Bobby Niven – 'I don't think of the others as art works, whereas this is'
- Susan Mansfield
- 27 July 2017
Scottish artist brings the Bothy Project to the Edinburgh Art Festival
Rather proudly, Bobby Niven shows me a consignment of thick wooden beams. Discarded by a timber-frame company for being too curvy, they are perfect for his latest project: an artists' bothy he is calling Palm House, planned for Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden near Edinburgh Castle this summer as a commission for Edinburgh Art Festival.
As well as a space for artists residencies (Neil Bickerton, Alison Scott, Daisy Lafarge and Deirdre Nelson will take a week each), the wood and glass structure will be a focus for activities, conversation, growing plants and eating pizza baked in a mud oven in a project called The Making of the Future.
Niven is known as one of the creators (with architect Iain MacLeod) of the Bothy Project which currently runs three small-scale off-grid artist residency spaces at Inshriach near Aviemore, on the island of Eigg, and the distinctive tilted Pig Rock Bothy at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Palm House is a bothy with a difference, however, the first Niven has built without MacLeod, and the first to draw on elements of his own sculptural practice.
'The other bothies have been in collaboration so I've not fully had a chance to let rip in terms of adding more sculptural elements,' he says. 'I don't think of the others as art works, whereas this is. The curved beams supporting the roof will be carved into arms.'
The bothy is also an homage to town planner and polymath Patrick Geddes, who envisioned a series of green spaces around Edinburgh's Old Town, and has been cross-pollinated by his other commission this summer, a group show at Inverleith House which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Botanic Gardens' modernist palm houses.
Plant Scenery of the World, which runs until October, places work by five contemporary artists next to rare and unseen archive material from the Botanics' collection, and is being heralded as a tentative new beginning for the gallery which has been closed for over a year. 'It's a bit of a compromise, but maybe it's a good one and good results will come from it,' Niven says. 'I've really enjoyed working in the herbarium, I was there for ten days, they gave me my own pass.'
He shows me seed pods from around the world - many of them brought back to Scotland by intrepid plant hunters from more than a century ago - which he plans to cast in bronze and make into assemblage 'portraits'. They will echo elements from his distinctive sculptural style, weaving found objects into intriguing structures which look part-primitive, part-modernist.
He admits his own practice has been forced to take a back seat by the success of Bothy Project, which was inspired by Scotland's traditional mountain bothies. 'I was enjoying going to bothies with the sketchbook, and wanted to try to think of ways to extend that experience for a creative stay, to remain off-grid, but have a few more comforts.'
The grassroots success of the project caught the imagination of those in the art world, such as the SNGMA and Edinburgh Art Festival director Sorcha Carey. Bothy Project is currently being formalised as a charity, with a trading arm to sell prefab bothies ('We've had lots of emails asking "how can I get one?") and further bothies are planned in Scotland and further afield.
Meanwhile, the work in Johnston Terrace is a chance to sample things to come. Niven says: 'It's not like Geddes, it's not born from trying to create a space that will change people's lives, it's just a simple appreciation of being in a small space which is a nice environment. I think a space that has a bit of good feeling around it is something we need right now when there's not a lot of good feeling going on.'
The Making of the Future - Bobby Niven: Palm House, Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden, 27 Jul-27 Aug, free; Plant Scenery of the World, Inverleith House, 28 Jul-29 Oct, free.