Sarah Urwin Jones

NATHAN Coley’s Lamp of Sacrifice has been much loved since it was first exhibited in 2004. Taking its title, and some of its impetus, from The Seven Lamps of Architecture, an early thesis of the Victorian artist and polymath John Ruskin, The Lamp of Sacrifice is a reproduction, in cardboard, of all of Edinburgh’s 286 places of worship. Or at least, all those who’d paid their £50 to be listed in the Yellow Pages in 2004, Coley tells me.

The work is the starting point for the first instalment of NOW, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s new three-year exhibition programme which will highlight its own contemporary holdings, commission new work by contemporary artists and bring in work from other collections to illustrate further national and international context to the work being created “right now”.

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“We’re approaching each of the exhibitions in a very thematic way,” says senior curator Lucy Askew. In each of the six constituent exhibitions over the next three years, the gallery will highlight the work of one artist and use it as a basis around which to build the exhibition.

But if Coley’s iconic work was an obvious starting point for this first exhibition, there was also a problem. Two years ago, the work was almost completely destroyed when the original – on loan from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – was saturated in an accident involving a malfunctioning humidifier.

Coley tells me his initial reaction to the news of the work’s destruction was one of shock, anger and then melancholy. “It all seemed so futile,” he says. For the Lamp of Sacrifice had truly involved sacrifice. There was the collating of information from the Yellow Pages, the trawl through Edinburgh photographing each of the 286 buildings and then the laborious process of reproducing them in cardboard, to scale, a project that took five months. It is the kind of process one would probably only want to undertake once in one’s life. And yet some 11 years later, Coley offered to do it all again, in a major and complete restoration.

“Remaking it was both a joy and a prison sentence,” says Coley, who used all his original drawings and plans. “When I made it the first time it was conceptually interesting in terms of the idea of sacrificing my time and labour and energy to remake something which already existed in the city of Edinburgh. To go through that again a decade later felt positively perverse! But although it was one of my earliest “hits”, it’s still at the centre of my practice, still fresh and uncontrived. To be honest I feel quite lucky…it’s like being in a young band and having a hit single that you have to keep playing all the time – imagine if you hate the song! But luckily I still think it’s a good illustration of what I’m interested in right now. It’s an old friend but a new conversation.”

His approach to laying the work out in the gallery space has been “rigorously casual”. “Whatever looks good,” he laughs, playing “God” with the layout. In one form, this is Edinburgh as a model village of Faith, reduced to its skyward-pleading essentials, unrecognisable as a whole yet familiar in details. A church displaced here, a mosque there, simultaneously the architecture of grand religious ideals and the crumbling building passed every morning on one’s way to work. This is a collection of battlements, walls to keep out the enormity of the empty universe. It is also coffee mornings and toddler groups, jumble sales and hot dinners; it is the silent minaret you stare at out of your office window every day or the building you didn’t realise was a Quaker meeting house. Individual stories, recognitions, are part of what interests Coley.

Time has changed the work, in context if not in physical form, says Askew, and some buildings may not still be places of worship. Adding a new dimension, too, are the two other works by Coley in the exhibition. Paul, a scale model of St Paul's Cathedral in London and the very recent Tate Modern on Fire are intricate reproductions of two iconic London buildings – one religious, one secular – and both contain a hidden “cabinet of curiosities” of items relating to each building’s history.

A springboard, then, to the rest of the ground floor space and the eclectic list of artists, including Tessa Lynch with recent work redeveloped for the space; Mona Hatoum, represented by Performance Document which looks at her street performances in the 1980s; Louise Hopkins – who is paired here with Tony Swain; and two major works from Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander, including the film The Tenant (2010, made with Cao Guimaraes) set in a tenement in Angel, Islington and Harvest (2013-14), a series of daily shopping lists taken from one London community over the period of a year. A diverse and thought-provoking gallery of the intimate and the public, the individual and the community, the lost and the found.

NOW

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), 75 Belford Road, Edinburgh, 0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org Mar 25-Sep 24