"WHEN you look at living creatures – from biological cells to humans – you see that everything in nature produces more energy than it requires. Cells take energy for themselves, but also for growth and multiplication. At some point, everything reaches the edge of its container. And at that point, there’s no way to channel that extra energy productively, so it must be destroyed. This is what Bataille called ‘the accursed share’.”

James Clegg is the curator of a new group exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, and he’s explaining the root of the show’s title. In his 1949 book, The Accursed Share: An Essay On General Economy, radical French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille critiqued consumerist and economic systems producing excess energy and waste that had no use.

Clegg’s take on The Accursed Share assembles artworks that provoke contemplations on the tension between Bataille’s theories and the very relevant concept of debt. How, for instance, can so many people be in debt right now when there’s so much excess in the world?

“During the pandemic, we saw governments bailing out businesses through the furlough scheme and global debt rise to a record $226 trillion,” says Clegg. “This prompted a lot of questions about money: How debt works in relation to governments in countries like the UK, where the government issues currency in the first place, and how these huge global figures are possibly accounted for.”

Bataille used the concept of war as one illustrative example of his theory; specifically, how wars generate massive waste – both metaphorical and physical. Clegg follows the thread by including a piece from Congolese artist Sammy Baloji in the exhibition. “When you see the copper guns shells in the work of Baloji,” he says, “it seems clear that the enforced mass-mining of minerals and the mechanised self-destruction of developed nations in the World Wars were inevitably linked.”

Baloji is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the African countries ravaged as a Belgian colony during the late 19th and early 20th century at enormous human and environmental cost. One of the outcomes of the Black Lives Matter movement is the reinvigorated conversations around reparations, including a recommendation that modern-day Belgium should compensate the DCR for the incredible damage caused at the time, thus creating a financial debt.

But how much should the Belgians pay in compensation? Would it ever be enough? Baloji’s untitled artwork incorporates empty gun shells used as plant pots, that cutesy kind of repurposing that obliterates memories of the shells’ original use. How did Clegg go about choosing the artists for the exhibition?

“In some cases, specific artworks stood out,” Clegg explains. “It felt that The Accursed Share needed them. In other cases, the artists have practices that constantly explore and revisit this subject.”

Those artists include Turner Prize-winning Lubaina Himid, Marwa Arsanios, the Lebanese artist whose work meditates on the aftermaths of colonialism and privatisation, and terra0, the collective that examines possibilities around using digital technology to build benevolent, sustainable systems. Clegg has chosen Himid’s Naming The Money piece for the exhibition, the haunting crowd of life-size human cut-outs that were a central part of her 2022 survey at London’s Tate Modern. These hand-painted slaves represent the astronomical debt that slave traders and owners owe to the African diaspora.

Elsewhere, Hana Miletić’s work looks at another kind of debt – the debt that’s owed to history and its remnants. The Croatian artist uses textiles to create tributes to everyday objects that have been repaired and handed down to live again, while Filipino artist Cian Dayrit recruits local artisans to work with him on pieces that document abuse of the poor at the hands of self-appointed rulers and multinational companies. His Et Hoc Quod Nos Nescimus (Latin for “and what we do not know”) embroidery piece is an upside-down world map, with the usually dominant south flipped and relegated, giving the north global prominence, even if just on a textile.

For Moyra Davey’s Copperheads series, the artist photographs the one-cent coins that have been manufactured by the United States Mint since 1909, revealing scars and patinas on their surfaces. Literally, dirty money. Hanna von Goeler’s work continues the currency angle, as she uses defunct bank notes as canvases for paintings that comment on ecological and social threats. Swedish duo Goldin+Senneby explore implications of land ownership by buying plots of land and using their sites to create artwork in the wild.

Last month, debt management charity StepChange announced that it had taken more calls on January 3 of this year – the first working day after the festive break – than on any day in 2022. One in five of the people they’re helping, they say, cite the rising cost of living as the reason for their debts. Recent statistics from The Money Charity show that the average UK household owes £2290 in credit card debts alone, while latest figures from Oxfam show that, since 2020, the richest 1% have captured almost two-thirds of all new wealth – nearly twice as much money as the bottom 99% of the world’s population. The Accursed Share is a timely exhibition.

What does Clegg hope that visitors will take away from the show?

“I hope it’s a feeling of being troubled,” he says. “The cards are certainly on the table. The artists lay bare the architecture of a system that divides lands, extracts resources, dispossesses people and leaves ruined lives and landscapes behind. It is profoundly unfair.”

Clegg’s curation covers a spectrum of responses, and they’re not all bleak. He mentions that the exhibition reveals subtle and poetic responses to the themes explored, artworks that manage to find beauty and wonder in the starkest areas of this subject. There’s even hope.

“If you accept that we start with nothing and go back to nothing,” he says, “it’s amazing how all kinds of alternative ways of benevolent living open up.”

The Accursed Share is at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh from March 18 until May 27, 2023.