IN Old Calton Burial Ground last week a group of us stood quietly waiting for the One O’clock Gun with the Scottish artist Susan Philipsz.
Susan Philipsz: Timeline/ Andrew Miller: The Waiting Place/ Anthony Schrag: Tourist In Residence/ Kevin Harman: 24/7
An ambulance siren sounded in the distance, a seagull screeched overhead, a moment’s silence and then at 1pm precisely we watched the Time Ball drop on Nelson’s Monument on Calton Hill.
At the same time a brief but eerie pulse ran through the graveyard, a work called Timeline, the artist’s voice singing a three note harmony, broadcast in a staggered sequence across the city in a straight line from Calton Hill to the Castle.
Seconds later, we finally heard the report of the gun. The visual and aural system, once set in place to help sailors in Leith and the Forth set their chronometers, is a lesson in the way sound travels across time and space.
Timeline, specially commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival, is a simple reminder of the extraordinary nature of the city it is set in: a vast natural amphitheatre set with classical monuments and interspersed with parks and open space.
However, it’s not just Edinburgh’s architecture that Timeline celebrates but also its history of invention. Philipsz voice emulates the original siren invented by Edinburgh physicist John Robison as an apparatus attached to an organ. Its three-note harmony (in the key of G) gives ships’ horns a depth, and it was deemed “equal in sweetness to a clear female voice.” It’s a lovely little intervention that will be heard by thousands of visitors every day until 2 September.
Timeline is a very short work, but technically complex. This week, the test runs complete, Philipsz stood quietly smiling beneath the towering Martyr’s Monument to Thomas Muir and his associates. Convicted of sedition in August 1793, they were sentenced to transportation to Australia. These days we know him not as a revolutionary firebrand but as a pioneer of universal suffrage, the father of Scottish Democracy.
In her own way, Philipsz is also a revolutionary of sorts. The first artist working in sound to win the Turner Prize, her gentle human voice has resounded everywhere from the Tate to a Tesco supermarket.
The work is not without its politics. In an interview a few years ago, Philipsz told me how, brought up in a devout Catholic family where she learned to sing in her church choir in Glasgow’s Maryhill, her brother introduced her to rock music and the writings of Trotsky.
She has paid tribute to the murdered revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and once sang the socialist anthem The Internationale for a sound work beside a checkpoint in Berlin where she now lives.
In this Edinburgh piece we have an elegant essay in geography and history but also a quiet call to (or perhaps against) arms. Timeline is the human voice in counterpoint to the gun, the persistence of the everyday against the power of bombardment.
Timeline is just one of a series of commissions that means that the Art Festival feels more coherent and public facing than ever before, stepping more comfortably through the city and situating itself more clearly within it.
One aspect of this is a centre of gravity to the north of Princes Street, starting with a base in a pavilion in St Andrew Square and proceeding with films and events along the amber mile of Rose Street.
I was never quite convinced of the need for an annual artist-commissioned pavilion when it was launched with Karen Forbes’ Solar Pavilion last year. In a city full of extraordinary buildings it seemed superfluous and a pale imitation of the big budget job done every year by London’s Serpentine.
I’m still not sure we do need one, but if the festival insists on a building then Andrew Miller’s The Waiting Place does a good job.
In the preliminary drawings Miller’s project seemed a rather cool, modernist kiosk, but in the flesh it is a far more fun vernacular building, made of black-stained pine, constructed in diamond-shaped lattice patterns, entered by ramps and duckboards and topped with ragged-edged corrugated iron.
The front veranda has a sequence of shutters that open to create an asymmetrical façade. A young oak tree whose green leaves push through the building dominates the central space, where talks will be held. Part bird hide, part garden shed, part urban shack, part bus shelter for pedestrians, it is all quirk. It comes as no surprise when you hear that it’s primary inspiration was the work of Dr Seuss.
The pavilion is also the starting point for Anthony Schrag’s series of promenades and events that use Rose Street as a playground. Schrag is the festival’s Tourist In Residence, a Canadian with a peripatetic upbringing who studied in Glasgow and is now settled in Edinburgh.
He’ll take participants on an unsensory tour, on which they will traverse the city blindfold and with earplugs. There will be a mile long football game along the length of Rose Street; a pub tour he tells me is all sold out. One group will explore how to be tourists in Edinburgh, involving simple manoeuvres such as “standing in entranceways and not moving”.
Schrag’s own art practice lies somewhere between gentle conversation and parkour, that urban sport that consists of jumping on and off buildings.
Setting off from the pavilion this week, I left through the gate, but he hopped over the fence then climbed a traffic light and treated a railing like a gymnast’s beam. Soon we were all thinking like Schrag, every drainpipe an opportunity. An alley full of bins and lurking smokers became a playground full of places to climb and leap. Well, he did the jumping and I watched. The old buildings were the best he said, as he polished the lens of a security camera mounted ten feet up the wall. The new ones left “very little to grapple with”.
There was more grappling in Princes Street Gardens, where artist Emily Speed gathered a bunch of acrobats for Human Castle, her tribute to another Edinburgh landmark. Gentle to the point of being underwhelming, it did however have a whimsical charm. The figures assembled, formed a wobbly human tower and then disappeared into the bushes, always more flesh than stone.
Back in Rose Street Kevin Harman’s 24/7 is a feat of endurance turned into a mini-museum. Last Sunday, Harman spent 24 hours in the Chesser Branch of Asda. While there, he devised a scheme to build his own gallery collection crafted exclusively from purchases in the store. The photographs on show in his ad hoc space were processed in the superstore, the paintings on the wall made with kids’ poster paint. The gallery staff are clad in outfits bought there. Everything from the trampoline to the Jim Lambie-style floor made of tinfoil and the fake Sarah Lucas sculpture has been improvised in the last week with the contents of his trolley.
Harman was cheerful but exhausted when we met. Once Edinburgh was home to political martyrs. Now we are all martyrs to consumerism.
Susan Philipsz, Timeline, various locations; Andrew Miller, The Waiting Place, St Andrew Square and Kevin Harman, 24/7, 169 Rose Street, all run until September 2; Anthony Schrag Tourist in Residence, bookable tours, various dates until 29 August. www.edinburghartfestival.com
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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