A new exhibition at the St Andrews Museum, “Seeing in a Wider Sense”, brings together Anthropology and Artwork, but it leaves the gender divide in tact.
I could describe my bed in many ways. It is heaven when I reach it at night, a distraction when I have an early morning lecture, and an overflow wardrobe when I am choosing an outfit. However, this is just to me. To the very many first years I have recently shown around my flat as prospective tenants the bed is an unknown territory; a blank canvas onto which they can project their own sleeping habits, or other nocturnal activities. With this in mind a bed is what greets you when you enter the ‘Seeing in a Wider Sense’ exhibition at the St Andrews Museum. Actually, to be specific it is a hammock, but the point remains the same, and this is that an object has more lives than a cat.
The exhibition aims to be a dialogue between art and anthropology, and through this ‘help us to see and understand differently’. Through its collection of art works and artefacts it claims to show that across geographical locations there may be similar source materials and techniques, but that ‘the significance and usage of the resulting work will differ’.
This seems obvious when we consider objects from a cultural or geographical perspective. For example, a young person who does not practice Christianity in a country like Spain will have a different relationship and attitude to a statuette of a crucifix then they would to a Buddha, although both are religious artefacts that do not belong to the person’s religion. However, whilst the tourist gaze can navigate cultural divides, it seems to fall somewhat short when it comes to the more ubiquitous local divide: the gender divide.
This is an appropriate time to return to the image of the bed, or moreover the hammock, as discussing the gender politics of a bed seems like a tall order for an article about art. The hammock is central to the exhibition in more than is location. It provides a reference point for the rest of the work in the exhibition, as it represents both artwork and artefact. To the left of it is displayed the work of Scottish artist Marian Leven, and to the right is the work of Scottish artist Will Maclean, with anthropological objects scattered in between. The metaphorical gender divide which pervades society, apparently the world over, is made into a physical split within the exhibition.
Leven’s work includes striking abstract paintings from more recently in her career and hanging textiles from earlier on. These resemble the hammock in appearance. In the wall text concerning Leven, the artist herself states that both her painting and fabric work allow her ‘to respond to this environment [Scotland] that I am part of a long history of people shaped by these conditions’, before comparing her work to that of the textiles produced by the women of the Piro tribe. Leven is defined by the curators within the history and traditions of her nationality and gender. Maclean’s work includes mixed media painting, a collection of photocopies of things that interest him, and objects from his own anthropological expeditions and interests. Maclean is able to actively participate in shaping how these tribal objects are understood and viewed. It is as though Leven has been given the material to craft paper chains, and Maclean the equipment to sculpt metal. Thus, next to Marian’s work the hammock is an artwork, and next to Maclean’s it is an artefact to be understood.
Marian says that ‘the land, sea and weather absorb me’ as an indication to her interest in the natural landscape. However, I see this as a far more telling statement as to the placement and consideration of her work, at least certainly within the exhibition. Her work is valued for its superficial presentation and its mimicking of the type of objects which Maclean has deemed important. It is without irony then that the wall text concerning Maclean aligns him and his interest in tribal objects with Gauguin, Picasso, Paul Klee and Henry Moore.
Whether or not the exhibition does indeed see in a wider sense, it certainly widens the geographical context for its most eminent truth; women make the bed which men sleep in. This is a man’s world.