Edinburgh is a city of statues. Most depict white men, often looking stern and authoritative—in control of their destinies and the people they tower over. Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, is one such towering “great” man. His statue stands on top of a fluted, 150-foot-tall column in St Andrew Square, an unavoidable and increasingly contested presence. Among other political and personal actions, as British Home Secretary between 1791 and 1794, Dundas frustrated efforts to end the country’s involvement with the slave trade; one of his less endearing nicknames was “The Great Tyrant.”
The Irish artist Sean Lynch, who represented Ireland in the 2015 Venice Biennale, was introduced to the ongoing local debate around the Melville Monument when he began working with Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop for its Edinburgh Art Festival 2021 commission. Rather than become embroiled in a “should it stay or should it go” brawl over the monument’s future, Lynch shifted eyes away from what he describes as “the egotistical grandeur” of city monuments in a small but busy exhibition in one of ESW’s courtyard studios.
The project’s vernacular title, Tak’ Tent O’ Time Ere Time Be Tint—an entreaty to make the most of the years we have here—was spotted in a builders’ yard near to the workshop, written in wet concrete. The observation set the tone for the show. Lynch sees significance in what for many might appear inconsequential—those fleeting interactions with the city’s built fabric that leave a trail and have an unexpected, almost imperceptible impact. A knowingly mischievous 27-minute film that views the city’s statuary through the lens of present-day encounters formed the centerpiece of his installation, lightening but not lessening the weight of history. A female narrator describes and questions the role and status of Edinburgh’s many monuments, her tone somewhere between incredulity, wonder, and mock reverence. An alternative audio guide around the city’s streets, she drops into archives that hold diminutive maquettes of the monuments, a collection of Neolithic carved stone balls, and the medieval Aberdeen Bestiary with its fantastical tales of mythical creatures. Lynch dotted sculptural versions of these creatures around the studio gallery, where they were installed on shelves and work benches as if in some kind of celestial orbit around the large TV screen. The sculptures were cast in Coade stone, a 19th-century material with its own mythology; it was developed by Eleanor Coade (1733–1821), who apparently took its exact recipe to the grave.
Working in Coade was the original starting point for Lynch’s ESW project, and he used it as both a literal and allegorical material. Through it, he spun a narrative yarn by turns rooted in place and free floating, weaving through the centuries. It felt like a quietly subversive act. As Lynch eloquently explained in an interview with ESW curator Lesley Young: “We live in a time with so much information available to us—the least we can do is try to use it to recontextualize the vicious binary aggression that is linear history.”