since 2004, the American artist Amy Balkin has campaigned to have the earth’s atmosphere listed as a UNESCO heritage site and traded carbon emissions to create pollution-free air parks. Her ongoing project A People's Archive of Sinking and Melting (2012 - ongoing) is a global collaborative archive of “items contributed from places that may disappear owing to the combined physical, political, and economic impacts of climate change, including glacial melting, sea level rise, coastal erosion, and desertification.” Talbot Rice Gallery is contributing to the archive by inviting submissions from across Scotland, before and during the exhibition.  

Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s new commission consists of a a 3D printed sculpture that brings together the form of a deep-sea vent with the fabled Tower of Babel and a series of poetic drawings. These combined facets reflect concerns, central to The Normal, about encroachment upon nature, future horizons and the alien micro-worlds of viruses. Deep sea vents occupy the only remaining unchartered place on earth and are home to a remarkable range of micro-organisms – as well as being the subject of intense interest from mining companies, keen to exploit the vast mineral deposits that they sit upon. The vents also connect to COVID-19, as some of the micro-organisms produce the enzyme used to test for the virus, which Benera and Estefan have mixed with pigments to create the drawings on display.

Boyle Family, historically important artists connected to the Scottish avant-garde, include work in the exhibition thatpioneered a way of mapping social density - using what was, in the 1970s, the latest computer technology. Suggestive of heat maps and temperature gauges, their work highlights a connection between The Normal and earlier art forms that turned away from aesthetic conventions to focus on the conceptual challenges of thinking through different scales and movements, bridging visual and scientific domains.

In her video and sound installation This song is for… South African artist Gabrielle Goliath revisits the convention of the dedication song, in collaboration with groups of women and gender-queer musical ensembles. Each song is dedicated to a survivor of rape – groups of whom Goliath worked with over an extensive period of time and invited to contribute a song, colour and text to the work. The work creates a powerful space for reflection and aims to unsettle the 'normalcy' of rape culture - a condition presently recognised by the UN as a ‘shadow pandemic’ following a worldwide increase in domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic. The musical performances, however, are never quite what they seem: in each song a sonic disruption evokes a space of traumatic recall, in which the de-subjectifying violence of rape becomes painfully entangled with claims to life, dignity, hope, faith, even joy. 

 Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp’s botanical drawings look to a future in which catastrophe has compelled an industrial revolution, one that uses biotechnologies to begin growing components within plants. Their work Growth Assembly (2009) references a historic visual and scientific culture that simultaneously reminds us of colonialism, objectification and profoundly misguided relationships to nature. Realised in the style of botanist Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel – who thought nature should be seen as a machine – their illustrations speak to a dangerous colonial relationship between people, nature and power.

Dutch artist Femke Herregraven has previously explored the links between catastrophe bonds in contemporary capitalism and the censuses performed just before the plague. In The Normal, Herregraven will show a new work which reflects her research into the relationships between capitalism and disease. The long and entwined relationships between people and viruses is significant in the context of The Normal, with Herregraven’s work not only reminding us that the bubonic plague continues today, but also exposing the inequity of capitalist responses to humanitarian crises.

The American filmmaker and video artist Kahlil Joseph presents BLKNWS (2018 - ongoing), an evolving news-style broadcast that proffers a montage of art, music, memes and news desk-reporting to present a a positive and ever-updating portrayal of African-American experiences and Black culture. More than an artwork, this enterprise works against systemic racism by operating across both arts and everyday spaces (including community centres and commercial spaces) to push back against negative mainstream and media bias. Recently updated by the artist’s studio in response to the events of 2020, its unique news desk features and collated stories bear witness to our changing world: from the pandemic, US elections and Black Lives Matter, to the consequences of Brexit.

During Edinburgh’s first coronavirus lockdown, Tonya McMullan collected multiple samples of honey, of which up to forty samples - in colours ranging from creamy white to molasses black - will be displayed in a sculptural beehive made by beekeeper (and cabinet-maker) Michaela Huber. A series of vibrant, microscopic images of pollen in McMullan’s honey, displayed throughout the exhibition, create an alien picture of Edinburgh’s surprisingly diverse ecological makeup. The work - a collaborative project which included beekeepers, beekeeping associations and scientists at the Roslin Institute -explores innovative ways to engage with the honey collection through smell, and seeks to demonstrate the subtle changes to the environment – the different feeding patterns of bees, weather conditions and changed ecology of the city - which occurred during the 2020 lockdown.

Talbot Rice Resident Sarah Rose’s new commission for The Normal explores the re-use and re-making of plastic waste, a continuing focus in her practice, which allows her to make artistic works in-situ rather than shipping them across the globe. Rose’s working process aims to challenge accepted ideas of where artistic production takes place, at the same time as it physically ties to the broader global and ecological concerns addressed in The Normal. Rose is critical about the recycling industry and how oil and gas companies have propagated false ideas about its effectiveness to obscure their unstainable practices – whilst fascinated by its lifesaving properties, intrinsic beauty and relation to a fossilized pre-history.

A new video commission by the collective Jarsdell Solutions Ltd emphasises the entanglement of humans, animals and environments through references to the “King Rat”, - a natural phenomenon, once a harbinger of bad luck, which sees a group of rats become knotted together for life by their tails. The work uses archival footage, shot before the pandemic, to consider the trajectory of the pre-pandemic world, subtly articulating complex and artificial separations between people and animals constructed in the Western world. The footage rebounds now to show us a world on a political, social and ecological knife edge.

James Webb’s long running project There’s No Place Called Home (2004 – ongoing) is a recurring, global intervention which sees the artist surreptitiously install foreign birdsong into specific local environments, offering a dialogue about globalisation, migration and territory. The work resonates with the noted resurgence of birdsong within urban spaces muted by the 2020 lockdown. For the duration of The Normal in Edinburgh, visitors may hear the birdsong of a Jamaican Becard – a bird selected by Webb as it originates from a hot climate, with its call evoking global warming, changing migratory patterns and the idea of climate refugees - as they wander through the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.


Exhibition Guide

Exhibition Catalogue

A fully illustrated guide to The Normal

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Children's Worksheets

Accessible descriptions and activities for young visitors

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