A few hours spent interrogating From Death to Death and Other Small Tales - the Scottish National Gallery’s brilliant new exhibition - feels as much like a psychic regression session as it does a cultural activity. Amalgamating the gallery’s own collection with a brace of bold works from the private collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos, From Death to Death explores the idea of the body as marker and master of our identities. It engages the bodily, the sexual and the mortal with a collection so provocatively fleshly and Freudian that it’ll leave you manically mining at your own psyche.
Common elements of Dadaism and surrealism run like lifeblood through an exhibition that incorporates a hugely diverse collection of works. Picasso’s painting of a woman made up of male organs, Nu Assis, comes to complement cinematic and sculptural works such as Gober’s 1987 X-Crib, in which an infant’s cot is twisted into a sinister, sharp cross shape, by discussing the human body in similarly sinister, unnerving images.
The exhibition’s uncanny atmosphere envelops its audience all the more due to an excellent use of the museum’s spaces. For the large part, works are hung in groups of two or three throughout small rooms entirely deprived of natural light. This claustrophobic setup makes moving around each room feel akin to a Lynchian journey through one’s own mind, shifting between rooms of intense silence, and those haunted by the faint sounds of opera music and music boxes emanating from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, or else by the shrieks and giggles of Paul McCarthy’s film ‘Pirate Party’. Fittingly, the only room from which the outside world is visible is one inhabited by Helen Chadwick’s famous ‘Piss Flowers’, created by urinating in fresh snow and making casts of the melted holes that formed; an unnerving take on our ability to influence the outside world.
If there is a niggle to be given, it is only about the uneven textual support given to some of the exhibit’s pieces. Whilst most signs do a sound job of marrying the more trying psychoanalytic and artistic concepts to pieces that may be otherwise enjoyed purely for their eerie feel, some seem under-supported. For example, the aforementioned Cremaster cycle, focussing upon ‘the five stages of sexual development’, proves a mind-boggling mish-mash of feature-length films and curious artefacts with no explanation of what exactly these five stages are. This is frustrating when such a piece is obviously a vast work with a lot to say. Regardless, even seeing the scale of the cycle is impressive enough to enjoy.
From Death to Death is an arresting exhibition more than worth a visit. Take some time and feel out your frame with this marvellous display.