TIME is never reliable during the Edinburgh Festival. Minutes stretch infinitely, hours fly by and the conjunction of a historic backdrop and art that can be either very new or, sometimes, very old means that the usual clocks and calendars aren’t reliable.
One of the quickest mornings I have spent at the Edinburgh Art festival was the three hours I spent on a canal boat from Fountainbridge to Ratho. And what was I doing to pass the time? Well, virtually nothing, looking out the window at the bank, transported to another century when three miles an hour seemed a reasonable speed to travel at and the city bypass and Edinburgh airport might never have existed.
My destination was Jupiter Artland, Robert and Nicky Wilson’s extensive private sculpture garden, where the sculptor Tania Kovats has supervised the planting of a new landscape in the garden: around a lake with a new jetty and boathouse. It might be a few years before the project comes to fruition, till the plants mature and thicken and the wee wooden pier is caked in moss and lichen, but you can see it has handsome bones.
The landscape is home to Kovats’ work Rivers. On the outside of the boathouse is a carved list of names, the 100 British rivers from which the artist personally collected freshwater samples. Inside, on two deep shelves, is an array of 100 laboratory flasks of those samples distilled. Dappled light reflects on the glass, but there’s no trickery. Each flask is unnamed and unknowable, but it’s the magical essence of something.
Rivers is in many ways a really simple piece of work, but its poetry tugs at you like a fast undercurrent. When performer Nic Green created a one-off response to the work for the Art Festival Detours programme, she did what many of us harboured a primordial urge to do and threw herself off the jetty into the water with a splash.
At the Ingleby Gallery, Scotland’s most important artist’s landscape is celebrated in a clever gallery show of sculptural works that evoke Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, with a backdrop that uses the photographs of the garden by Robin Gillanders. There are stone urns and baskets, inscribed brick paths, and a country stile. Each is inscribed with Finlay’s incisive wit and ferocity, infused with his dictum that gardens are not retreats but attacks.
Time is a paradoxical theme in Finlay’s art. One small piece in the show, a stone milestone, with the carved words “Man, a passerby” suggests we are all small fry if we position ourselves in geological or biological time. But Finlay also paradoxically insists that action is necessary and that often the time is now.
His fantastical garden carved out of an unpromising hill farm, his interest in revolutionary moments in history and his insistence that we are shaped by conflict both military and ideological; suggest we should seize the day.
Downstairs, one particular attack, the Battle of Midway, has been reconstructed in Finlay’s rediscovered film, Carrier Strike, of 1977. He stages the battle with an ironing board as an aircraft carrier. The boats are little wooden irons and they are bombarded by model planes from a sky of cotton wool clouds. It’s a complex scenario, as a cabinet of maquettes in the gallery reveals the ironing board, those little puff clouds, the model planes aren’t found objects grabbed from the kitchen cupboard but carefully constructed elements. The domestic is an idiom to be constructed and used as much as the classical.
Three decades ago the American artist Tim Rollins opened a battle on another front, a battle for young people’s hearts and minds in a school in the South Bronx. Rollins’ work with the Latino community there and his leadership of a collaborative art group the Kids of Survival is a historic moment in contemporary art.
But it can also seem like an Eighties period piece. Everything about Rollins’ projects seems instinctively wrong to modern eyes, with his paternalist role as a teacher/mentor and his forays into the commercial gallery system.
Yet everything about the project is also weirdly compelling and successful, it worked. Rollins himself is a hilarious showman who spent a week in the Talbot Rice Gallery working with local young people and who gave an artist’s talk in Edinburgh that looked and sounded like a revivalist prayer meeting.
The art that Rollins and KOS produce is astonishingly beautiful, taking sacred texts of literature from Shakespeare to Kafka and creating large-scale paintings on top of the words and with the ideas. There are number of major paintings from the Eighties and Nineties on show and they have more than survived the test of time.
Time is out of joint too, at the Collective Gallery where Glasgow artist Mick Peter’s show Liars And Lying revives interest in the little known British novelist BS Johnson. Johnson was an experimental writer, whose disenchantment with conventional fictional structures never quite transformed itself into radical innovation. He died in 1973 at the age of 40.
Yet, the short film he wrote, Paradigm, in 1969, which is showing at the Collective now seems so prescient, I find myself almost believing that Johnson is a recent invention of the artist. It’s a film about ageing, in a personal sense and in a cultural sense. The older you get, the more you know, the harder it is to say anything at all.
Peter matches this counsel of despair, with a witty and impressive gallery show that plays on image and object, surface and depth; with plaster clad walls and drawings that are sculptures, or sculptures of drawings. It’s a complicated position: art has nothing to say any more, but let’s talk about it anyway.
It’s hard to think of a work more temperamentally opposed to Peter’s careful work than Pain Thing, a near-hysterical two-room installation tucked away in a quiet corner of the stable block at Summerhall.
Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski has created a little shop of horrors out of the history of the former vet school. You enter an ominous dark-splashed room full of rusting mechanical equipment, soiled scientific diagrams, lab cabinets and flasks. A rusting hulk of a boiler seems to be linked to events next door, where laid on the table are what appears to be rotting limb; the suggestion is either of vivisection or some Frankenstein attempt to animate dead flesh.
It is all rather trying and bit too obvious, in a setting where almost every inch of the Summerhall venue speaks quietly but eloquently about its past. But it is also funny and it has a kind of child-like provisional feel as though, like Dr Frankenstein, Kusmirowski has set himself the test of building something new only out of objects within immediate reach. That suppurating flesh? I think it might be loft insulation. The horrible brown stuff painted on the walls? Most visitors reckon it’s not blood but coffee.
Tania Kovats: Rivers, Jupiter Artland; Ian Hamilton Finlay, Twilight Remembers, Ingleby Gallery, until 27 October; Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, Black Spot, Talbot Rice Gallery until 20 October; Mick Peter, Collective until 30 September; Pain Thing , Summerhall, until 27 September. jupiterartland.org; inglebygallery.com; ed.ac.uk; summerhall.co.uk; collectivegallery.net
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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