25.05.12 - 07.07.12

In the shadow of the magnificent steel structured Forth Rail Bridge lies an uninhabited rocky islet named Inchgarvie. Once providing isolated refuge for syphilis victims, later a prison and quarantine for plague victims and during the First and Second World Wars fending off air and submarine attacks, the island is today the ruinous concrete home to colonies of seabirds. Fulmars, herons and cormorants migrate to nest here over the summer, their wheeling, diving, squawking and excreting of guano prohibit human access through a fierce occupation of the land.

Bobby Niven’s ISLAND project takes this landmark and expands its cultural location by utilising prop, moving image, artefact and sculpture in order to build a narrative that stretches the time and landscape of the film. It peels away a history of psychic layers and employs the island’s entropic materiality as a means to transport the viewer through a bodily experience. The exhibition consists of three parts: the film, the grey room filled with quiet monumental sculptures and the orange room screeching with inert birdlike depictions. Similar renderings were sculpted in Niven’s studio and transported to the island where he installed them, like offerings, in exchange for making his film. He returned with flotsam, jetsam, bird bones and objects washed ashore from the busy shipping lane and the Sisyphean task of repainting the bridge.  Referencing the dilapidated concrete structures on the island and mimicking other motifs in the exhibition (sausage, melon, tennis ball kebab, guano deposits) the crude, yet beautifully polished sculptures have a shimmering quiescent presence in the grey room. A large sausage-shaped form looks like it should float, but has the weight of an anchor, and the shape is repeated elsewhere in miniature carved driftwood. Like a curtain, a concrete screen shields the cinematic experience from the sculptures in the gallery. A frozen wave transported from the film, propped up vertically – inverts its inherent ability to stretch the horizon – and requires the body to walk around it. 

Shot on location the fifteen minute black and white film is a study of the island’s rich history. Respecting the viewer as a form-giver, its narration is impressionistic and purposefully inconsistent as the camera switches between vantage points. Moving from experimental filming techniques that zoom and pause on shapes and textures, to documentary style observation of the shipping lane, the overarching Victorian engineered bridge and the winding railway line. A third element is added in the form of a staged performance. A masked character nonchalantly prances around, inhabiting the island. This narrative tool allows the viewer a human entry point to the psychogeographical landscape. The lone inhabitant, like a ghostly embodiment of the island’s entangled and isolated history evokes a ominous voyeurism. A perspective is gained from the inside looking out to the world, as well as from afar looking in on the island. But perspective can be misleading as the concrete buildings make the island look, from a distance, like a battleship. Allegedly this defensive mimicry was put in place during the First World War in order to mislead the enemy. Close by, Rosyth dockyard maintains ships for the Royal Navy. Inchgarvie becomes the dead memory watching the living go past as they sail away from the naval hospital. This mimicry is extended to where the sculptures in their shades of grey appear camouflaged against the walls, and simultaneously imitate the monochromatic tones of the film.

Minimum sound has been employed to evoke the strangeness of the island. The chthonic drone of Queen Mary 2’s horn, comparable to something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film, harmonises with the minimal soundtrack, while the clatter of a train passing overhead recalls his 1935 film The 39 Steps in which the iconic rail bridge is featured. As the camera pans over the ornithic sculptures that have been installed in the room on the perches above the deposits of guano, a jazzy trumpet lends absurd Chaplinesque humour to the otherwise monochromatic world, and assists in anthropomorphising their eerie avian features. Until it reaches the last perch, empty. 

Niven cleverly employs the conventions of mainstream film – a sealed world which unwinds magically indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy – and then expands on it. He utilises this post cinematic marvel to hold his viewers’ attention as they make their way back through the grey room to wander, altered in consciousness, amongst the sculptures. 

Elaborating on this heightened sense of awareness, and in severe contrast, the confined orange room presents a high pitched luminous sensory overload. Reminiscent of the inside of a doocot and perched on metal brackets salvaged from the island, a colony of creatures is scattered from floor to ceiling. Made and found objects repeat imagery of the film – a pile of plaster references the guano mounds, a tiny bird bone with ankle tag, bird pellets full of plastic, rivets from the bridge. Miniature versions of larger sculptures echo with an inert squeaking of inanimate objects ruffling their feathers, flapping their wings. 

Captured inside this intricate re-interpretation, ISLAND draws on the actual character and power of the island to blur the distinction between the place, with notable geographic coordinates, and its cultural rendering. This mimicry has opened up a sensuous experience of the island without having to travel there. Niven has effectively unpicked the materiality of the island to weave a network of surprising connections and repeating motifs into the viewer’s ocean deep consciousness. What remains is an afterglow of burnt orange cast by the bridge upon the scrotumtightening waters around the island.