fri 22/01/2021

Edinburgh Art Festival: A Festival woven together by the city itself | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Art Festival: A Festival woven together by the city itself

Edinburgh Art Festival: A Festival woven together by the city itself

A rich and vivid cornucopia of contemporary art throughout the city

A few days visiting the Edinburgh Art Festival and the city itself becomes the encircling gallery. Under great canvases of lowering grey cloud, plunging up and down the different levels of the Old Town and the New, things unfold against the intense hues of emerald-green spaces, the coppery contrast of the beeches, the cold hardness of the towering walls of stone and the eddying flow of the crowds. Within this frame is the opportunity to see a wide diversity of exhibitions and events in almost 50 museums, non-profit, commercial and artist-run spaces, plus specially commissioned site-specific works.

Some will end in early September but for anyone not heading to Edinburgh this month, several of the major exhibitions will continue into the autumn and beyond. But where to start? Alphabetical? Big name? Central or off the beaten track? First a walk through the glorious Botanical Gardens to Inverleith House and the exhibition of 37 of the later works of Robert Rauschenberg grouped under the title “Botanical Vaudeville”.

UptownPigRBIt is hard to imagine now a time when the use of found and discarded objects was new and revolutionary.  Perhaps the later works on show here are only an echo of his former self but they seem to lack energy or passion. Have the passing years placed exhibits such as the Uptown Pig Pox, 1988 (pictured right) or Eco Echo IV, 1992-3, into a subsection of American Folk Art but without the directness or simplicity of the real thing? The larger part of the exhibition presents works on reflective surfaces: mirrored, brushed or enamelled aluminium, stainless steel or brass: oddly delicate things catching the light streaming through the windows. “I don’t like the way we are reflected in them,” said one of the viewers. “Is that the point?” It would have been hard for any exhibition indoors to compete with the magnificence of the day and the park outside the gallery’s elegant Georgian windows, and this one sadly lacked the freshness or energy to do so. It may be that the works on show are an unfair representation of the artist.


EB 86Elizabeth Blackadder is one of the best known and most popular of all Scottish artists. We all think we know her: cats, irises, Japanese fans. Walk into many an Edinburgh drawing room and very likely there will be an Elizabeth Blackadder on the wall: reassuring and comfortable. The large exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery celebrates her forthcoming 80th birthday and 60 years of her painting and does that rare thing; genuinely makes you look again at what you think you know so well. It is colour and subtlety of colour above all which envelop you throughout the exhibition.

The layout of the gallery allows you at one point to stand in a spot where the vibrantly coloured early years and the later and more recent works in slightly more muted tones appear on either side of you, whilst highlighted through an arch ahead is a brilliantly painted kimono (pictured left: Still Life with Iris, 2000). There are contrasts between early and later but it all connects, relates and informs. There is a harmony and a meditativeness beyond reassurance and comfort: objects in a floating world. There is an almost monastic dedication which builds and builds, taking in influences of teachers and fellow artists but which, through shaping and framing and looking and relooking at familiar subjects, simplifies and abstracts over the years.

LevineQueenSomething similar occurs in The Queen: Art and Image, also at the Scottish National Gallery. Is 60 years the perfect timespan in which to see life, art, the known and the unknown achieve a force and power matched only by the poignancy of the death of the promising young? There was something intensely and unexpectedly moving in particular in the recent photos by Chris Levine (pictured right: Lightness of Being, 2010) and Thomas Struth and the uncompromising portrait by Lucien Freud.

David Mach’s Precious Light (main picture: Die Harder, 2010) is his response to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Monumentally, it fills the whole of the City Art Gallery. As you approach, Golgotha appears through the front windows. The size of the figures fills your vision and overpowers you with their agony, throwing you off balance. Mach tells his version of best-remembered bible stories in epic style through collage and sculpture. Seeing the exhibition in the days after the recent riots, the images of hellish consumer madness, retribution, flames and violence seemed almost familiar. The biblical demons of the moneylenders loomed large. There is a fitting Hollywood/Cecil B de Mille style to the exhibition. Awful and awesome, the images terrify and fascinate and yet the original words remain and endure. The words and the images together provide a powerful and provocative experience.

