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

Edinburgh Art Festival Preview

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The block­buster­ ex­hib­i­tion at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival will, no doubt, be the survey of Tracey Emin’s twenty-year career at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the first ret­ro­spect­ive of the artist’s work. It’s a canny piece of pro­gram­ming - only Emin’s fellow YBA Damien Hirst beats the Margate-born artist when it comes to garnering press attention - but it also shows that the EAF, still a whipper-snapper in art festival terms, has come of age, es­t­ab­l­ish­ing a sound track record of at­tract­ing major shows by sig­n­i­fic­ant British artists.

Another survey show hasn’t generated the headlines guar­an­teed by Emin, but is certain to be a highlight of the Festival is Protest Pictures at In­ver­leith House. The show of work by Richard Hamilton, sometimes iden­ti­fied as the first prac­ti­tion­er­ of Pop Art, thanks to his famed collage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is set to focus on the pol­it­ic­ally-driven pieces in his fifty-year catalogue. Protest Pictures will include ever­yth­ing from Hamilton’s satirical portrait of Hugh Gaitskell, made in response to the then Labour leader’s refusal to commit to a policy of nuclear dis­arm­a­ment, through a series of powerful works made in response to the Troubles in Northen Ireland, right up to work completed in the last year, including Shock & Awe, which sees Tony Blair’s head grafted onto the body of a gun­slin­g­ing cowboy.

The other major Edinburgh galleries seemed to have erred on the safe side. The National Gallery Complex has fallen back on that old crowd-pleasing fail-safe, a show of Im­pres­sion­ist painting, while the National Portrait Gallery offers the rather un­der­whelm­ing trav­el­ling ex­hib­i­tion of Vanity Fair Portraits. At the Queen’s Gallery, there are high­lights from the Royal Col­lec­tion’s Ren­ais­sance holdings - it’s been running for a while, but is well worth a second look, thanks to a breath-taking selection of drawings by da Vinci, Michelan­gelo, and Raphael. Another populist choice, but a welcome one, is the Scottish Gallery’s choice of Elizabeth Black­ad­der­, mounting a major show of some forty oil and wa­ter­co­l­our works.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the festivals, Por­to­bel­lo plays host to a public art project mounted by community arts or­gan­isa­tion Big Things On The Beach. Garden Gallery will see local residents playing host to paintings, sculpture, in­stal­l­a­tions and per­for­m­ances, all sited in their front gardens.

More in­nov­at­ive public art comes courtesy of Ingleby Gallery, which has moved from its former home in a Georgian townhouse into a vast space on Calton Road. Con­t­inu­ing their com­mit­ment to in­nov­at­ive curation - last year saw Ingleby mount a frenetic programme of twenty-six shows matching pairs of artists together - the gallery is launching Billboard for Edinburgh programme with work by Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger mounted on an ad­ver­t­ising hoarding. Inside, the new gallery will host work by American artist Kay Rosen, whose work explores the use of text and language as images, and the first solo outing in Scotland by Susan Collis who renders mundane, everyday objects in precious materials. Another dual show, this time by the highly-regarded artistic part­n­er­ship of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who will take over the Fruit­mar­ket with their immersive, often dis­tur­b­ing mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­l­a­tions.

Un­con­ven­tion­al spaces and places seem to be something of a theme this year. As well as gardens and bill­boards, works of art will be taking up residence in abandoned buildings and artist’s studios. Richard Wilson will reprise 20:50 - last seen in Edinburgh at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1987 - in a derelict warehouse, alongside short films and works on paper. 20:50 is a must see. Often held up as an exemplar of in­stal­l­a­tion work, the piece sees a carefully-pro­por­tioned space filled up with sump oil, creating a re­flect­ive surface that appears to flip the room upside down. Edinburgh-based artist Hugh Brady is also exploring the site-specific side of things, turning his studio, a stone-floored former stables, into something that hovers between being a work of art in its own right and an ex­hib­i­tion of new pieces. Younger artists seem es­pe­ci­ally keen to escape the confines of the typical white-walled gallery. Ric Warren, a recent graduate of Glasgow School of Art, will be setting three of his ar­chi­tec­tur­al sculp­tures, each examining an aspect of climate change, in Charlotte Square Gardens, Ettie Spencer has been growing a crop of tobacco plants in a disused office block, and Estonian artist Mare Tralla will be painting at sites around Edinburgh under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras. In the Old Town, in the area sur­roun­d­ing Advocate’s Close, various nooks and crannies will be filled with hard-to-find art. More up-and-coming artists can be found at Total Kunst, which, as in previous years, will host a changing programme of short exhibits, and at the Annuale, a series of fringe ex­hib­i­tions and events organised by artist-run space The Embassy devoted to local artists that has run alongside, and counter to, the Art Festival proper for the past five years.

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With work ranging from Ren­ais­sance masters to fresh-faced graduates, via key names in con­tem­por­ary art, the EAF is certainly a broad church, as ac­cess­ible to young art students hungry for fresh work by their peers as it is to arch tra­di­tion­al­ists or casual gallery-goers seeking respite from the busy, juggler-strewn festival streets. It might be argued that this is a failing. It’s hard to tell the di­f­fer­ence between the Edinburgh Art Festival and the un­co­ord­in­ated flurry of shows mounted by the Edinburgh galleries in August prior to its inception. And there is no hint of a cur­at­or­i­al theme, no sense of focus to the pro­ceed­ings. That’s not nec­cesar­ily a bad thing. The galleries would no doubt balk at anything that in­ter­fer­ed with their freedom to programme, and, as far as the public are concerned, the more variety the better. But it will be in­ter­est­ing to see, with its status as a grown-up art festival secured after five short years, how the EAF will rise to its next challenge, perhaps de­vel­op­ing into a coherent, curated and co­m­is­sion­ing festival.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 25th July , 2008.