The paradox of a city like Edinburgh is that to do anything spontaneous involves extensive planning.
Despite its closes and little streets, for locals Edinburgh does not often afford itself to hidden gems. Very rarely does it come up with something you haven’t seen before, or at least not heard of; seldom is there such a thing as a pleasant surprise that isn’t pre-booked in advance.
But then isn’t this the tonic offered by the festival? Out of the familiar comes something you haven’t seen or done. You’ve waited all year round for something to just happen, and here it is, and then some. You might still book some tickets in advance, out of habit, but the true spirit of the month has always been to just show up and see where the day will take you.
And so where does the art festival take us this year? Over the course of a day and a half, and with a friend, I went around to see as many exhibitions as I could, using only whatever was near or came to mind as the basis for our route. Below is the resulting outline—and review—of our meandering walk around the city, from gallery to gallery.
This is not a detailed critique. It would be impossible to give one. Instead, what I hope to offer is a sketch that is closer to the overall festival experience: that is, one more subjective than analytical; at times more impatient than considered; more holistic than particular and, above all, governed and informed by the spur of the moment.
I. Scottish National Museum of Modern Art, Two: Emil Nolde, Colour is Life
We limber up for the day with a safe bet, an established name: the Scot Modern.
Emil Nolde was a Nazi and Anti-Semite. One of his pictures depicts the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of hook-nosed, sneering Jews. He also enjoyed painting flowers.
Nolde was a conflicting figure, and this is writ large in his paintings without having to delve very far into his biography. Two paintings placed side by side encapsulate this. They are near identical, both portraying a group of rowdy men in bowler hats and grubby suits. But one, according to the plaques, is of Danish fishermen, while the other German. Both the same yet not at the same time.
Nolde was a Nazi, but he was also despised by the Nazis who eventually banned him from painting. He was anti-colonialist and a nationalist. And the method used to convey these contradictions is through overpowering colour. Nolde’s paintings are intensely emotional, whether euphoric or despondent. You begin to wonder why we even consider any other aspect, when so much can be achieved through colour alone.
For veterans of the Scot Modern, the format and layout of the exhibition—the top four rooms of the gallery, with a comprehensive biography stuck along the wall of the enjoining balcony—may feel a little tired by now. Additionally, the over-emphasis given to Nolde’s later flower paintings, when very few of these works are actually on show, seems a little like an admission of something omitted.
But this is all unimportant when you realise what is here conveys an emotional palette no longer strictly historical. Nolde lived in—and encapsulated—a time when free speech was being undermined, when fear of otherness was enormously high and when words like nationalism, fascism and antisemitism were ubiquitous. To even consider anything recognisable about that in today makes for acutely uncomfortable viewing.
II. City Art Centre: Various
Because it is rare the rest of the year to find the whole building open for free, we decide our first central location should be the City Art Centre—a venue we have little familiarity with.
In the basement, the exhibition of Scottish art photography feels a little piecemeal. To have an exhibition with only Scottish photography as its guiding theme is like an exhibition solely dedicated to Scottish painting: it becomes less a comment on photography as art than a display of technological (or philosophical) progression. It becomes a show of comparison. Hill & Adamson look romantic and sentimental next to Maud Sulter. Alfred G. Buckham looks technically marvellous next to just about anything else.
On the next floor, the attempt to rechristen Edinburgh artist Edwin G. Lucas as a kind of overlooked post-surrealist does not really work. In comparison to Nolde, Lucas does not have a strong way with colour. He may even be said to have the opposite. So many colours in a single picture, yet the underlying impression is always brown.
Something is just slightly off about Lucas’ paintings, which makes looking at them frustrating. Some are just one degree short of being good, others great. At his first solo exhibition at Shandwick Place in 1950, one of the plaques tells us a critic described Lucas’ work as “individual in the wrong way”. The quote is proudly displayed as a badge of his maverick credentials. Instead it remains largely valid.
The two floors celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Travelling Gallery are equally lacking as the photography exhibition. One room has some random wooden objects. The other has works of artists who have shown in the gallery over its history. Most of the works are not very good, or feel too much like fragments of much larger bodies of work. Instinct says it would have been better curated as a museum piece rather than a redisplay of former works. There are no ins for people who are not already familiar with the Travelling Gallery, or do not know what has made it a success.
III. Fruitmarket Gallery: Tacita Dean, Woman with a Red Hat
After City Art Centre, it is all but impossible not to walk straight across and into the Fruitmarket Gallery.
We head into the first room—a line of photographs with writing on them. A man in a coffin with the word ‘dead’ written over him. A video of folly artists, with accompanying script. It is up to you to draw the correlations.
A 16mm film upstairs shows a split screen of footage. One half is mostly flowers, with bees. The other is an old man thinking pensively. Both are set in a kind of moody, gloaming light. Outside this, spanning a whole wall, a giant thunderstorm. We are ten minutes late to the film screening at the other end of the gallery.
