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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Art At The Edinburgh Festivals

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This was a sig­n­i­fic­ant year for the visual arts at the Edinburgh festivals. Joanne Brown was appointed as director of the Edinburgh Art Festival, with an ambitious remit to put the young festival at the heart of visual art practice in Scotland, putting the EAF on an equal footing with its sister festivals. Talking of which, this was also the year that saw the Edinburgh In­ter­n­a­tion­al Festival renew its lost focus on visual art, ap­point­ing Katrina Brown as its curator.

It is too early to gauge the impact of the two new posts, but one thing is certain: visual art is now at the heart of the festivals, with shows and events that garner as much attention as anything that the Fringe, Film or Book Festivals have to offer.

The hit of the summer was, of course, Warhol: A Cel­e­b­ra­tion of Life… and Death, which announced itself with con­fid­ence, thanks to the tran­s­form­a­tion of Princes Street into an ex­hib­i­tion space for the Campbell’s soup cans that wrapped the National Gallery Complex’s columns. And con­fid­ence was needed. The more cynical among us let out a groan at the news that a Warhol ret­ro­spect­ive was on its way. Such shows are hardly rare, and are rarely done well, but this one turned Warhol fatigue to its advantage, dashing low ex­pect­a­tions thanks to the wonderful, eye-popping re­cre­a­tions of original in­stal­l­a­tions, the coup of bringing together works never before seen in Europe, and a finely-judged tone that managed to both offer new insights to those who know the artist well and serve as a clear in­tro­duc­tion to those ex­per­i­en­cing his work in the flesh for the first time.

Across town at the Dean Gallery, the second flagship exhibit, Picasso on Paper was a re­l­at­ively dry affair. In place of whizz-bang in­stal­l­a­tions, we were treated to a serious, ex­haust­ive survey of Picasso as draught­s­man and ex­per­i­ment­al print­maker­ that, while it was slow to reveal its delights, non­eth­e­less delighted. The same might be said of Richard Long: Walking And Marking, another deep survey of an artist’s practice. As at the Picasso, the National Gallery of Modern Art felt a little over-stuffed, with Long’s weaker, more ex­pli­citly sculp­tur­al work at times threat­en­ing to diminish the impact of the clean gestures of his central practice, which he began at the tail end of the ’60s with the still-breath­tak­ing A Line Made By Walking. With the debut screening of the gallery version of Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait rounding out the National Galleries con­tri­bu­tion to the EAF, their input to the festival proved to be both broad and deep.

On the more con­tem­por­ary front, Nathan Coley’s outing of new work at do­g­ger­fish­er­ showed a lighter side to the Turner Prize nominee’s practice, with a witty threshold sculpture threat­en­ing to trip up un­sus­pect­ing visitors turning Coley’s in­vest­ig­a­tions of public space into a dis­t­inc­tly physical ex­per­i­ence. There was ar­chi­tec­tur­al in­ter­ac­tion on offer at the Fruit­mar­ket, too. Alex Hartley’s ‘buil­d­er­ing’ work saw the artist clam­ber­ing over the buildings of Scotland and crafting dis­or­i­ent­at­ing trompe-l’œil interiors with blurred pho­to­graphs and etched glass. A final highlight: the Ingleby Gallery’s quick-fire programme of artistic pairings, which saw Rachel Whiteread pitted against Robert Burns’ breakfast table, and the late pho­to­graph­er­ Francesca Woodman matched with the great sculptor Richard Serra’s early film work.

Not all was rosy at the EAF, of course. Picasso: Fired With Passion, a look at the artist’s ceramics, was an unworthy companion to the Dean show, and a flock of for­get­t­able shows at the more staid galleries formed an un­in­spir­ing backdrop to the gl­it­ter­ing ex­hib­i­tions listed above.

The EIF’s Jardins Publics, a four-part exhibit of specially-com­mis­sioned public artworks, was, sadly, also firmly in the un­in­spir­ing camp. This was partly down to some of the work being sub-par. Michael Lin’s flowery platform in East Princes Street Gardens had the feel of well-meaning but ill-executed municipal project, and, while Apolonija Sustersic’s garden at Chessel’s Court was doubtless a boon to local residents, it had little to offer visitors. Richard Wright just about saved the day with the etched glass window he placed in St. George’s Well on the Water of Leith, which offered a med­it­at­ive ex­per­i­ence, and a genuine tran­s­form­a­tion of the sur­roun­d­ing landscape. Overall, though, Jardins Publics felt like a missed op­por­tun­ity - its chief pleasure was the walk between the works, which could have been heightened by taking a cue from a project like The Grand Tour, the National Gallery in London’s August public project, which offered audio tours and a true emphasis on the city sur­roun­d­ing the art.

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An even damper squib, though, was this year’s Annuale. Launched four years, this was a festival offering a grass­roots al­ter­n­at­ive to the big bucks in­ter­n­a­tion­al­ism of the EAF that by its third year had become a serious al­ter­n­at­ive event, and, im­port­antly, a means for emerging Edinburgh artists to find a wider audience. This year, though, it was nigh on invisible, with nothing more than a poorly-designed pamphlet listing show titles and locations (some in­ac­cur­ate) to guide gallery-goers. This or­gan­isa­tion­al failure was made all the more galling by the fact that much of the work on show under the Annuale banner was of a high standard - Matthew Inglis’ curious boxed vignettes at Hy­per­ground, Adam Maclean’s eccentric overview of al­chem­ic­al symbolism at Embassy and the free­wheel­ing, fantastic group show at Shangri-La-La in par­t­ic­u­lar - and deserved to be seen. Hiding these lights under a bushel did artists and audience alike a dis­ser­vice.

The reverse was true of The Comic Book Project, which could almost be seen as a festival in itself. Centred on the Col­lect­ive Gallery, with a show that offered belly laughs to match anything at the Fringe thanks to Mel Brimfield’s feverish imagining of an affair between Barbara Streisand and Joseph Beuys, and Brian Dewan’s deadpan, not-very-edu­c­a­tion­al slideshows, the project’s great strength was its injection of a dose of art into all four major festivals, with film screen­ings, theatre and talks and a pub­lic­a­tion. This forward-thinking, uniquely inclusive event ought to be taken as a template for future bridge-building between the festivals.

In the end, then, 2007 was a strong year for art in Edinburgh, and one that held the promise of stronger years yet to come, thanks to the EAF’s coming of age, The Comic Book Project’s in­nov­at­ive col­l­ab­or­a­tions and the hope of the EIF engaging with the visual arts with greater success in future.

This review was first published in The Herald in August 2007.