Artist Ruth Ewan adds an extra layer of performance to the streets of Edinburgh
- Susan Mansfield
- 3 August 2018
This article is from 2018
The EAF commission Sympathetic Magick brings magic with a political twist
Edinburgh in August is a magnet for street performers. Every vacant space in the city seems to be occupied by jugglers, fire-eaters and people dressed up as Yoda hovering two feet above the ground.
When Glasgow-based artist Ruth Ewan was invited to make work as one of the director's commissions for this year's Edinburgh Art Festival, she knew she wanted her work to be out in the midst of the madness. 'I really like devising projects for particular contexts or spaces,' she says. 'I know Edinburgh quite well, and I'm really familiar with the festival. I was really interested in creating something that used the idea that Edinburgh is so busy and so full of performers and would add another layer, subvert that.'
In Sympathetic Magick, Ewan has orchestrated a team of magicians to join the throng of festival entertainers - on the streets, in pubs, and in programmed events and workshops – performing magic with a political twist. Whether you find yourself watching 'The Great Class Rope Struggle' or 'The Great Banking Trick' – which explores the movement of money around the world – or seeing the social system being explained with reference to a deck of cards, the aim is to open up bigger ideas.
Ewan worked with Marxist magician Ian Saville and put out an open call for magicians, both amateur and professional, to take part in a series of workshops. 'We weren't asking the magicians to replicate Ian's tricks or political beliefs, just to look at their own practice and ask what is it in their practice they could use to incorporate new layers of belief within the magic. A lot of the magicians had elements of politics in their work already.'
Ewan's own practice is socially engaged and often invites participation from both adults and children. Artwork might take the form of anything from a jukebox to a radio broadcast, or a wildflower meadow turned into a botanical clock. The works are brought to life by an audience, whether or not they know they're looking at art. 'Audiences will come who are aware it's an art project and make a choice to come. Other people will just stumble across it, who have no idea it's part of an art festival or developed by an artist; I find those are some of the most interesting experiences and most interesting responses.'
Ewan's work is always political, often recovering little known aspects of the history of radical politics, from 'The Glasgow Schools', made for GI in 2012, which drew out the history of Glasgow's socialist Sunday Schools, to 'Another Time', made for Camden Arts Centre and then for the Sao Paolo Biennale, which created a visual representation of the French Revolutionary Calendar, a secular calendar which renamed the days of the year after animals, plants and domestic objects.
'All the work I make is connected to political ideas and beliefs, how these beliefs are circulated, get lost, reappear again. A lot of my work is also looking at a long historical narrative of social movements, the continuity of radical ideas throughout time, the idea of these struggles not getting lost, being communicated by different means.'
The aim is always to present ideas in creative ways, to provoke thought and discussion. Ewan says: 'What I like about Ian Saville's work is that he makes something look incredibly simple, he uses humour in a very clever way to get across pointed messages. There's a truth-telling process in magic which, to my mind, is what the best art works do as well.'
Ruth Ewan: Sympathetic Magick, various locations across Edinburgh, until 26 Aug, free. For a schedule of performances and activities see The Edinburgh Art Festival website.