Andrew Eaton-Lewis: There’s little that’s adventurous in obediently following guides up a hill
ABOUT seven years ago I wrote a fairly withering review of The Storr, a hugely ambitious art project by NVA in which audiences were led on an ambient light and sound journey up a mountain on Skye as darkness fell.
The result: an awkward conversation with Angus Farquhar, the visionary director behind NVA, who thought I’d been unfair. I had, after all, not seen the whole thing, inclement weather having made the trek to the top of the mountain unsafe that night.
I’d been quite open about this in the review, but also suggested the show had problems beyond its weather-dependency. “Nature dressed up for the safe, packaged entertainment of the middle-aged middle-classes,” I wrote. Harsh. Perhaps too harsh, in retrospect. Luckily I liked NVA’s next project, Half Life, much more, so no awkward conversation was necessary.
Until now, possibly. On Thursday night I trekked up Arthur’s Seat for Speed Of Light and, while I acknowledge and admire the huge amount of talent and effort that’s gone into the project, I can’t share the enthusiasm of those who have given it awestruck four and five star reviews.
To be fair – and I’m going to try extra hard to be fair, this time around – it might just not be for me. I’ve already walked up Arthur’s Seat late at night, on Valentine’s Day with my wife. By sheer chance, just as we reached the top, fireworks exploded over Leith. If you’ve never seen fireworks from above, in the far distance, it’s an extraordinary thing, like flowers blooming and then wilting in the sky.
The thrill of climbing a mountain at night is that it feels transgressive. It’s a secret adventure, ascending to the top of the world while the world sleeps. That’s particularly the case on Arthur’s Seat, gazing out over the city, separate from civilisation but connected to it, doing something that feels ancient and primal in the glow of electricity.
There is very little that’s adventurous or transgressive, though, in obediently following guides up a hill while clutching a light stick. I felt as if I was on a school trip, and was envious of the many shadowy figures far away in the dark, people who had figured out that they could save themselves £24 by just finding their own way up the mountain.
This, I admit, says more about me than it does about Speed Of Light. Nothing in the brochure promises transgression. In some ways, this is NVA’s least subversive project yet. In the past, Farquhar has talked of creating secular versions of religious pilgrimages, and included poetry and fascinating essays about Situationism and psychogeography in the books that accompany the shows. This show is about sport, fitness, endurance.
Yes, the abstract patterns the runners create on the hillside are beautiful. They can, as Farquhar says in the brochure, “be imagined as different phenomena within the visible universe”, but so can a string of car headlights on a distant country road, or the mist over Leith.
If you’ve never been up Arthur’s Seat in the dark, I’m not about to suggest you do it on your own. That would be irresponsible. I’m just saying that my experience of Speed Of Light was a constant, niggling feeling that the “show” was elsewhere, in the orange urban haze, the echo of fireworks, a fat toad caught in torchlight, or something hidden far off in the dark, beckoning.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West