Summerhall, Edinburgh


Summerhall, Edinburgh


September 2017

I was lucky enough to be able to travel up to Edinburgh to meet Rose Frain and see her current exhibition at Summerhall. ‘This Time in History, What Escapes/Afghanistan’ was hosted quite appropriately by the Richard Demarco Art Foundation who extended their rooms into a previously unused loose space for Frain’s exhibition. Having been aware with Rose Frain’s practice for a while, I was familiar with some of the pieces as I had seen them installed at Goldsmiths and also at V&A in London. Yet this was the first time that I had the opportunity to see the complete body of work as a full room installation. And it rocked. Or better and maybe somewhat more precise, the works entered into a subtle yet pertinent dialogue with the space, allowing slowly to unfold a complex rendering of what escapes in the normal understanding of the war in Afghanistan. And this is so much, as the edit of the mainstream media is rigorous at culling what does not quite fit in the neat categories of friend and foe[1].

When looking around on my own at first, I was immediately struck by the 200-part mirror installation, mirrors that seemed to mimic the shape of the iPhone screen, one of the prime reflective surfaces for selfies. I was stunned because to me this brought the individual right back from being a viewer, an onlooker to being part of the exhibition. Yet the mirrors were not purpose cut but come from the standard issue emergency pack that any soldier would have with them. They are signaling mirrors used first in WW1 and the number is in reference of an average sized battalion.

Frain does not simplify, she does not accuse but she reflects on the different positions of the humans affected by these wars that started in 1979. She focuses on the British soldiers who could be all too easily stamped as ‘aggressors’, on the living conditions of the women in Afghanistan, she shows up what got cut out of the media reportages, she invites us to think about the ever thriving economy of the opium trade. So did it not register with me that lapis lazuli is a currency in Afghanistan or that food tins after fulfilling their intended purpose are turned into explosive devices that are then used to target mostly civilians.

Frain does not work with a didactic approach and there is no information displayed[2] as part of the installation neither does she rely on using overtly images from the media. When scrutinizing how she engages with the many facets of the still ongoing events in Afghanistan both on an intellectual level as physically, it is evident that partiality as advocated by Donna Haraway is at the core of Frain’s approach. This becomes even more clear to me in the subsequent conversation where Frain repeatedly points out that for her there is neither black nor white and that soldiers, freedom fighters and civilians all suffer alike where wars take over civil life. This does not only concern her positioning as in the process of mediating these events through her art practice but also affects us who engage with her work. Frain feels, as she told me later, that it is sometimes important not to understand visual objects as direct information but to engage with them visually, sensually, subconsciously. This explains why what you would expect form an exhibition on the wars in Afghanistan is simply not here. Instead there are traces, remnants, smudges of paint, subtle triggers that make you wonder, and ever so slightly feel guilty about your Western Centric often too blasé attitude to the everyday that does not immediately concern your precious self.

When I ask Frain why she still continues to engage with the situation in Afghanistan when there are so many more events currently plighting the world, she answers that Afghanistan still matters and this is even more admirable as many of us seem to suffer from blanket crisis fatigue.


When I enquire Frain if she considers her work to affect change, she was hesitant pointing out that this is not a thing easily to claim. Frain does not consider herself to be activist but believes, and was also told by many who have come in contact with her work, that her work has affected them personally and that engaging with her work has expanding their understanding of things. Out of my own experience with her work I would whole heartedly agree with this. To me her work subtly yet steadily grinds away at my complacency, and reminds me that the world is not the same to all and many have not access to the basic rights as a human being: shelter, safety, food, a purpose of being other than to get shot or put on hold in a camp. Her work practice is deeply compassionate, partial and empathetic. I would say that this might be just the kind of activism that is needed to affect us personally so that we once more engage as individuals with matters of concern and ultimately with the political.



[1] Needless to say, most of us seem all too often give in and take what the Internet throws up as first serves, as a not too carefully tailored take of our aptitudes.


[2] There are some exhibition notes are available at the entrance.