The Enlightenments - Visual art in the Edinburgh International Festival

This article is from 2009.

The Enlightenments

The EIF branches out into visual art with a series of exhibitions under the epic umbrella of The Enlightenments. Claire Prentice sings the praises of some modern outlooks on ancient ideas

From evolution and the meaning of life to the role of religion and humanity’s impact on the planet, The Enlightenments takes on the big ideas which have been a puzzle and inspiration through the ages. But visitors to the visual arts strand of the Edinburgh International Festival shouldn’t expect a dry, philosophical debate. On the contrary, the air will crackle with energy and ideas as nine artists from around the globe unleash their visions on the galleries and streets of Edinburgh in much the same way as the leading figures of the Enlightenment did 250 years ago.

The artists’ work covers a diverse range of themes and media, including installations, performance art, films, drawings and stories which audiences can listen to via Bluetooth as they walk around the city. ‘People talk about the Enlightenment as though it is a done and dusted thing but it’s not,’ says curator Juliana Engberg. ‘It took many years to develop and it continues to evolve. The projects are all very visual, they are not stand-offish or encoded with contemporary art jargon. They are very approachable and have a lot of narrative so audiences who are in town primarily to see theatre or opera or comedy or music will be able to interact very happily with them.’

The artists in the strand include acclaimed British artist Tacita Dean whose hour-long film, ‘Presentation Sisters’, follows the daily rhythms, rituals and routines of the last remaining members of a small religious community in Ireland. The women in the convent live a life of medieval chastity and simplicity with few intrusions from the outside world, save for the television, on which they watch football matches. ‘The sisters were not what I was expecting,’ says Dean. ‘They were very lively and fabulous women, all retired and all rather enjoying life. I imagine a vocation to be a difficult thing to inhabit. As spectators, we can only observe and guess at the level of dedication and sureness of purpose that has to carry one through a life of such discipline and obedience.’

Irish convents are finding it increasingly more difficult to attract novices. ‘Vocation, it seems, is lost to the younger generation and those daily rituals, orientated around meal times, female domestic labour, hospitality and devotional prayer are all the more precious because they are finite.’ Dean’s exquisite cinematography makes full use of the summer sun which streams in through the windows, suggesting the slow passage of time. The artist acknowledges that her work requires an investment by the viewer; this piece lasts 60 minutes. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time, but I am demanding people’s time.’

The value we place on buildings is a central, continuing theme for Glasgow-born artist Nathan Coley. The former Turner Prize nominee wowed Edinburgh audiences in 2004 with his exhibition The Lamp of Sacrifice at the Fruitmarket in which he painstakingly built miniature cardboard models of all 286 places of worship listed in the Edinburgh Yellow Pages. Discussing his contribution to the EIF show, Engberg says: ‘his piece is like a forest but it’s not. It’s like a natural cathedral but it’s not. It’s like a sanctuary but perhaps it’s more spooky than that. It’s for the viewer to decide.’

Whatever it is, Coley’s piece segues neatly into Joshua Mosley’s digital film of animated clay figures, which presents a fictional encounter between two of history’s greatest thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal. As they journey through a forest and talk about God and nature, they encounter a strange, foreboding presence. ‘A central theme in my animations is the human effort to size up the world as it relates to the mind,’ states Mosley. ‘That includes understanding the difference between oneself and others and finding a way to compress the complex information in the natural world into concepts.’

Lee Mingwei looks at mysticism and self-enlightenment. Putting a literal spin on the idea that you can reach a higher level of knowledge by going through a series of elevations, the Taiwanese-American artist has created a couple of stairways in the Dean Gallery. They allow visitors an opportunity to contemplate elevation and to be raised up themselves. ‘It could be a stairway to heaven,’ Engberg points out. ‘It also reminds you of the hilly nature of Edinburgh with all its steps. There are lot of meanings in there.’

In Australian artist Gabrielle de Vietri’s ‘Hark’, performers sing the day’s news, stock reports and horoscopes to visitors as they arrive. It reflects back to the days before mass media when people received their news from town criers. For ‘The I Don’t Know Show: Philosophy for Kids’, de Vietri has recorded interviews with eight to 12-year-olds in which they answer fundamental philosophical questions about art and life. ‘The answers are very revealing and imaginative and often really quite deep,’ says Engberg.

