Not set in stone: sculpture at the Festival

This article is from 2009

Not set in stone

Talitha Kotzé explores the nature and appeal of sculpture, a major theme running through this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival

An unofficial but recurring thread in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme is sculpture. That is not to say traditionally moulded or contemporarily modulated, but sculpture in its broadest sense. It ranges from new work by the Wilson sisters to a big sculpture group show at the Edinburgh College of Art, a retrospective of work by the late Eva Hesse at the Fruitmarket Gallery and newly commissioned installations by Andrew Ranville at the Corn Exchange.

The nature of contemporary sculpture is elastic and expanding, but its definition remains elusive. Why are artists and audiences increasingly drawn to this form, and in what ways are the boundaries of sculpture being pushed? The materials available to sculptors are changing: our material culture provides disposable raw materials just as stone used to be the medium most readily available in the early Lithic stage.

Sculpture is art that casts a shadow and makes a clear distinction between the second and third dimensions. Whether the process of creation is reductive, additive or re-assembling, the outcome is something real and tangible and voluminous.

These principles of sculpture can be employed as aesthetic approaches that inform other creative practices. Jane and Louise Wilson will showcase their new film ‘Unfolding the Aryan Papers’ at the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery. Taking its inspiration from an unmade Stanley Kubrick film about the Holocaust featuring the actress Johanna ter Steege, their 17- minute-long film was put together through extensive investigation in the Kubrick archives. It is as much a moving portrait of the actress and the time it was (not) made, as it is about Kubrick’s meticulous research. Mirrors will be used in the gallery space to reflect the film into infinity. This haptic element will allow viewers a bodily engagement with something more than a flat screen.

‘We are intrigued by repetition and reflection,’ says Jane Wilson. ‘In a way the unfolding of the image in this architectural setting mirrors what the archive felt like and what we were doing in it.’

The Turner Prize-nominated Wilson twins have a continuous interest in describing the psychology of space. Juxtaposing archival material with contemporary re-enactment, the sisters employ the reductive method of film – a subtractive editing process similar to stone carving where everything that is touched is taken away, and what is untouched remains.

In Kubrick’s archive there are plentiful images of yard sticks in different settings, used for his preparatory research. Referring to their practice of photographing empty spaces to uncover the atmosphere rather than the actual location, Jane Wilson explains: ‘The yard stick tradition used to describe set design in order to reconstruct architectural details is no longer used today, but it provides clues to represent the human scale without actually featuring people.’ The Wilsons have chosen to cast this in bronze to be exhibited with the original archival material as if reaching into the past and bringing forth a signifier – making real what never happened.

Contemporary sculpture generally produces less studio work than public display. The Fruitmarket showcases Eva Hesse’s Studiowork, exploring the artist’s historical position by questioning the nature of sculpture. Her studio pieces, made of latex, wax, cheesecloth and plaster provide a microcosm of her bigger completed works, but since these works are not necessarily prototypes for finished pieces the curators of the exhibition propose that they are at the heart of her practice.

For the Milestone exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art, ten international artists will each carve a new sculpture from a tonne block UK stone of their choosing. The exhibition is intended to stimulate debate about the use of stone in contemporary art, and viewers will be able to see the artists in action.

‘Today there is an urge throughout the world to connect to something basic,’ says participating artist Joel Fisher. The material world is an honest advisor, particularly in a world in which we are less and less certain about what is real. When I became a sculptor the biggest surprise for me was that my fingertips were more sensitive than my eyesight. That is just one example of the pervasive ocular prejudice in our world.’

The project aims to draw attention to the advantages of subtractive ways of thinking, and suggest its usefulness well beyond the realm of sculpture. Professor Jake Harvey adds that he believes in the value of working with one’s hands to inform the mind directly and bypass a theoretical explanation.

We perceive the world not just through our eyes but through our skin as the organ that allows us to feel space intuitively. The work of Andrew Ranville explores a personal form of psychogeographic study and for his exhibition at the Corn Exchange and the site-specific outdoor piece at Gayfield Square gardens, he employs strategies of the dérive. A section of the garden has been extracted and gives the appearance that the ground has sharply jutted up. The form is simple, but its fantastical nature calls for viewers and passers-by to interact with it. ‘As opposed to something like abstract painting,’ says Ranville, ‘which is often necessarily approached with a knowledge of the history of the medium to understand and appreciate, sculpture has the ability to draw a wide range of people because of the very fact that it is tied to this idea of the body and space. It allows a response that is aligned to basic human understandings of touch, distance, and movement.’

