Art review: Edinburgh Art Festival '“ The Making of the Future: Now

By making use of some of Edinburgh's lesser-known spaces, the new commissions at this year's Edinburgh Art Festival put the city at the heart of the show

'Palm House' by Bobby Niven

Edinburgh Art Festival – The Making of the Future: Now Various locations, Edinburgh ****

In 1917, while the First World War continued to rage on the Continent, Patrick Geddes published The Making of the Future, a pamphlet proposing ways in which “a new and better civilization” could be built amid the ruins of the old. Sociologist, town planner, activist, philosopher, environmentalist, a man who, to this day, defies categorisation, Geddes wasn’t shy about having big ideas. In many ways, he was also a man ahead of his time.

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For Edinburgh Art Festival director Sorcha Carey, Geddes’ pamphlet struck a chord with the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival, founded on a vision of revitalising society through the arts in the aftermath of another world war. For her Art Festival commissions this year, she has asked four very different artists to respond to Geddes, and placed their work in spaces in the Old Town, the territory which was often the focus of his reforming attention.

'The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership' by Walker and Bromwich

The result is four very different works offering contrasting contemporary perspectives on elements of Geddes, which also draw visitors into hidden nooks and crannies off the Royal Mile which have their own histories. Metres away from a thoroughfare packed with tourists and Fringe-goers, bagpipers and fire-jugglers, these quiet spaces offer a chance to see another side to this festival city.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfectly preserved relic of the past. It’s a multi-layered mish-mash of architectural styles with very old buildings standing shoulder to shoulder with much newer interventions, and it is still changing and adapting (albeit under stricter regulations), the new development on the corner of New Street being a case in point.

This layering is particularly evident in spaces such as Chessels Court, where a frontage designed by Robert Hurd in the 1950s opens onto a much older courtyard with a central area which was once one of Geddes’ gardens, part of a visionary project to create green spaces in an area which had, in the 19th century, become an overcrowded slum.

Toby Paterson, with his interest in modernism and the way in which idealism expresses itself in the built environment, has plenty to work with here. He is also drawn to Geddes’ interest in looking: the Outlook Tower (now the Camera Obscura) was a Geddes idea, intended to offer a fresh perspective on seeing and understanding the city.

'The Sociology of Autumn' by Toby Paterson

Paterson’s response is a kind of open sculptural room, designed both to look into (it looks strikingly different from each aspect) and out of. Meticulous and detailed, like all Paterson’s work, it provides a framework for looking at this multi-layered environment, echoing the shapes and colours of the courtyard, shedding new light on what we see. It is also a kind of gallery, a home to sculptural shapes in brutalist concrete and wall-mounted abstract reliefs.

The title, The Sociology of Autumn, is taken from Geddes and his proposal that, in society as in the seasons, decay gives way to new life. But situated, as Paterson’s work often is, in an aesthetic dialogue with modernism, it seems to propose a more chequered path, one which can be littered with failure as well as success.

Bobby Niven’s Palm House, in the wildlife garden just below Johnston Terrace (another Geddes green space), is another room designed for looking into and out from. A simple contruction of wood and glass, it’s a self-contained space for an artist to work, like the spaces created in the Bothy Project, of which Niven is a founder. But it’s a work of sculpture as well as a bothy. Motifs within the structure echo Niven’s sculptural practice, like the carved wooden hands which help to hold up the beams (Palm House – geddit?). As a place for working and interacting (four artists will spend a week each here during the Art Festival) it echoes Geddes’ love of idea-sharing, as well as his passion for plants.

There is also an interactive element in the work of Zoë Walker & Neil Bromwich, whose big green inflatable dragon of “Profit and Private Ownership” fills the little gothic chapel of Trinity Apse (previously the Brass Rubbing Centre). The dragon has been part of two public processions (another Geddes interest, along with finding alternatives to capitalism), one featuring Craigmillar school children chanting Geddes’ line: “By leaves we live, not by the jangle of coins”. The dragon comes from a banner created by Northumberland miners in the 1920s which shows a similar creature being slain by a brawny young miner with a spear labelled “state control”, while a happy, healthy community looks into a bright new future. There is a lovely, naive idealism to all this, as well as a sad irony. Nearly a century on, both state control and the coal mining industry are all but gone, and the dragon of capitalism has proved remarkably difficult to kill.

'The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership' by Walker and Bromwich

“Hapless we were in missing the dragons,” says the poetic voice in Shannon Te Ao’s new film installation shown in Gladstone Court, on the site of a Magdalen Asylum for “fallen women”. Entitled With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, it consists of two films screened amid a forest of plants from Te Ao’s native New Zealand, and the artist draws on a range of personal and historical references around his Maori heritage.

The words are a lament written in the 1840s by Te Rohu, the daughter of a Maori chieftain, who contracted leprosy from a potential suitor. The illness ravishing her body seems to speak more widely of the fate of her people at the hands of colonialism. Downstairs, a moving film shows a couple dancing in a field of long grass as the night falls, a long, slow, sad dance which seems to speak of unnamed sorrow. The companion piece upstairs (I would have liked to have seen both in the same space) shows landscapes, the Rangipo Desert, part of Te Ao’s tribal lands, now used for training for the New Zealand Defence Force, and the commercial dairy farm which now surrounds his family burial ground.

While this work seems to have the most indirect relationship with Geddes, it also has the most argument with him. The bringing of a new world from the ruins of the old, or new life from loss and decay, is far from straightforward. Te Ao’s work seems to speak of the damage which remains, a necessary foil to Geddes’ relentless idealism.

Until 27 August

'The Sociology of Autumn' by Toby Paterson