Emeka Ogboh: Song Of The Union
- Kelly Apter
- 4 August 2021
A poignant and uplifting Edinburgh Art Festival sound installation that reverberates with the power of unity
Before even arriving at the venue, Emeka Ogboh's sonic work comes out to meet you. Wafting across Regent Road from the Burns Monument, the unmistakable strains of 'Auld Lang Syne' feel like a ghostly whisper on the wind. And in many ways, that's what Song Of The Union is: a ghost of things past. The building itself is a memorial to Scotland's bard, Robert Burns, but his statue now stands in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, leaving the monument empty and bare.
'Auld Lang Syne' – arguably Burns' most famous work – was sung in the European Parliament on 29 January 2020, following the vote that sealed Britain's withdrawal from the EU, and although it was that ending which inspired Nigerian-born Ogboh to create this work, it still conveys an undeniable sense of optimism and hope. Having found 27 people currently residing in Scotland who hail from each nation state of the European Union, Ogboh asked them to sing this iconic song in their mother tongue. And so, as we sit in this small, circular building with its mosaic floor and smooth, neo-classical columns, we feel like a citizen of the world.
As somebody who has heard 'Auld Lang Syne' sung in English practically every New Year's Eve for their entire life, there is a combined feeling of strangeness and familiarity. Starting with a lone soprano voice and gently building to a polyphonic crescendo, the words we know so well are delivered in Slovakian, Polish, Hungarian, Irish Gaelic, German, Danish, Czech, Romanian, Scots Gaelic and many more. The haunting melody works its way into your heart regardless of language: perhaps it's because we know the lyrics so well, perhaps it's the ongoing trauma of Brexit or perhaps it's simply because the vocal delivery is so evocative.
There is something anachronistic about the seven speakers projecting the sound inside such a historic space, but it only serves to echo the feeling of old and new, past and present. It's a beautiful idea beautifully executed, and once you watch the video on the Edinburgh Art Festival website, in which the singers explain what this project means to them, Song Of The Union becomes even more poignant and uplifting.
Emeka Ogboh: Song Of The Union, Burns Monument, until Sunday 29 August, 10am–5pm, free; advance booking required.