Other highlights at the Festival include Ballast: Bringing Home the Stones at the National Museums of Scotland, Roger Ackling at the Ingleby gallery, Bob and Roberta Smith at Hawke and Hunter, John McCracken at Inverleith House, and The Embassy gallery’s exhibition Grandmother waits for you, derived from a humorous and unlikely combination of local granny culture and global electronic networking, inviting collaboration from artists and audiences alike to build a giant knitted representation of our interactive ‘noosphere’.

In an age of intangibles, we are drawn to the solid and the real. We search desperately for something visceral, immediate, unmediated, something we can touch, something our fingertips can trace, something we can have in the flesh. This year’s range of exhibitions creates a shadow play of innovative sculptural offerings.

Andrew Ranville, Corn Exchange Gallery, 561 7300, until 10 Sep (not Mon), free; Eva Hesse Studiowork, Fruitmarket Gallery, 225 2383, until 25 Oct, free; Milestone, Edinburgh College of Art, 221 6000, until 30 Aug (not Mon), free; Jane and Louise Wilson, Talbot Rice Gallery, 650 2210, 6 Aug–26 Sep, free.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork

A solo presentation from German-born, American, artist Eva Hesse.

Ballast: Bringing the Stones Home

Using stone from historic Scottish quarries, New Zealand artist John Edgar has created a series of stone sculptures depicting emigration - leaving home, the often treacherous voyage and arrival in an unfamiliar land. 'Part of Homecoming 2009'.

Andrew Ranville

  • 3 stars

In this solo show American artist Andrew Ranville combines large-scale sculptures crafted from reclaimed timber that explore site-specificity, with prints and film. Additional work also in Gayfield Square Gardens.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork

A rare chance to see the work of Eva Hesse (1936-70), a major figure in post-war art. The exhibition focuses on small, experimental sculptures, many of which have never been exhibited before.

Jane and Louise Wilson

  • 4 stars

This exhibition of film and photography by Jane and Louise Wilson will be their first solo exhibition in Edinburgh. Itwill include new film and recent photographs, alongside a new sculptural commission.

Ballast: Bringing the Stones Home

Five new works by the New Zealand artist John Edgar. Combining Scottish and New Zealand stone, the sculptures reference journeys, arrivals and departures. Part ofthe Year of Homecoming 2009.

An Introduction to Eva Hesse: Studiowork

Professor Briony Fer (University College London), guest curator, talks about her research into Hesse’s practice and how it informs the exhibition. PART OF THE 2009 EAF

Bob and Roberta Smith in conversation with Steve Bierley and Andrew Patrizio

Bob and Roberta Smith will talk about his painting ‘This Artist is Deeply Dangerous’ with Guardian tennis correspondent Steve Bierley and Professor Andrew Patrizio, Director of Research Development at Edinburgh College of Art. PART OF THE 2009 EAF

Andrew Ranville

  • 3 stars

Showing for the first time in Scotland, Andrew’s work is a mix of large scale sculpture crafted from reclaimed timber, prints and film. New work has also been commissioned and Andrew’s latest piece will be in Gayfield Square Gardens for the duration of the Festival. Andrew’s installations, sculptures and films explore…


  • 4 stars

Milestone is a unique arts event for the Festival. Ten international sculptors will each carve a new sculpture in a 1 to 2 tonne block of stone of their choosing in the ArtCollege quadrangle. This event offers the public a rare opportunity to watch stone sculptors in the process of creating their work. In addition to the…

Ballast: Bringing the Stones Home

John Edgar’s stone sculptures explore the experience of the emigrant: leaving the homeland, the voyage through unknown seas and the arrival in a new land. Ballast kept them afloat on the journey and brought them safely to a new shore half a world away. Using stone that he collected in 2005 from various historic quarries…

Jane and Louise Wilson

  • 4 stars

Talbot Rice Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of film and photography by Jane and Louise Wilson. This will be their first solo exhibition in Edinburgh. It will include a new film and recent photographs alongside a new sculptural commission.

Roger Ackling

Like his friends and colleagues Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, Ackling belongs to the generation of artists who graduated from St Martins School of Art in the 1960s with a sense of the possibility of taking art out of the studio. Sculpture, they decided, could be anything they wanted it to be, and in Ackling’s case this…

Eva Hesse Studiowork

This exhibition is a rare chance to see the work of German-born, American artist Eva Hesse (1936– 70), a major figure in post-war art. The exhibition is the result of new research by renowned Hesse scholar Briony Fer, and focuses on the small, experimental works Hesse produced throughout her career, alongside her…

Bob and Roberta Smith This Artist is Deeply Dangerous

  • 3 stars

This Artist is Deeply Dangerous is an 11-metre painting which breaks down into nine panels and is one of Bob and Roberta Smith’s largest works to date. Last year the Guardian asked its arts and sports writers to swap places for a day, resulting in a review of a Louise Bourgeois exhibition by tennis correspondentSteve…