Review: Message From The Skies – Love Letters To Europe, various venues, Edinburgh

Message from the Skies takes place in locations all over Edinburgh, including Calton Hill, pictured
Message from the Skies takes place in locations all over Edinburgh, including Calton Hill, pictured
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One is high on a hilltop, two are in intimate corners that fit their intensely personal themes, one overlooks the Water of Leith, and another the Meadows; but if there’s one Love Letter to Europe in this year’s New Year Message From The Skies installation – co-commissioned and presented by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and the Edinburgh International Book Festival – that thrusts itself straight into the busy tourist heart of Edinburgh, it’s William Dalrymple’s fierce and erudite cry of protest against Brexit, projected onto the south wall of the old Tron Kirk, as it looks down over Hunter Square.

Message From The Skies – Love Letters To Europe, various venues, Edinburgh ****

Addressed to all fellow Europeans visiting Edinburgh this New Year – and featuring superb sound and visual images by Double Take Productions and RJ McConnell – it fills the elegant shape of the Kirk’s arched south window with stunning images designed to evoke a Scotland where, in Dalrymple’s words, “links with distant parts of Europe seem to lie under every clod of soil”, from the great Roman fort near Melrose, to the magnificent Ruthwell Cross, a treasury of European classical and Christian imagery made in south-west Scotland 1,200 years ago.

Picked out in bright, strong letters down either side of the window – and sometimes swelling to occupy the whole width of the wall – Dalrymple’s words pull no punches, denouncing Brexit as “an act of massive culture and philosophical vandalism”, and pointing out that it is one Scotland did not support.

The 11-minute experience at the Tron Kirk is a strange one, like watching a powerful political speech conveyed not through the voice, but through music, images and projected language; and if Dalrymple’s political message is clear to the point of simplicity, his knowledge of Scotland’s history in Europe is as rich and nuanced as the superb and sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful images that accompany his words.

If none of the other five installations can compete with Dalrymple’s for sheer physical and political impact, they nonetheless provide some fine food for thought and feeling, at their locations around the city. At Summerhall, Louise Welsh’s short, visionary poem about the ties that bind Scotland’s languages to their European roots is brilliantly brought to life in Emlyn Firth’s passionate and witty typographical images, projected on the high wall of the eight-storey modern TechCube. And on Calton Hill, the great classical pillars of Scotland’s notoriously uncompleted National Monument are brought to life with rippling power in Bright Side Studios’ visual response to Kapka Kassabova’s meditation on Europe’s mythical origins and strange dualities, which also features an impressive score by Pippa Murphy.

The other writers involved – Billy Letford, Stef Smith and Chitra Ramaswamy – take more personal approaches to the theme, with Ramaswamy’s text, brought to life on the east wall of Leith’s Custom House above the river, reflecting on her family’s journey from India to the UK, then to Spain as typical British tourists in the 1980s; followed by her own willing “exile” in Scotland, to raise her own family in this port town utterly bound to Europe by its trading history, and by its colossal Remain vote in 2016. Letford and Smith tell stories of lost love, in intimate corners at Leith Library and the Bongo Club in the Cowgate; tales of lives lived in an open Europe, and of scenes of past happiness revisited in much darker times, both personal and political.

What’s missing from this round of Love Letters To Europe is the voice of the continent above all others that Europeans not only colonised but enslaved, the voice of the Africa that Ramaswamy glimpses across the straits on her visits to southern Spain, and of people of African origin living in Europe now – there’s no-one here to take forward Kassabova’s observations about Europe’s perennial struggle between enlightenment and political darkness, and to call us what we are: a continent with the blood of half the planet on our hands. Yet still, these Love Letters to Europe represent a rich harvest of reflection about our ourselves and our continent, at this historic turning-point; even if, as ever, there is still so much more to be said. - JOYCE MCMILLAN

Message From The Skies runs at Calton Hill, Tron Kirk, Summerhall, Bongo Club, Leith Library and the Custom House, Leith from 5pm to 10pm every day until 25 January.