Ross MacRae on new exhibition Submerged
The seasons have turned, the nights have drawn in and yesterday Edinburgh seemed completely swallowed by the haar. But down at the shore there is a submarine shining out a cloud of murky light. Local artist and mural painter Ross MacRae’s latest exhibition depicts an Edinburgh submerged, not in mist, but water.
“At first I couldn’t concentrate. When I was trying to sit down and paint I was just like … not happening. But then, eventually, when I realised just how much time I had, I thought, well, I might as well make use of it,” says Ross, when I ask him how his creativity survived through lockdown. “None of this stuff is commissioned, this is all just stuff that I pick away at in my spare time. Luckily, in lockdown I had a lot of spare time. That was the best bit about lockdown.” When I ask him what some of the cons were, he says “That would be the uncertainty, the anxiety, the worry – which I think everyone felt.”
The artist’s angst about an uncertain future certainly materialised in his work. Submerged sees a collection of paintings set in a decidedly post-apocalyptic Edinburgh. “All of the polar ice caps have melted due to climate change and disastrous occasion. This year has been an example of just how fragile society really is. People were squabbling in the shops over toilet roll. I was thinking about what the worst case scenarios were, like if all of the polar ice caps were to melt, how high would the sea levels rise, and I found out that it would go just above the Forth Rail Bridge.” Here we both took a moment for expletives. He continues: “That’s when I started to think about what kind of world would exist after the flood.”
Leith is its own small world, with a blossoming scene of artists, musicians and creatives alike – whose lives have all been put on hold in the light of this year’s events. The rusting quality of the water’s edge has fed into the aesthetic of this exhibition. “I’ve always found Edinburgh inspiring, and since being down in the docks it’s been completely different. I knew that the shore existed but I was always up in the West End and never really came down this way. This is probably my favourite part of Edinburgh now.” The mechanical, industrial nature of Submerged is a shift from MacRae’s usual subject matters. When I ask what his inspirations are he lists the likes of natural patterns and organic shapes. “I think after this exhibition I’ll move on to something else. I don’t want to be known as ‘that guy that does the submarines!” So then we might call this phase his ‘submarine period’.
It is a surprisingly crisp and sunny Tuesday and we are talking inside of Customs house, accompanied by plaintive whale song and the rhythmic call of a solar pulse that are both playing out over the speakers. MacRae studied illustration at the Edinburgh College of Art and his paintings would sit very comfortably inside of a picture book, seemingly joined together by a narrative and with many featuring a little submarine character that acts as a window for the viewer into this ominous world.
“I have imagined that all of the humans have been wiped out and these mechanical creatures have taken over. There’s maybe still humans kicking about but they’re no longer in charge,” says Ross. When I ask him who might be manning the submarine he says “I am about to do the first inside view, and I don’t know what’s going to be in there yet. I like leaving it ambiguous I suppose.” I ask if there will be any hope for the world to be found in the final paintings to come. “I think the one at the end is, for me anyway, a bit of hope.” He points to the one hanging furthest from us, clearly depicting the darkest parts of the deep ocean. The wee submarine’s torches have alighted upon a humpback whale and they regard one another calmly. “Its about the unity of machine and nature, but then also the feeling that nature is always going to win. I like to look at it as – if we respect nature then it will respect us back.”
MacRae intends to do a few more paintings to round off the Submerged series. “In terms of the overarching story, I still don’t really know the final parts of the tale. You’re making it up as you’re going along. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen at the end of the story” This uncertainty is common for artists. They set off into the unknown armed only with ideas, attempting to shine lights on undiscovered futures. Even in dark times. As Gerard Richter once said, ‘Art is the highest form of hope.’
Submerged is at Customs House, 65-67 Commercial St, Leith, until the 24th of November. Monday to Saturday, 10am – 7pm. Sunday’s 12pm – 5pm. The event is free to enter.