'It’s a rich multicoloured carpet which somehow makes you incredibly happy'


IMG 6270Martin Creed does the almost impossible. He has rehabilitated a virtual no-go area, resuscitating a shortcut between the upper and lower town in a style which seems both to have been there forever and to be completely novel. The Scotsman Steps had become somewhere you did not go. I remember once coming upon the scene of a recent mugging – discarded purse, blood on the stairway. Now Work No 1059 (pictured left) clothes the 104 steps in different coloured and textured marble and people are flocking to walk up and down to see how the marble looks in different light and at different angles. The steps are a little like giant piano keys and it would not be surprising if they emitted different notes reminiscent of Creed’s musical stairs and lift at last year’s Fruitmarket exhibition. “It’s like an Italian cathedral!” stair-goers cry. It’s a rich multicoloured carpet which somehow makes you incredibly happy.

Anton Henning 10th A73EA36"Colour enlivens modern home" might be the interior décor mag headline for Anton Henning’s Interior No 493 (pictured right) at the Talbot Rice Gallery. You walk into a bright space of colour-blocked walls and coordinating furniture, paintings, sculpture. You tread on soft yellow carpet. Are you in a stage set for a Noël Coward play? It is inviting but somehow empty. Anyone who knows the usually rather austere gallery is seduced by this new softness and warmth but what is it about? Is it about immediate response? The primacy of colour? Comfort and reassurance? The artist calls it a total piece of art - “Gesamtkunstwerk”. Respond as you wish, there are no rules.

This year the Fruitmarket is showing the American artist Ingrid Calame for the first time in Scotland. She, too, focuses on what is beneath our feet. An artist-archaeologist, she maps cracks, stains and marks of the everyday and transforms them. This exhibition shows works from 1994 to the present, including a beautiful piece made specifically for and in the gallery: LA River at Clearwater Street. The delicate, spidery fresco clings to the wall where coloured pigment has been shot through tiny “pounced” holes in her tracing. You can easily rub against it accidentally, smearing it, erasing it - underlining the evanescence of these marks.

Anish Kapoor's Flashback at the Edinburgh College of Art also makes use of coloured pigment. An early work from 30 years ago, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers, is shown next to a recent work, Untitled, 2010. Colour, shape, texture and scale provoke visceral, immediate responses which are hard and maybe unnecessary to voice: a primal experience which gives the mind a rest whilst filling the eyes.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Lightning Fields 163Fading traces and moments caught in time are the subject of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Photogenic Drawings appearing at the Dean Gallery – part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Things seen through a glass darkly, ghostly, dreamlike, specimens caught in amber, eerie outlines. They are a homage to early photography – a loving and painstaking reworking of some of the unseen negatives of the photographic pioneer Fox Talbot. Their effect is gently mesmeric as they emerge from - or are they on their way to? - the deep sea of our consciousness and memory. Partnering/contrasting these photos are a second set: Lightning Fields (pictured left). These capture pure energy. Their force is potent, striking, breathtaking in their starkness. The artist literally sent 400,000 volts, Frankenstein-like, onto film to create these images. These two series of photographs shown next to one another rush waves of different thoughts and feelings through your mind and heart, flickering between bright intensity and gauzy suggestion. They soak indelibly into your vision.

chromosome 5Across the road, the other half of the Gallery of Modern Art is showing a large-scale exhibition of drawings and sculptures by Tony Cragg (Pictured right: Chromosome5). In all his work he seems to be playing with form and shape, doodling with pattern and seeing where it takes him. His beautiful inky watercolour drawings are like a kind of undersea knitting for giants. Outside, the gallery’s grounds provide the space to examine several of his larger works from all angles and see how they fit into a wider landscape. From his drawings we see the transformation of faces and profiles into twisting sculpture and set in the landscape these forms seem to be a fête galante, holding a conversation among themselves.

This review has been only a short walk through some of the Art Festival. There is much more to explore, experience and enjoy. The festival is woven together by Edinburgh itself and it emerges as one of the star exhibits. It is a total piece of art. I did not come out humming the scenery but this Art Festival succeeds in making the city even more vivid and atmospheric and shows off to advantage its many varied and distinguished spaces for art.

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