Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2008

Joshua Sofaer

Joshua Sofaer preparing for his Scavenger Hunt

Street arts

Rosie Lesso reports on an Edinburgh Art Festival programme that’s more engaged with the city than ever before

Edinburgh residents are used to a takeover at this time of year. As hoardes of performers, artists, comedians and their assorted entourages set up a whole other city on top of theirs, the festivals can feel divorced from the realities of Edinburgh life. This year, though, the Edinburgh Art Festival programme indicates a subtle shift in priorities. Although still offering unparalleled opportunities to experience both big name UK artists (Richard Wilson, Richard Hamilton, and of course Tracey Emin) and exciting international work (particularly Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at the Fruitmarket and Kay Rosen at the refurbished Ingleby Gallery), what marks this year’s programme out is the increase in exhibitions, events and occurrences that engage directly with the city.

‘There’s not a strong tradition here of using Edinburgh as a canvas, perhaps because it is such a beautiful, venerable city,’ says EAF creative director Joanne Brown. It’s her second year running the festival, and the success of events like last year’s Jardins Publics, which reached out and connected with local residents, has clearly inspired her.

‘This year, there’s much more of a partnership between the artists and the city. It takes new artists with fresh eyes to use the city this way.’

The shift may also be due to the economic climate, as a number of the smaller galleries have been forced out of their premises and become nomadic. The recently displaced Amber Roome, for example, has gone camping: the Garden Gallery exhibition, part of their ongoing Portobello-centred project ‘Big Things on the Beach’ features a range of local and international artists exhibiting painting, sculpture, sound installation and performance in a gallery space made up of 30 private, sea-facing gardens. East Lothian artist Ettie Spencer will also be getting her hands dirty; her project, Tobacco House, in association with the Scottish Agricultural College, involves growing a crop of tobacco on the façade of St Margaret’s House on London Road. As well as the aesthetic benefits of adding greenery to the front of the austere old pensions building, the work has roots (sorry) in Edinburgh’s less savoury history. ‘Tobacco House alludes to a history of plantation ownership and slavery which merchants in Edinburgh were party to,’ says Spencer, who intends to ask the Edinburgh public what to do with the resulting tobacco crop.

St Margaret’s House isn’t the only local building getting a facelift for the festival. Polarcap (aka local artists Graeme Todd and Liz Adamson) have brought together 14 emergent and established artists, including Graham Fagen, Iain Patterson and Norman Shaw, for Eskimo, the inaugural exhibition at the Gallery at Eskmills in Musselburgh. The Victorian mill buildings have been transformed into an art space that commemorates the building’s past, as will the exhibition.

‘The works will relate to the space in a variety of ways,’ says Todd. ‘Some will resonate with the physical dimensions of the building and others with its history as an ex-fishing net factory and the subsequent relationship to the sea.’

Other disused spaces being colonised by the festival include the former Infirmary Street Baths, now the new home of the Dovecot Tapestry Studios, which will be celebrating the move with two retrospective exhibitions, and the Ingleby Gallery, which has converted the much-missed Venue nightclub into the largest private art gallery outside of London.

Along with internal exhibitions, the advertising hoarding space above the new gallery has been renamed Billboard for Edinburgh, a piece of art visible from afar. The first artist to show there is Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger, although his project is still a secret. ‘Not because there’s anything contentious or dramatic about it,’ says director Richard Ingleby. ‘We just like the idea of the new image popping up . . . rather than being trailed.’

Increasing the reach and accessibility of the festival this year, Brown has also programmed a number of projects which interact directly with the public, rather than waiting for an art-aware audience to come to them.

Spam the Musical, organised by New Media Scotland and an artist who prefers to remain anonymous, brings together two years’ worth of collected email spam which he has converted into video pieces. The artist’s display method is ‘guerrilla art’, with videos appearing throughout Edinburgh in a range of as yet unknown locations: like spam mail, they aim to reach people who haven’t solicited them. Tallin-born artist Mare Tralla’s Protected tracks the movement of CCTV cameras throughout the city, with live easel painting and performance in Waverly Station, the Bridges and Princes Street.

Performance artist Joshua Sofaer is also taking to the streets; he has organised a Scavenger Hunt for anyone willing to apply. There will be 40 teams, each given a hundred clues and just nine hours to scrabble around the city and find hidden objects. Assuming all the objects are found, Sofaer will display them at the City Art Centre from Monday 18 August.

This sort of project is traditionally territory of the Annuale, the artist-run, self-styled ‘bridesmaid’ to the EAF. This year, though, the Annuale is more closely integrated into the programme than ever before, co-presenting projects with the festival proper in and around the belly of the city. Edinburgh Close Up will use the gardens and spaces around Advocates Close as backdrop to display sculpture and installation, organised by a group of international artists. By showing work in these outdoor spaces, they hope to attract ‘the city user rather than the gallery pundit’.

c a m e r a, a new gallery created by researcher and artist Julia Martin in association with the Museum of Edinburgh is also aimed at the passer by; the ‘gallery’ is a glass cabinet set in the wall next to the museum’s entrance, the work visible only from the street with no access inside.

New York artist Sanford Wurmford’s E Cyclorama, a painting on the inside of a huge cylinder made for Edinburgh College of Art’s sculpture court, also has historical links with the city. The first circular painting ever made was by Robert Barker in the 1780s in Edinburgh, demonstrating the view of the top of Carlton Hill. Wurmford says, ‘In a sense, the panorama is coming “home” when I exhibit my 360 degree works here.’ Wurmford appears to have got the measure of the city, and of this year’s EAF programme, too. ‘The city today is more than its architecture,’ he says. ‘It is a community of artists, scholars, workers of all kinds.’

For details on where to find all the exhibitions mentioned here, see listings.

Edinburgh Art Festival

Scotland's largest annual celebration of visual art offers work by the best contemporary Scottish artists as well as exhibitions of the most important international artists and movements of the 20th century and other historical periods.

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