Gill Neish, ‘+ Space’, Moray School of Art, Elgin, February 2012

Art of Toys

What exactly is a toy? Whatever it is, that word, ‘toy’, seems not to capture the full significance of the thing. Gill Neish’s powerful new works, produced in collaboration with radiographer, John Addison, consider the image and idea of the toy in a very serious and playful way.

To arrive at these pictures, Neish has filled what she describes as a family of toys with various small objects and has then passed the family through the Computerised Tomography (CT) scanner stationed at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin. The images reveal the body contours of the toys and something of their mysterious innards. The haunting, floating shapes which result seem to gather then issue some stimulating thoughts on birth, infancy, motherhood, technology and contemporary medicality in highly concentrated form.

Let’s register first of all that CT scans are serious business. The equipment is used for all manner of grave human conditions: its surhuman capabilities allow the mere human to see those cancers, tumours, embolisms and aneurisms which would choose to work their creeping impact hidden and unhindered by the penetrating ambitions of digital doctoring.

But we, the frail human, requires more than the leading edge of all-seeing clinical technology to safeguard our wellbeing. And this second point might line up Neish’s emblematic toy with the advanced technology as one other form of salve or remedy for the unseen mores of living a life.

For a toy is a plaything and a protector, is it not? Each one of us has invested something of our own being into a toy, animating it on behalf of our sense of specialness and vulnerability. Those who haven’t done so are in a way part dead already, unable to project into a thing some thing of their singular human reflexive consciousness. By the ubiquitous means of soul-investment, then, the toy becomes a surrogate, an ageless guardian, a companion and confidant. And boosted like that, the toy is not something just for the amusement of the child.

These connotations or, indeed, realities of the toy writ large are deployed skilfully by Neish. In one sense the toy is her adult stand-in, invested as it is with something of its human partner in play. In one series of photographs, one noticeably anthropomorphic entity seems to undertake a programme of clinical ritual, carrying its own inner-life toy, as if performing for Neish the various stages of a serious clinical, perhaps ante-natal, checking and balancing. The visual culture of the scan or the x-ray coupled with the toys is, of course, redolent of gestation and birth. To approach Neish’s work from this angle introduces some possible significance within a gendered reading: it seems to this observer that these artefacts of creative practice are on this count not so much stand-ins but symbolic equivalents to offspring of a conventional type, if you will. Neish makes a point of not ranking one above the other – both types are constructive, creative courses of action.

Taking this line of inquiry further, but shedding the gendered dimension for a moment, perhaps the body of work as a whole could be seen as a toy-as-protector here. Practice itself is a plaything, a some thing which receives a potent form of investment from the artist as a reflexive being. There are thus far two levels, at least, at work here. Firstly, Neish’s surrogate toys enact a ritual for her maybe, and, secondly, the oeuvre itself is a protector, a salve for the artist’s being, and by extension, ours.

Or, alternatively, is there a disturbing sense of the toys having been irradiated and exposed: fur stripped, the comforter is no longer that. Is the sharp, leading edge of our digital surhuman world finding less and less room for the tatty objects of the humans of yesteryear? The CT machine as metonym for big technology is our great digital mother, birthing the toy that has its own potential to birth yet more. Are our infants zapped with the technics of life at the expense of the symbolic pleasures of soul-investment? Are these the final forensic images of specimens now historical oddities?

But before all of that kind of rhetorical speculation, or perhaps to reinforce it, let’s note that Neish references a specific material culture practice with this work. In South Central Africa there is a craft practice which produces divination baskets or lipele. These are woven baskets which contain numerous objects to be used by a diviner in his (for it is always ‘his’) reading and securing of the wellbeing of the village. In Angola it is the Chokwe women who weave these baskets and it is only postmenopausal women who do so. This is because menstrual blood is considered a pollutant of the divining process, and the health of the village would be placed in jeopardy if the divination was not pure.

As diligent as one must be in respecting the deep-rooted material cultural practices of others, it is impossible from our sanitised medicalised, Western perspective to take at face value that cultural assumption: a feminist scanning would see straight through such a scenario. But as much as Neish herself might be sceptical of the assumptions behind the Angolan exemplar, there is a respect held for the transformational power of those divination baskets and objects.

Many of the people who produce and interpret the lipele and their artefacts, the jipelo, are refugees, and the ritual is a potent part of the refugee forging their own future path and world picture – these baskets are not the auxiliary or luxury distractions of a life otherwise satisfied, these are the critical props of lives reinvented.

So the speculation might be materially grounded. Neish’s jipelo as surrogates and companions, are created and reformed, they are items in a process of divination which is Neish’s own world-forming beyond the normative practice of child-rearing. The artist’s practice is a lipele and the images are jipelo – we collude with the artist in a playful divination of meaning which can be a clinical remedy of sorts for the maker and a treatment of sorts for the beholder.

‘+ Space’ opens at The Gallery, Moray School of Art, Elgin on the 16th of March 2012