The imprisoned poets in Shilpa Gupta’s immersive installation are among the stars of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival
Ross Birrell & David Harding: Triptych, Trinity Apse, Edinburgh ****
Adam Lewis Jacob: No Easy Answers, Institut Francais d’Ecosse, Edinburgh ***
Shilpa Gupta: For, in your tongue, I cannot hide, The Fire Station at Edinburgh College of Art *****
Melanie Gilligan: The Common Sense, Edinburgh College of Art ****
I like to think of the Edinburgh Art Festival both as an umbrella and an allotment: a canopy which brings together much of the visual art happening in Edinburgh at festival time from Rembrandt to Gunnie Moberg, and a plot in which new commissions are planted and allowed to grow.
This year, the commissioned work has a strong element of the political with a small “p” – art which responds to the times in which we live. Sound, or a combination of sound and film, are important elements. Or performance, in the case of Ruth Ewan, who, with the help of Marxist magician Ian Saville, has organised a team of magicians to perform tricks with a political edge in streets and pubs throughout the festival.
Sound is the first element which strikes us in Triptych, the installation by David Harding and Ross Birrell in the reconstructed medieval church of Trinity Apse. The artists filmed (in Athens during Documenta 14) a special performance of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by the Syrian Expat Philharmonic and Athens State Orchestras, with Syrian soprano Rasha Rizk.
Birrell and Harding have collaborated since 2005 on films and installations, multi-layered work which repays time spent. At first, the wonder is in the music, its sadness and beauty echoing through the Gothic building, and the obvious connections of lament for a war-torn homeland.
In time, however, the visual elements come to the fore. The duo refuse to satisfy the 21st-century demand for constantly changing camera angles: for much of the time, two of the three screens show next to nothing. The longer you watch, the more you are made aware that you are not there in the concert hall, watching the performance. What is evoked is a sense of absence, of loss.
Add to that the fact that this is a building which was displaced, a patched-together replica, lacking its original shape and its stained-glass windows. Birrell and Harding have transformed the existing windows with a translation into colour, via music, of a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. These connections reveal themselves only with time and thought.
After the mournful splendour of Gorecki, Adam Lewis Jacob’s No Easy Answers at the French Consulate (in its new home on West Parliament Square, which is also the Art Festival Hub) hits one with a barrage of noise.
Glasgow-based Jacob, who graduated from the MFA course at GSA in 2015, is interested in consumer culture, how it shapes us and how it sometimes appears to be on the brink of collapse: the retail shelving units in the work came from Maplin, the electronics chain which went into receivership earlier this year; the title of the show comes from a 1992 essay about membership of the EU.
Three screens cycle through a rapid collage of images: shopping malls, slot machines, family photographs, cartoon characters, found footage of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. In the centre of the room, a group of borrowed lamps flash on and off, beaming out (we are told) a conversation between Jacob and his grandmother in Morse code, though we’re not allowed to know what it’s about.
The central idea – the all-pervasive presence of one economic model, which shapes all aspects of life and identity – is clear enough, and the installation even sounds like a shopping mall might if everything was turned up loud. But the Morse code conversation and tangential accompanying texts by Hussein Mitha seem to be about obscuring meaning, and run the risk of alienating the audience.
By contrast, in Shilpa Gupta’s installation at the Fire Station next to Edinburgh College of Art, For, in your tongue, I cannot hide, all the elements come together in the service of an idea which becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the darkened space, 100 rusted metal rods each bear a page with a few lines written by a poet who has been imprisoned, from the 8th century to the present day. Above each is a microphone from which voices, in a carefully orchestrated vocal symphony, bring these words to life.
The effect is immersive, but it is Gupta’s care and precision which makes it work: too many lines of poetry to read would be overwhelming; too many voices at once would be a cacophony; too many languages would alienate. She has got the balance just right.
Some voices are overtly political, others speak to us of timeless concerns such as love or home. From different times and places – Peru in 1920s, Cuba in 1971, Nigeria in the 1990s, China last year – they circle around remarkably common concerns. Whispering to us from different parts of the room, occasionally joining in a chorus of anger or sadness, they speak to us about creativity in dark places, about how creative minds are often the first to reap the consequences of oppressive regimes.
Meanwhile, The Common Sense, a film installation by Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan (not part of the EAF commissions programme, but a recent purchase for Edinburgh University’s Contemporary Art Research Collection) sits strongly within the genre of fiction which explores the dystopian effects of new technologies. A 15-part drama (each six-minute episode is shown on a separate screen) concerns The Patch, an implant in the mouth which enables individuals to tap into the feelings of others.
The visionaries hope it will make society more cohesive, “the age of the post-individual”, but soon it is being used by companies to snoop on their employees and by banks on their customers. Some people find their bodies reject it catastrophically, while others are exploiting a thriving black economy. Will it become a vehicle of social control, or will the people rebel?
The format allows Gilligan the chance to explore a variety of implications of the technology, while drawing her audience into a network of characters. But to fully appreciate her journey (actually, a choice of two journeys with different outcomes) means staying the course for the full 90 minutes. If you can invest the time, it is a vision both sinister and prescient which – perhaps like all true dystopias – is less about what might happen in the future than it is about what is happening now.
All until 26 August, www.edinburghartfestival.com