Around the 2018 Edinburgh Art Festival

Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic debate with art of the past

BY Tom Jeffreys in Critic's Guides | 02 AUG 18

Edinburgh is a city whose historic architecture has long played host every August – more or less willingly – to a plethora of different festivities: the flagship Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe, but also the Book Festival, and even the Book Fringe (a collaboration between indie bookstores Lighthouse and the Golden Hare). It feels appropriate, then, that this summer, artists are engaged in a polyphonic debate with the art of the past: critiquing, augmenting, reframing, reinterpreting.

Since its founding in 2004, Edinburgh Art Festival (26 July—26 August) has sought to stake a claim for the visual arts alongside the theatre, comedy and performance for which the city is best known. In 2017 it attracted 315,000 visitors making it the best attended annual visual art festival in the UK, according to director Sorcha Carey. 2018 sees just four new commissions plus the Platform exhibition, launched in 2015 to offer opportunities for emerging artists. Meanwhile, the city’s established institutions often pull out their strongest shows to coincide with the influx of visitors: as well as partner exhibitions, such as Jenny Saville at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Rembrandt at Scottish National Gallery, Tacita Dean at Fruitmarket, Canaletto at Queen’s Gallery, outside of the official programme ‘Free the Pussy!’ sees a riotous feminist take-over of Summerhall curated by artist Tamsyn Challenger.

Ruth Ewan, Sympathetic Magick, 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: Edinburgh Art Festival 2018

Although there is no overarching curatorial agenda for the festival this year (‘strong themes emerge naturally and organically,’ says Carey), an engagement with the past feels widespread. Sometimes this is simply a matter of location, as with Ross Birrell and David Harding’s film installation (Triptych, 2018) beneath the gothic vaulting of Trinity Apse, or Bill Viola’s video (Three Women, 2008) within the ornate parish church of St Cuthbert’s. In the secluded Johnstone Terrace wildlife reserve is Bobby Niven’s Palm House, a timber-framed glass house (with mud oven), a permanent installation commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival in 2017. This year it hosts pop-up performances as part of Ruth Ewan’s 2018 festival commission, Sympathetic Magick, a subtly subversive collaboration with socialist magician Ian Saville and other magicians and performers. With card tricks, music and other performances also taking place prominently in West Parliament Square, and tackling issues such as land ownership and tax evasion, Ewan’s project is the best example this year of Carey’s desire to ‘bring art out of galleries, into public spaces and into conversation with the history of our city’.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’, 2018, installation view, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

But it is in the galleries where you’ll find some of the strongest work in town. At Ingleby Gallery, an exhibition entitled ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, which, in partnership with ‘Astronomy Victorious’ at the University of Edinburgh, explores humanity’s changing conceptions of the universe. In the recently exquisitely refurbished former religious meeting house that now houses Ingleby, work by contemporary artists like Peter Liversidge, Cornelia Parker and Katie Paterson is presented alongside diverse historical pieces: hand-coloured engravings from 1639, 19th century woodcuts, Georges Melies’ 1902 film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, and vintage NASA photographs taken by the crews of Apollo 8 and 9 (1968–69).

Marine Hugonnier addresses the legacy of NASA directly in recent work from her series ‘Art for Modern Architecture’ (2004–ongoing). Side by side hang the front pages of two newspapers from opposite sides of the iron curtain (The New York Times from the US and Izvestiya from the USSR), both published the day after the historic 1969 moon landing. Hugonnier has screen-printed over the images so only text remains: The New York Times devotes the entire page to the subject, while Izvestiya’s editors relegated it to the foot under the headline первые шаги (‘First Steps’).

Marine Hugonnier, from the series ‘Art for Modern Architecture’, 2004–ongoing, installation view, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

If Hugonnier’s work emphasizes the close ties between science and the political ideologies of nation states, a series of undated oil paintings by Frank Walter (an artist and writer whose life was marked, notes the biography on Ingleby’s website, by ‘delusions of aristocratic grandeur’) imagine space exploration as something altogether more personal, whimsical, and unsurprisingly less successful. For a commercial gallery with a reputation for pared-back elegance, Ingleby’s inclusion of explanatory wall text is a judicious decision: this is an exhibition full of fascinating stories.

So too is Lucy Skaer’s take-over of the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery for her exhibition ‘The Green Man’, which has developed from extensive engagement with the university’s collections. In an expansive gesture, Skaer has invited contributions from artists Fiona Connor, Will Holder, and Hanneline Visnes. There is also a film that Skaer made in collaboration with Rosalind Nashashibi (Why Are You Angry?, 2017) which revisits Tahiti, in the footsteps of Gauguin, ironically mimicking the compositions of his paintings to overturn their highly-gendered and exoticizing power relations. Elsewhere, Skaer continues to bring together and challenge the arts of the past. On the walls are exquisite contact prints of seaweed and algae, while vitrines contain hunting horns, a 1908 book about blood coagulation, and a hand-scrawled note by James VI demanding a bloodhound.

Lucy Skaer, ‘The Green Man’, 2018, installation view, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

At the heart of Skaer’s exhibition are multiple series of floor-based sculptures produced in response to a 14th century illuminated hunting manual, Le Livre de Chasse, by Gaston Phébus. Each series translates found phrases (‘Morning Dew, the Hare Rests by Marsh’s Pool’) into militaristic formations of semi-abstracted objects in bronze, yew, copper, glass, or unfired terracotta. Some are pristine modernism; others are more obviously hand-crafted.

Connor’s architectural interventions (All the doors in all the walls, 2018) help to set the tone. At first you see doors embedded at impossible heights in the gallery’s walls, and the effect is alluringly surreal. Then you realize that the doors have been taken from elsewhere in the building to reveal aspects of the institution that would ordinarily remain concealed: a storage space full of toolboxes and wires, or an under-the-stairs cupboard containing artist monographs from previous exhibitions. In clear plastic sleeves on the cupboard door, now inserted in a nearby wall, is the itemized list of all those books but now reprinted (imperceptibly) onto aluminium foil. It’s hard to miss how male the list is (and how misspelt): Criag Aitchison, Alex Finlay, Donald Urquart…

Further exhibitions will continue to open throughout August, with 41 different venues in total involved in Edinburgh Art Festival. This is down from 50 in 2017, but there remains plenty to see – even if the strongest moments are only indirectly related ‘partner’ or ‘pop-up’ exhibitions. Skaer’s surprisingly exuberant show at Talbot Rice is the festival highlight. By foregrounding medievally-inflected linguistic riddles, ‘The Green Man’ makes a joyful game out of a visitor’s faltering attempts to decipher meaning. The exhibition is ideal for August in Edinburgh: not only cerebral but celebratory too, its own festival within the festival.

Edinburgh Art Festival 2018 runs in various venues from 26 July—26 August.

Main image: Katie Paterson, Colour Field, 2016, lambda c-type print mounted on aluminium 1.1 x 2.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Ingleby, Edinburgh

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).