Emeka Ogboh’s Hymn to a New Europe

At Edinburgh Art Festival, the artist’s polyglot take on ‘Auld Lang Syne’ brings together voices divided by Brexit 

BY Jane Ure-Smith in Interviews , Opinion | 26 JUL 21

What is it about ‘Auld Lang Syne’? Written in 1788 by Robert Burns, but based on an older Scottish folk song, it is sung to ring out the old year and ring in the new. Carried worldwide by the Scouts Movement, it rivals ‘Happy Birthday’ as one of the most widely sung popular songs. The Japanese play it to indicate shops and restaurants are closing. Yet, I’m always transfixed by it: no less so than in Edinburgh this month, when a limpid voice singing a Scots Gaelic version floated through the trees like a siren call as I approached the Burns Monument at the foot of Calton Hill. 

For the next month, the monument’s chapel-like interior will be home to Song of the Union (2021), a ravishing sound installation by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, in which Scotland-based citizens from each of the European Union’s 27 member states, plus one from the recently departed UK, sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in their native tongues. 

Co-commissioned by Talbot Rice Gallery and Edinburgh Art Festival for the 2020 edition – postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19 – Song of the Union was conceived in February last year, when Ogboh arrived for a site visit. He explored the city with Talbot Rice director Tessa Giblin and, at the Burns Monument, an idea began to take shape.  

Emeka Ogboh, Song of the Union, 2021, 7-channel sound installation, installation view. Courtesy: Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh; photograph: Sally Jubb

Overlooking Holyrood, the current seat of the Scottish Assembly, the Burns Monument sits across the road from the now-empty Old Royal High School, where Scotland’s parliament was to have resided if devolution had been granted in the 1970s. When the artist arrived, it was barely two weeks since a group of MEPs – determined that Union Jack-waving Brexiteers would not steal the show – had held hands and sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’ after voting to approve the Brexit withdrawal bill. For Ogboh, standing by the Burns Monument, the MEPs’ deeply felt gesture meshed with the political significance of the monument’s location and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ suddenly emerged in a new light. ‘The framework of Brexit put a twist on it,’ he tells me over Zoom. ‘You are not having drinks; it is not New Year: it became the soundtrack to this symbolic moment.’  

Playing through seven speakers, the exquisitely harmonized work groups the voices, beginning each ‘run’ of the song with a single voice/language and slowly building to a crescendo as other voices are fed in using a clever algorithm developed by Talbot Rice technicians to Ogboh’s specifications. The song restarts with a different, randomly selected voice and language each time. ‘You could be in that space for many days and not hear the same sequence twice,’ the artist explains. 

In technology terms, Song of the Union builds on Ogboh’s Song of the Germans (2015), a no less haunting sound work installed in the Okwui Enwezor-curated Venice Biennale. In an act of postcolonial ‘rebalancing’, a choir of Berlin-based African singers took possession of the German national anthem by singing it in their native languages. 

Song of the Union is about the politics of language, too. Here, Ogboh gives a voice to European citizens who have lived (sometimes for decades) in Scotland but, in most cases, were not entitled to vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum. For some, the work will underline how distinctive voices can exist within a union. For others, it might signify a broken family. ‘I could go in there and hear “Auld Lang Syne” sung in 27 languages,’ says Ogboh. ‘Or I could go in there and not hear “Auld Lang Syne”, but hear Polish, German, French: it’s all about perception.’ 

Burns Monument, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh; photograph: Sally Jubb

Given the pandemic, it seems miraculous that the work was made at all. Talbot Rice tracked down the EU-citizen singers via social media, local choirs and through the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University. Some language groups were oversubscribed; others (such as Flemish and Maltese) in short supply. Exhibitions manager Melissa MacRobert recalls asking in a Portuguese bakery if they knew anyone who could sing. Beyond that, there were copyright issues to address over translations of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. And, to respect social-distancing measures, each singer had to be recorded separately. 

Ogboh, who lives between Berlin and Lagos, began to focus on sound after studying with Harald Scherz, an Austrian multimedia artist, at the Winter Academy in Fayoum, Egypt, in 2008. Six years later, a DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program residency took him to Berlin and his art began to evolve from multi-layered soundscapes capturing the vibrancy of Lagos into more musical pieces with choirs and compositions that tap into Berlin’s resources as the world capital of techno. Music had been a private side project until Berghain, Berlin’s most famous club, persuaded Ogboh to release a vinyl album, Beyond the Yellow Haze (2021), on its label A-Ton, which sold out rapidly. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he grins, ‘but it was something waiting to be done, a fusion of living in two places: the soundscape of Lagos and the electronic music inspiration of Berlin.’ 

A quote from Ogboh in the Song of the Union catalogue likens Brexit to ‘going into a dark room and feeling your way through’. ‘We are now waiting to see what the repercussions will be,’ he adds glumly when we speak. In the 2016 referendum, the Scots voted by 62 percent to remain in the EU. There is no way back without independence – on which the Scottish National Party is committed to holding a vote, though recent polls give little reassurance to either side. No doubt there will be intense discussion at the Burns Monument this summer to the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. 

Edinburgh Art Festival runs at various venues across the city until 29 August. 

Main image: Emeka Ogboh in his Berlin studio, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

Jane Ure-Smith is based in London, UK. She is a journalist specializing in the visual arts and writes for publications including The Financial Times and The Economist.