Art review: Doig | Borland & Condon | Kenchington

Peter Doig's Ping Pong (2006-2008)
Peter Doig's Ping Pong (2006-2008)
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Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Star rating: * * * * *


New Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh

Star rating: * * * *


Trinity Apse, Chalmers Close, Edinburgh

Star rating: * * * *

His subjects – a modernist house in a wooded ravine glimpsed through branches, a lonely figure trailing a hand from a canoe – seemed somehow remote and ancient. These days, the auction prices for his best works are terrifyingly high and he is seen as some kind of saviour of painting. It’s a horrible symptom of the contemporary art market. But the truth is, the man can really paint.

No Foreign Lands is a superb show of works from the last 12 years, which justifies all the grandeur of the National Gallery of Scotland’s most handsome rooms on the Mound. It demonstrates both the surface fluidity and the careful underlying construction of Doig’s art.

If his saturated colour and the way that pigment slips, drips and stains his canvas is eye piercing, Doig’s art is also peculiarly heart piercing. I can’t be the only person who feels an emotional lurch in front of his best work. It is as though the familiar everyday world has momentarily dissolved and then re-configured itself in front of your eyes. Everything is the same, yet everything is different.

After a visit to Trinidad on a residency in 2000, Doig moved with his family to Port of Spain in 2002. It’s a complex move for an artist, fraught with the dangers of exoticism. Doig might have become a raddled old Gauguin, seeking spiritual succour and distraction in the tropics. Instead he invests the tropical landscape with no more or no less weirdness than his Canadian snowscapes.

In one of his signature works, featuring a lone figure paddling a vast orange canoe, 100 Years Ago (Carrera), it is as though Doig himself is trying to paddle back through time, through his old memories, new experiences and his Caribbean and Canadian childhoods, to great works of the past.

There are a number of sources for the work (including a modern horror movie) but it is haunted by Arnold Böcklin’s masterpiece The Isle of the Dead, in which a lone boatman rides out to an island graveyard with a shrouded corpse.

Similarly, Doig’s art is haunted by the ghosts of the great figures of art history, from Daumier’s metropolitan caricatures to Munch’s spectral figures and Gauguin’s throbbing symbolic landscapes.

The complexity of this position is alive in some of his best new works. There is the blue-cloaked figure in By a River, who may be John the Baptist or the shamanic contemporary artist Jonathan Meese. Or the Figure By a Pool, who might have escaped from David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, yet retains some feel of a Christ-like figure about to undergo the Stations of the Cross.

In Moruga, a boat comes ashore beneath a broiling and tempestuous sky. It feels like a textbook colonial encounter, a crusade or conversion, but it’s based on a photo of Trinidadians themselves restaging the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Doig, a former dresser at English National Opera, engages relentlessly in this endless loop of staging and restaging art history, imbuing it with new vigour each time.

History has also been reconfigured by artists Christine Borland and Brody Condon, who have done Edinburgh a service by finding and conserving the burnt-out watchtower in New Calton Burial Ground for their Edinburgh Art Festival commission. Once it was an observation point over the cemetery during the height of fears of body snatching. Later it became a home for the graveyard’s caretaker.

Borland and Condon were fascinated by the history of Edinburgh trades represented in the cemetery and in particular the history of the Edinburgh Trades Maidens’ Hospital, a philanthropic organisation for the “daughters of decayed tradesmen”.

The artists interviewed two surviving alumnae, but they were private women and their testimony, has been saved, transferred into binary code and converted into punch cards. These punch cards, used to key patterns into Jacquard looms are the forerunners of our digital age. A history of science, industry and personal tragedy woven into a sculpture looped and suspended in time.

Trinity Apse, in Chalmers Close was once one of Scotland’s most important Renaissance churches, but was swept away by the industrial revolution in the shape of steam and Waverley station.

In an early attempt at building conservation, the church was dismantled and its stones were numbered. They were stored for some 30 years on Calton Hill, where as Art Festival director Sorcha Carey explained, they mysteriously reduced in number. New Town residents had been folding the bricks of the historical past into their ambitious present.

Only the apse has survived, rebuilt in a close off the High Street. A curious building that combines a small footprint with soaring historical height, splendid ancient cravings with modern municipal glass, it is a perfect setting for artist and instrument maker Sarah Kenchington’s Wind Pipes for Edinburgh.

More than just a contraption, Kenchington’s homemade pedal organ is a physically and aurally beautiful creation. Its six keyboard consoles serve pipes rescued from abandoned organs throughout the UK.

Kenchington’s restoration is cute: she uses domestic copper piping and the keys are tuppences. Each note is colour coded for those who, like the composer and instrument-maker herself, don’t read music.

The first of a series of concerts, the opening performance by improvisational musicians Muris was a revelation. As the duo padded around barefoot, they cleverly showcased the organ’s construction and it’s throaty possibilities from a bass rumble to a treble trill. The wheeze of the homemade bellows made of scaffolding piping, tarpaulin and stone, felt like the breath of the beast itself.

• The Edinburgh Art Festival and the exhibitions featured run until 1 September, apart from Peter Doig’s show, which runs until 3 November,