Even long-term locals will be forced to see their city anew in Greg Creek’s ‘Edinburgh Drawing: Chatter Shapes’. The proud, intellectual city of the Enlightenment is confronted with its own dark underbelly in the Australian’s epic drawings and watercolours, which feature detailed sketches of famous Edinburgh landmarks alongside doodles and more scatological annotations. During his research in the city, Creek discovered the last remaining resident of the Dean Gallery who lived there in its former incarnation as an orphanage. He went to meet the man in London and his portrait has been incorporated in the work.

Ohio-born conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth is famous for his neon and fluorescent tubed works. When Engberg first saw the Talbot Rice’s Georgian Gallery – the very room where Charles Darwin was inspired to write his famous evolutionary theory – she immediately knew Kosuth was just the artist to fill it.

‘He is a great bibliophile and loves libraries and history. He was ecstatic when I told him about the space and immediately wanted to see it. He has created this amazing fluorescent installation which sets up a debate concerning Nietzsche and Darwin. It’s a literal illumination and enlightenment but also features two people key to intellectual discussions and philosophies.’

The impact of humankind on the environment and the future of the planet are key themes in Susan Norrie’s work. In Enola we see two aliens who arrive in a place, probably Earth, which has become ossified, suggesting something caused life to come to a grinding halt. In ‘SHOT’ Norrie looks at the recent Japanese launch of a satellite into space to plot climate change. ‘Both these works touch on aspects of global warming, environmental catastrophe and the possibility of a nuclear war,’ says Norrie. ‘Artists are often a barometer of events in the world and, by blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction, can sometimes deal with the overload of media information and misinformation with a clarity and poetic detachment.’

Spain’s Juan Cruz is a master storyteller who has created a number of stories around the idea of the ‘mensch’ as a person of noble character. These tales weave in and around the city and its many venues, delivered to anyone who signs up for them via Bluetooth. ‘Cruz has created a lovely set of wry little stories,’ says Engberg. ‘They are like a comedy of manners and are almost farcical in a theatrical sense.’

As an Australian (she’s also artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne), Engberg could have been excused for feeling like an interloper after being invited by her fellow antipodean, EIF director Jonathan Mills, to curate a strand on the Enlightenment in the city where it originated. In fact she’s keen to stress her Scottish credentials. ‘I’ve been travelling to Scotland for a decade and a half and have a great affection for Scotland and a strong affinity with Scottish artists and their work. I’ve shown lots of Scottish artists in Australia which developed out of the ideas of the Enlightenment and benefited a lot from connections with Scotland. We share a very similar mindset.’

In fact the biggest challenge in curating the strand was not coming up with a list of artists but finding space in a crowded August for their work. ‘There is such a collision of festivals that many venues aren’t available. The challenge was finding a little space amongst all that is going on and bringing it to life.’ Whatever critics and audiences make of the individual works, they cannot deny that Engberg and the artists have succeeded in doing just that.

Tacita Dean, Greg Creek, Joshua Mosley, Lee Mingwei, Gabrielle de Vietri and Nathan Coley, Dean Gallery, Belford Road, 7 Aug–27 Sep; Joseph Kosuth, Talbot Rice Gallery, South Bridge, 7 Aug–26 Sep; Susan Norrie, Collective Gallery, Cockburn Street, 7 Aug–26 Sep; Juan Cruz is delivered by Bluetooth, 7 Aug–26 Sep. 0131 473 2000, free.

The Enlightenments

A collaboration between the National Galleries, the University of Edinburgh and the Collective Gallery exhibiting works by contemporary artists which put a modern spin on the ideals of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. Subjects including religion, superstition, philosophy, architecture, literature and the cosmos…

The Enlightenments: Curator's Talk

Curator Juliana Engberg introduces the works on show at the Dean Gallery, which feature Tacita Dean, Greg Creek and Gabrielle de Vietri.

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