The timing was exactly right. It was meant to be so, Yulia Kovanova tells me. As the first Arctic terns passed on their annual migration by the island of Mull in March, her exhibition, which had its roots in some decoys she had once made to attract terns to breed on Scottish shores, opened its doors at Mull’s arts venue, An Tobar.

The opening went well, despite talk of the virus and fears of lockdown, says Kovanova. “I thought nobody would come,” she says, “but they all came! There is a wonderful island community on Mull.”

And then two days later, the doors closed, prematurely, as they did around Scotland. The terns were still migrating, passing through on cool winds, passing on, untouched.

But humans, far below, were confined by an equally invisible force eddying through remote villages and urban housing estates, the only migration a round-circle of daily exercise and hurried trips to the shop.

Kovanova laughs. The terns have gone now, she says, and the exhibition has reopened. It won’t have the immediacy she and Mike Darling, curator at An Tobar, had so meticulously planned, but this evocative installation, with a soundscape by Lars Koens, still resonates.

Colony is a three-part installation, part of a larger body of work which has been curated to fit in An Tobar’s lofty gallery space. Begun in 2015, it was an offshoot of work which Kovanova, an artist from Siberia who came to live in Scotland 16 years ago – a migration not quite as lengthy as the Arctic terns own famed Arctic to Antarctic annual jaunt, but impressive nonetheless – began after being asked to work with scientists to create some visually realistic tern sculptures for the RSPB that were to act as decoys in attracting terns to a safe breeding space.

“When I started researching and working with them, as an artist you get inspired by such different areas...I read that sometimes, it doesn’t matter if the decoy looks like the bird, because they react to colour and patterns, and so I started working on the side with colours and patterns and shapes, all in the right proportions, but not looking how the real birds look. And that’s how this body of work came about.”

In the gallery, Colony hangs from the tall rafters of the former school room that is now An Tobar’s visual arts space, circles of grey and white and red, the size of a tern with wings extended, “flying” at different heights. “They are fascinating birds.

“They have the longest migration of any bird or animal, and I was very interested to think about migration through this work, thinking about how we migrate as humans, how birds migrate over all our human borders, about my own journey and the things associated with these migrations.”

Koens’ sound installation responds to Kovanova’s work, playing with the five elements that make up each sculptural piece.

“They are not an illustration, but a response,” she says.

The second work is Lifespan, an installation made up of cast resin tern beaks, “in real size, from when they are born to when they die,” explains Kovanova.

“And what happens is that their bill changes with the seasons. So when it is cold, the bill is black, and when the mating season is coming it becomes more red. It’s like putting on lipstick! Then after the breeding season, it fades again to black.”

Terns, says Kovanova, live quite a long time, and she handpainted each bill to make it as close to nature as possible.

“The oldest I’ve heard about is 30 years. The first time I made the installation, the tern was 30 years old, by beaks, but depending on the space available it’s life ends at different times!

“It might be 20 or 24. It is a portrait of a bird through a beak, starting with a very tiny orangey coloured one.”

The work is installed so that the changing light of day changes the shadows of the beak on the wall, from sharp and focused to elongated.

The final piece is a moving image work called Hide, a video of an Arctic tern in flight, edited so that the tern’s own image is removed from the film. The whole works in this one room as a picture of movement and life, of Kovanova’s own concerns with our “ecological entanglement”, of our place amidst the nature that tries to go on despite our actions.

Yulia Kovanova: Colony, An Tobar, Argyll Terrace,Tobermory, Mull, 01688 302211 Every Weds and Sat in Sept; Mon 12 and Fri 16, in Oct. Until 16 Oct Entry by appointment: 07934 386136 or

Don't Miss

The Common Guild’s latest project is In the Open, a series of audio works to be listened to, ideally outside. Conceived of during lockdown, as a means of bringing art and thought to those on their daily walks, artists involved include Luke Fowler, Lauren Gault, Duncan Marquiss, Margaret Salmon, Ashanti Harris and Sulaiman Majali. Ashanti Harris’s online audio work, History Haunts the Body, was recently released, with Majali’s Strange Winds, the final instalment in the project – designed to be heard outside, ideally 17 minutes before sunrise – now available.

Sulaiman Majali: Strange Winds, The Common Guild online audio programme, Until Dec 2020

Critic's Choice

Although there is much still in the varied landscape of Scotland’s art galleries that is available only virtually, many galleries are now open or in the process of reopening, and the joy of seeing art in the flesh again is still fresh. 
You may have to book for your free viewing slot at many places and remember to pack your mask, but it’s worth it. 
It is the Dundee Cooper Gallery’s turn to reopen now, after 6 months of closure, and they do so with this fascinating retrospective on the work of influential theorists and filmmakers Laura Mulvey and Peter Woollen. 
Mulvey, whose work in film theory from a feminist viewpoint has been very influential, and Woollen, who wrote Signs and Meaning in Cinema (1969), and who died in 2019, wrote and directed six films together whilst they were married.
This new Cooper Gallery exhibition roots itself in the avant garde of the 1970s, and looks at how Mulvey and Woollen kept this going in subsequent decades of film theory and making, putting the artists’ work in the context of other artists of the period, including those the pair collaborated with to make pieces, from Faysal Abdullah to Kathy Acker and Kerry Tribe. 
This is a thought-provoking look at the work of two transdisciplinary film makers, writers and theorists, seen through the medium of art, using audio recordings, moving image works, photographs and archival materials, as well as other media, to present once-radical concerns which still have resonance and importance today.

A is for Avant-Garde; Z is for Zero, Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, 13 Perth Road, Dundee, 01382 385330 6-31 Oct, Tues – Sat, 11am - 4pm