EIF CULTURAL EXPLORERS
5 stars *****
Playfair Library Hall
EACH AUDIENCE member enters alone, to encounter the Brett Bailey’s great international installation work Exhibit B; silence is required, and absolute attention. For in this quiet, almost muted 25-minute experience, Bailey has found a way to encapsulate all the breathtaking cruelty of the age of colonialism that forms the bloody backdrop to this summer’s Commonwealth celebrations, and to bring us face to face with it, in the most literal sense.
The central idea behind Exhibit B – first seen in Brussels 2 years ago – came from Bailey’s encounter with material still held in many European museums, which reveals the extent to which black people were objectified, dismembered, and treated as animals, objects, or freaks, throughout the colonial period. The audience walks around a series of set-piece exhibits drawn from Dutch, British, Belgian and German colonial history, each one showing a human body in a situation of intolerable cruelty or humiliation. Here, though, the exhibits are not dummies or stuffed corpses, but living, breathing black men and women, who look straight at us, requiring our response; and there is heart-piercing music, sung by four performers from Namibia who also form part of one of the show’s most terrible images.
The effect is devastating, and made more so by a quiet insistence that after we have viewed the exhibition, we also learn something about the names and real life-stories of the people we have seen, many of them living in Scotland now. It’s striking that when Bailey lists the materials of which his installations are made, he lists “spectator/s” as one of them. In Exhibit B, as in no other piece of art I have seen, we are part of the show, not only gazing but gazed at, measured and judged; the sense of sorrow and shame is overwhelming, along with a liberating sense that something that had to be said has been said, with a decisive and terrible eloquence.