Festival review: Visual Arts Programme/Ian Hamilton Finlay

OWWO (Only Women, Women Only) by Amalie Silvani-Jones
OWWO (Only Women, Women Only) by Amalie Silvani-Jones
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A TREASURE trove of alternative culture and art exhibitions await inside Edinburgh’s most labyrinthine of venues – if you can find them, that is.

Visual arts programme

Japanese stacks, by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Japanese stacks, by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Summerhall

Rating: ****

Summerhall is the sleeper of this Festival, a place whose ­extraordinary potential is only gradually becoming clear. It is a big addition to Festival Edinburgh, but it is not just a pop-up shop. It will function all year.

There are permanent installations, temporary exhibitions and performance spaces, bars and restaurants in the building, which was the former Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh University’s vet school.

Robert McDowell and his brothers bought the building to create the hive of alternative culture which it has indeed become. Robert McDowell is the active partner. Talking to him, neither he, nor even his architect, John Hope, is quite sure how big their building is. More than 500 rooms and 140,000 square feet was their best estimate, but there is also a big internal courtyard, full of people drinking happily in the sunshine when I was there. The building itself is a warren, but McDowell doesn’t mind if you get lost; it makes for serendipity, he says, and there are surprises here and there to keep you entertained as you wander, trying to follow the map.

Coming round a corner you may meet the ghost of Joseph Beuys, for instance, or at least a ghostly picture of him. Losing your way may also be awkward, however. Gingerly opening doors, I found myself inadvertently appearing in one or two performances before I located the half dozen or so exhibitions that I was looking for in rooms which still have lab furniture in them from their previous use, a mute reminder of the ultimate unity of art and science. Robert Kusmirowski’s show The Pain Thing is in one particularly gruesome lab.

One exhibition I couldn’t find – and as a mere man I wouldn’t have been able to see anyway – OWWO (Only Women, Women Only) – is exactly what it says, for her eyes only, an exhibition open only to women, both as exhibitors and as visitors. The principle is that if you have women-only events, you should be consistent and limit the audience to one gender too. What would the response be to a men-only exhibition? But then perhaps that chronic asymmetry is itself the point. I couldn’t find the Secret Exhibition either. It is indeed secret.

Richard Demarco’s archive has been given its first permanent home here and is separate from the other exhibitions. Robert McDowell’s ambition seems to be to perpetuate Demarco’s legacy as Scotland’s most creative and enduring gadfly. Going round with Demarco himself is to revisit many triumphs. Together they reflect his unflagging determination to make the Festival – and veteran of 65 Festivals, he is adamant that he has never been Fringe – properly international and so reciprocally to give Scottish artists their proper place in the wider world.

The high points are of course Strategy: Get Arts, from 1970, and artists like Beuys, Kantor and Paul Neagu, brought to wider notice by being shown in Edinburgh, but there is so much else. Macbeth was performed on Inchcolm Island in 1987 and 88, (and is repeated this year) for instance, and there are so many other ­artists, too.

Typically, Dieter Roth, showing this year at the Fruitmarket, exhibited first in Edinburgh with Demarco many years ago. Individuals also make small exhibitions within the wider archive. Ion Bitzan, for example, was Neagu’s teacher and was creator of serenely simple abstract paintings on view in a room by themselves.

In another room, an exhibition of works by Edinburgh artists includes a remarkable abstract-expressionist painting by Charles Pulsford and an installation on the poetry of fishermen’s nicknames by Arthur Watson, newly-elected president of the RSA. Some might be ­surprised to find such an apparently establishment figure in this context, but it has always been Demarco’s view that the true avant-garde is wherever you find it.

Phenotype-Genotype, one of the biggest exhibitions here, is a remarkable display of art ephemera ranging from Dada and Surrealism through concrete poetry to the present day. It is selected from Heart Fine Art, a collection put together by Paul Robertson, curator of Summerhall, that has also found a permanent home in this house of many rooms.

Among other exhibitions, Venus with Severed Leg is a selection of William English’s photographs of Vivienne Westwood in her early days. David Michalek’s Figure Studies and Slow Dancing is a striking, three screen projection of naked figures. Still, or very slow moving and pure white against the darkness, they look like animated classical statues. Sited outdoors, 7X7th Street by Jean Pierre Muller is a row of painted booths that strike up music when you enter them.

Other exhibitions include Remains to be Seen by Carol Schneemann, a display devoted to the 1970s group Art and Language and a selection of photographs by Wolf Vostell. Fewer Laws, More Examples consists of work by Ian Hamilton Finlay from the Heart Collection and Demarco Archive. Demarco was an early supporter and elsewhere his archive ­includes fascinating photographs of ­Finlay’s Little Sparta.

Fewer Laws, More Examples is a selection of works reflecting on the French Revolution, one of Finlay’s favourite topics and a metaphor for our need to think radically and not be encumbered by convention. The works range from a print in red of a guillotine blade with the single word Laconic to a copy of the People’s Friend retitled L’Ami du Peuple and so transformed at a stroke from the couthiest of Scottish magazines into a revolutionary tract.

Along the corridor, The Philosopher’s Garden Redux is a display of Robin Gillanders’s beautiful, reflective photographs of Ermenonville, north of Paris, a garden designed as a place of contemplative perambulation for Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a key inspiration to Finlay and so Ermenonville is an important precedent for Little Sparta.

Ian Hamilton Finlay - Twilight Remembers

Ingleby Gallery

Rating: *****

IAN Hamilton Finlay is also the subject of a major exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery. Beautifully installed, this reminds us that although his work is most familiar as printed paper, Finlay also collaborated with artists to produce work in three-
dimensions: concrete poetry that really is concrete.

As you enter the gallery you are met by Japanese Stacks, for instance, a set of elegant abstract sculptures that are in fact wooden models of the smoke stacks of Japanese battleships. It is typically challenging, but the point is surely that ingenuity and a sense of beauty are universal human qualities. In war, they are no more exclusive to one side than are violence and cruelty.

However uncomfortable it may be for us to recognise the fact, Finlay always insisted the behaviour of both sides in the Second World War was equally a product of human nature. The same idea inspires Rotkehlchen (Redbreast), a picture of the rocket-powered Messerschmit Komet, but painted like a robin.

Here, however, the playful side of Finlay’s work and his boyish pleasure in boats and aeroplanes come out too. Carrier Strike, a rarely seen film from 1977, is a boy’s battle with improvised toys. An ironing board becomes an aircraft carrier, an iron a ship, its flex its wake. Model aircraft from the carrier/ironing board attack and sink the ship/iron among puffs of white cotton wool for smoke, all to a lively score written by John Purser.

One of the most striking three-
dimensional works here is a narrow brick path crossing the upper gallery, each brick stamped Virgil. At Little Sparta, many of the paths are made of bricks laid like this. You walk alone on paths designed for reflection and so for poetry, as here for Virgil, a pastoral poet like Ian Hamilton Finlay himself.

• Summerhall’s festival exhibitions all run until 27 September; Ian Hamilton Finlay – Twilight Remembers is at the Ingleby Gallery until 27 October