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Issue 239

Rabindranath X. Bhose Unearths Queer Histories from the Boglands

From the peat of the Scottish hill-tops, the artist embraces a material language of ritualism and transformation

BY Tom Jeffreys in Exhibition Reviews | 29 AUG 23

It takes a special kind of sensibility to make peat bogs sexy. Traversing performance, poetry, film, installation and site-specific mark-making, Rabindranath X Bhose’s solo exhibition, ‘DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN’, consists of a single work that connects queer erotics to ritualistic magic, transness, transformation and death within the dark, squishy ecologies of bogland in Scotland.  

In various cultures, bogs have been understood as sacred, portal-like spaces. In Scotland, as capitalism replaced feudalism, vast swathes were enclosed, drained and replaced with sheep or forestry in the name of productivity. The dwindling peat bogs that remain are therefore reminders of alternative, pre-industrial relationships between people and the land. Bhose’s work prompts me to wonder whether the bog might be read as a site of resistance: not only materially, against the straight lines of the monocrop plantation, but also, more speculatively, against straightness in all its forms. 

Rabindranath X. Bhose, 'DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN', 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Eoin Carey

Peat (partially decomposed organic matter in the uppermost soil layer) has long been extracted from the ground for fuel – once slowly, now in an unsustainable, industrialized frenzy. As sites with complex, shifting relations to productivity, they provide an intriguing subject for an artist who, in a recent text for Scottish Sculpture Workshop, described ‘rest as an integral practice’.  

A key motif in Bhose’s exhibition is the hanged man: both in the form of the tarot card and the the ritually sacrificed bodies that have been discovered preserved in bogs. The artist has smeared the gallery’s windows with an alluring, dark-brown mixture of clay, peat, testosterone gel and cacao, into which he has drawn four dangling figures. Suspended diagonally across the ceiling are tree branches, held by cable ties to lengths of steel, which have been rusted using urine, vinegar and salt. Bhose’s interest in bodily constraint extends through the addition of shibari bondage ropes, cock rings, studded leather collars and a series of sex toys delicately cast in pewter. Handkerchiefs in red, yellow, black and green allude to hanky code, a historical form of queer signification through garments, and the popular use of Calton Hill, where Collective is located, as a cruising spot. 

Rabindranath X. Bhose, DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Eoin Carey

Across the gallery floor are several pool-like shapes made from iridescent vinyl and gleaming bronze under orange lights. Each is hedged by a ritualistic safety circle made from a mix of peat (the excess gathered from peat cutting lines in Shetland) and earth from Calton Hill itself. It is notable that, where bogs and mosses have survived in Scotland, they are often common land, undivided by private ownership. Calton Hill is also a common good, which means this soil belongs to the people of Edinburgh.

As part of the Edinburgh Art Festival programme, Bhose also presented a new performance, Body of the Bog (2023), in which he whirled, flowed, swam and crawled around the hill-top site, smeared in mud and clad in cut-off denim shorts, with a red handkerchief hanging from his back left pocket. Transposing such watery movements onto solid land echoed the kind of ‘crossing over’, a long-standing interest for Bhose. However, with the performance carried out in silence, I found the repeated scrape of the artists shoes across the site’s gravel pathways jarring, suggesting a lack of harmony between the city-centre gallery and rural boglands. 

Rabindranath X. Bhose, Body of the Bog, 2023, 'DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN', performance still. Courtesy: the artist

The heart of the exhibition is a long poem written by Bhose with artists Sammy Paloma and Oren Shoesmith. The audio gently fills the gallery, alternating their three voices with rhythmic chants and noises of gurgling, slurping and dribbling. It is here that the work comes most sensually alive, through a glittering, murky, multi-layered language of peat juice, ritualistic allusions and seeping earth. Personified, the bog itself says things like ‘Fuck power’ and ‘Beautiful is a value judgement and, to be frank, I don’t trust you yet.’ In this way, Bhose celebrates the glorious, tender complexities of both bodies and landscapes (and each as the other) that continue to be persecuted for joyfully resisting the categorizing imperatives of normativity.  

Rabindranath X. Bhose’s ‘DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN’ is at Collective, Edinburgh, until 24 September

Main image: Rabindranath X. Bhose, 'DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN', 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Eoin Carey

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).