Tacita Dean is one of those ubiquitous artists I have very little familiarity with, beyond a vague notion that her work has something to do with scale, both the giant and minute.
There is an aesthetic beauty to everything Dean does, but at the same time this does not really feel like the point. I am still thinking about Nolde. It is already difficult not to draw parallels, or the lack of them, between all the shows seen so far. Dean’s show does not really fit neatly within any of the parameters I have looked at the others, and in this way it leaves me unable to draw any kind of conclusion—either good or bad—about it.
IV. Talbot Rice: Lucy Skaer, The Green Man
We consider going up Cockburn Street to walk past Stills, but instead opt for the Scotsman Steps—with their individual marble work done by Martin Creed for the festival in 2010—and towards Talbot Rice. Our reasons for doing this were facile. Incredibly, I have never used the steps since Creed’s work was installed, and my friend was once a technician at Talbot Rice. It isn’t raining and we feel more willing to walk further afield.
The exhibition is “an exploration of irrationality in collections”, according to the extensive booklet handed at the door. Skaer has invited artists to make work based on their interpretations of the University of Edinburgh collections. I think. The reason behind the name of the exhibition (also given in the booklet) is confusing and completely tangential to what is displayed.
On the top floor, a film by Skaer and long-time collaborator Rosalind Nashashibi about women in Tahiti is the most captivating piece yet. My friend and I watch the entire thing. It is a blend of candid and choreographed shots, some of which recreate works by Paul Gauguin.
Despite the blend of staged and unstaged, something of a narrative flow comes out of the cut together footage. The women are at once subjects and observers. They look at us, knowing they are being looked at. They are both willing actors and shy bystanders to their own documentation. And, again, colour. With Gauguin in mind the illusion of a painting in movement is even harder to ignore. If Tacita Dean and Skaer/Nashashibi show anything it’s that, for all its nostalgia, 16mm film still holds a quality not adequately replaced by the digital.
V. Edinburgh College of Art: Various
We stick to our theme of educational establishments and walk ten minutes to ECA. It is away from the main madness of the Fringe that takes over everything between the Royal Mile and the Meadows.
An immensely confusing programme at the college, from what can be made out from the guide. We have already missed several exhibitions, apparently, while others are not ready yet. When we enter the main building some of the way-finders are not in their final positions. One directs us to a blank wall. In one room there are students putting up work for an opening the day after. Even the rope barriers are wrapped in plastic.
We eventually find the main stretch of corridor that is hosting two shows. One is about questioning the ethics of displaying human remains, specifically bones. There is a wall of screens with academics talking at you all at once, giving their reasons for or against the practice. Two real people are sitting at desks on their laptops. They do not appear willing to talk to us.
On the other side of the video wall is a large, to-scale photograph, many metres in length, of the skull collection in the History Museum of Vienna. There is a lot of forewarning about the grotesque imagery within, and adverts for the exhibition have the skulls censored. But when we are actually in there it is a little underwhelming. They are skulls. They are human, but also not. The perhaps unintended conflation between moral and visceral disgust does not really amplify the question at hand. I do not feel more or less strongly about the issue. Which is probably not what was intended.
VI. Jupiter Artland: Joana Vasconcelos, Gateway
Admittedly not so easy to just ‘stumble across’ on a day out, and I would not recommend walking there from the centre of town – we didn’t – but Jupiter Artland are running a free bus service from Edinburgh to the park for the month of August, if you so happen to stumble upon that.
A good, but quite general rule of thumb when assessing any work of art is that it should get better the more you learn about it. This is not the case for Joana Vasconcelos.
Joana Vasconcelos is a Portuguese artist. Her work makes a very concerted effort to let you know this. One work is a giant spinning Coraçao de Filigrana (Portuguese filigree heart) made from red disposable cutlery, while fado, a type of melancholy Portuguese folk song, sung by the famous Portuguese fado singer, Amália, plays from speakers. Another work just outside is called Carmen Miranda, a giant high heel made from saucepans. It is a tribute to, yes, Carmen Miranda, the famous Portuguese-born Brazilian actress and singer who wore a fruit bowl in her hair.
To describe Vasconcelos’ work is to describe an entire culture, which means we end up not actually knowing much about the work at hand, or what it is actually doing. And what the work here does say about that culture is too earnest to have any double meaning. Worse, it more often than not depends on the viewer’s ignorance of Portugal to be interesting, because otherwise there is nothing to learn. Think in terms of equivalence: if the music was not fado, but ceilidh, and the spinning object was not a filigrana, but a giant piece of shortbread…
But no matter. There is the rest of the park to explore, and there are few places like it to experience art; if for no other reason than, unlike the centre of town, it’s possible to get away and find a quiet corner to yourself. So quiet, in fact, that you might just find yourself thinking: that’s enough spontaneity for one year.
More information on the shows reviewed above, in order of appearance, can be found here: