Flying a cultural flag: Edinburgh Art Festival celebrates 10 years
With 27 venues from Summerhall to the Old Ambulance Depot, and ten specially commissioned exhibitions, the Edinburgh Art Festival is going from strength to strength as it celebrates its tenth year. By Duncan MacMillan
MANY years ago, I managed seriously to annoy the then director of the Edinburgh International Festival, John Drummond, with an article with a title borrowed from the Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera. My point was that the audience for the performing arts is limited, for the visual arts it is not. With full houses for a whole year, the numbers for the performing arts would still only be a fraction of those who pass through Edinburgh’s galleries during the festival. The question to John Drummond was, didn’t this deserve recognition and what was he going to do about it?
Not much, was the answer. His successor, Frank Dunlop, was more imaginative, but in Brian MacMaster’s long reign the visual arts were out in the cold again. So, frustrated by all this, back in July 2000 I suggested in The Scotsman that the visual arts organise their own festival. I was delighted to receive a postcard of warm support from former Festival director Robert Ponsonby, who had proved my point long before with the biggest draw the Festival has ever had, the Epstein exhibition of 1960 with 100,000 visitors. I returned to the subject in July 2003, the idea was taken up and the inaugural Edinburgh Art Festival took place in 2004. This is its tenth year and it has gone from strength to strength.
This year there are 27 galleries ranging from the National Galleries down to the Old Ambulance Depot. Within that number, however, are concealed all the National Galleries’ various shows and Summerhall, which is a hectic mini-Festival in itself. Others too have multiple shows. Most are contemporary, with Peter Doig a little unconvincing in the top spot at the RSA, but there are also Mary Queen of Scots at the Museum, Witches at the SNGMA and Scottishness in Art at Bourne Fine Art.
To have a real point the Festival has to be more than a PR cooperative and so it has encouraged galleries to put on supporting programmes and has also commissioned work. This year there are ten commissions produced either with direct support from Government’s Festival Expo Fund, from the Lottery through Creative Scotland, or through collaboration. Peter Liversidge’s laconic Hello flags, in collaboration with the Ingleby Gallery, are pretty minimal, but do remind us, culture apart, Edinburgh’s Festivals are an amazing social event.
Krijn de Koning’s animation of the ECA cast collection is co-commissioned by the College. Sara Barker’s Patterns is co-commissioned with Jupiter Artland. There is much else, but one artist who is always interesting is Christine Borland, here collaborating with Brody Condon in Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen. Supported by various sources including the Edinburgh Trades, it offers a slightly ghoulish pun on “decayed”. In 1704 when the Trades Maiden Hospital was set up for the daughters of decayed tradesmen, it meant they were down on their luck, not actually decaying in the graveyard, but the work is set in a graveyard all the same. Jacquard loom punchcards hang in the Watchtower in the New Calton Cemetery and tell the stories of two of the last alumni of the Hospital which closed in 1971. Prefiguring computing, the punch cards are themselves symbols of the decay of tradesmen’s skills supplanted by machines. Deacon Brodie was one of the governors of the Maiden Hospital and the Watchtower was built to protect the newly buried, not yet decayed bodies, perhaps of Edinburgh tradesmen, from grave robbers, the resurrectionsts who, like Brodie, worked to supply Edinburgh’s anatomists.
The anatomists were serious scientists, but if you cross the city to the SNGMA to see the Witches, the conjunction suggests a sinister link – anatomists, resurrectionsts and witches all tied up in Scotland’s history. It’s the sort of thing the Festival’s diversity throws up.
Then there is David Hume’s tomb in the Old Calton Cemetery nearby. Hume is not part of any festival, but he’s very pertinent. His tomb, designed by Robert Adam, certainly to Hume’s prescription, is a tall, stone cylinder with nothing inside, just open to the sky: death, the great nothing. It is a wonderful posthumous lesson from our greatest philosopher: the only resurrection available is the rather temporary one of being dug up to be anatomised.
The Art Festival has left a permanent mark on the city too. Some of it has been instantly forgettable, but Martin Creed’s Scotsman Steps in coloured marble will surely endure at least 100 years.
A hundred years is also how long Dovecot Studios has been with us. It is one of the Festival’s listed galleries and to mark its centenary last year, the Studio commissioned an ambitious tapestry, now completed and on show. Called the Large Tree Group, it is based on a painting by Victoria Crowe from her series A Shepherd’s Life, pictures of the shepherdess Jenny Armstrong who was the artist’s neighbour at Kittleyknowe. A winter scene of trees against snow, it has made a wonderful tapestry.
Uniquely, the entire palette is composed of undyed natural wools. There is a map on the wall showing where they all come from. In the sheer quantity of art that the Art Festival presents, let alone the cacophony of all the other festivals, there is something wonderfully calm about an exhibition that is effectively just a single work. It is the difference between being confounded by all the books in a bookshop and actually sitting down to read one. But for all its diversity, the Art Festival does not encompass all that is on offer round the galleries. There is much more – for instance, Barbara Rae at the Dundas Street Gallery and Kevin Low at the Union Gallery.
Amongst all the others, two are in a way rediscoveries and both are concerned with the sea. Anthony Woodd is showing a small group of works by Joseph Henderson. A forgotten 19th-century painter of the sea, Henderson has been overshadowed by his famous son-in-law William McTaggart. The exhibition marks the publication (by Macmillan in Australia) of a beautifully produced monograph on the artist by Hilary Christie-Johnston. He is worth rediscovering.
The other exhibition, By Sea, is of the work of Bill McArthur at Coburg Studios. McArthur trained as a painter, but in his own words he ran away to sea. Thirty-six years ago he went to fish for lobsters in Orkney. Now he has returned to painting and his intimate knowledge of the sea informs his work. In his case, perhaps, he has not exactly been rediscovered. It is more a matter of the artist rediscovering himself. Altogether there’s plenty for the visitor to discover too.