THOSE Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions with a live element can be thrilling, but when the show’s over there’s not much left
I began this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival in earnest by being enslaved and reborn. At least I think I was. I might have been re-animated. At the very least I felt mildly recharged.
In the Old Royal High School performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and a motley crew clad in wigs and old sheets, kicked off proceedings first by tying up their audience, then enacting what seemed like electrifying scenes from Frankenstein in the old school science lab.
They turned an empty side room into a frothing sea of polythene and staged a pagan ceremony retelling the birth of Aphrodite in what would have been the debating chamber of the new Scottish Parliament, had this site been chosen over Holyrood.
Chetwynd, who studied anthropology before she turned to art, and whose unusual forename is a piece of theatre in itself, is an artist best encountered in person. Her sets will be on display at the venue throughout the festival but it’s the live event that has real energy.
Entitled The King Must Die, the work draws from Mary Renault’s groundbreaking, and sexually liberal retelling of classical myth. It is not quite the clean-cut Aphrodite we’re used to. Focusing as Chetwynd does on the violent castration of the sky god Ouronos and the exigencies of sacrifice and goddess worship, rather than the great beauty wafting ashore on a seashell. If events don’t quite reach a satisfactory climax, it is fun and friendly chaos on the way.
Chetwynd’s work is just one of a number of new commissions in a festival themed around the idea of “The Improbable City” with, this year, a particular emphasis on female artists and, at the new festival “kiosk” in Blair Street, a welcome investment in emerging artists in new strand called Platform.
It’s there, and in little pockets like the gallery and studios Rhubaba in Pilrig, that you can find the city’s youthful energy. Here a delightful single room exhibition includes artist Sophie Mackfall’s lovely painted collages, which are quizzical responses to the testing times of pregnancy and infant care.
In Trinity Apse, the artist Ariel Guzik has created what looks like a natural history museum centred around the Holoturian, an ingenious vessel and resonant instrument which he intends to send beneath the oceans as an unconditional gift and one-sided communication with intelligent cetaceans such as dolphins and whales. If his interspecies intent is moving and conveyed poetically, the technical possibilities are not entirely clear, and the exhibition itself, however busy, is somehow a little slender, reflecting a wider sense that, after its big Commonwealth-focused productions in 2014, EAF can feel dispersed and low key at times this year.
Resonance is also vital to Hanna Tuulikki’s SING/SIGN in which the acoustic properties and historic density of Edinburgh’s Old Town come alive. Glasgow School of Art graduate, artist and musician, Tuulikki spent four years on Awa’ with the Birds, her exploration of Gaelic music’s evocation of birdsong that was performed in Canna in 2014. And while it is much smaller in scale, SING/SIGN is equally committed. Her new score is a complex piece, structured around baroque musical forms and created using a notational system devised from a map of the Old Town.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd: The King Must Die Old Royal High School Rating: ***
eeee o ee e i a a e e a Rhubaba Rating: ***
Ariel Guzik: Holoturian Trinity Apse Rating: ***
Hanna Tuulikki: SING SIGN: A Close Duet Gladstone’s Land Rating: ****
kennardphillips: Here Comes Everybody Stills Rating: ****
Beatrice Gibson: Crippled Symmetries Collective Gallery Rating: ****
One evening I found myself in a close off the Royal Mile watching the artist’s lovely performance with Daniel Padden. While traffic hummed in the background and seagulls wheeled above, the pair faced each other and sang wordlessly, gesturing using movements derived from British Sign Language. At times their mimicry and interaction was frustrating and at others charming, playful and openly comic.
If you can’t catch the live performances, which have very limited capacity, you can see a film version in an upstairs room at Gladstone’s Land, where the charisma of a part of the city we can easily take for granted becomes apparent and hidden aspects of the performance openly revealed. Tuulikki’s sheer force of personality, imaginative energy and unique artistry promise much for the future.
There are moments in any festival, where even the most dedicated hedonist finds themselves trying to figure out how all the dressing up, the pushing of boundaries and the fun sits with a real world that can be violent, terrible and horribly unjust.
One answer is at Stills with the work of Cat Phillips and Peter Kennard. The duo, who work together as kennardphillips, created one of the great images of this century, the grinning photomontage of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of a wall of flames.
Here, the pair have developed an open structure of stacked pallets and swinging wood structures on which to mount not only their own work but also that of members of the public who can visit their War on War Room in the St James’s Centre. Working in humble materials they produce searing prints on themes of violence, corruption and exploitation in the global economy. One installation revisits work made for Leadenhall Market in the heart of the square mile, where images of global poverty were printed on stock listings in the pink pages of the Financial Times. City types were not phased by the images: they simply wanted to know if the work was for sale.
The answer to the question of how to marry the demands of avant-garde art with the social and political impulse comes with remarkable clarity at the top of Calton Hill in an understated show at Collective of two short films by Beatrice Gibson. F for Fibonacci weaves a fascinating tale fusing mathematics, a small boy playing Minecraft and economist Fisher Black’s famous 80s thesis on the distinction between noise and information.
Playing opposite is Crippled Symmetries, a re-enactment of some radical musical performances from the Fluxus era made with children in a playground. It becomes the story of George, a small, feisty Londoner with a Dickensian face and a tendency to run off with the story. Here, as he throws coins on a table or recites economic terms from a dictionary, the world becomes charged with a sense of frustrated possibilities and wasted opportunities.
• Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, ee e i a a e e a, Ariel Guzik and Hanna Tuulikki all until 30 August; kennardphillips until 24 October; Beatrice Gibson until 4 October, www.edinburghartfestival.com