Edinburgh Art Festival reviews: Kate Davis | Ross Little | Stephen Sutcliffe | Platform 2017

Gender and economic inequality are at the heart of two fascinating shows at the Edinburgh Art Festival

An installation image of Plaform 2017 at the Fire Station at Edinburgh College of Art. Picture: Jonny Barrington

Kate Davis: Nudes Never Wear Glasses Stills, Edinburgh ****

Ross Little: The Heavy of Your Body Parts and the Cool Air of the Air Condition Collective, Edinburgh ****

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Stephen Sutcliffe: Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ***

Platform 2017 The Old Fire Station, Edinburgh ***

Contemporary art is often accused, with some justification, of being inward-looking, so it’s refreshing that two strong exhibitions at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival take economic inequality and the nature of work as their subject. At Stills, Kate Davis opens a blistering debate on the subject of women’s domestic labour with two stand-out films, shown alongside a series of found photographs which she has altered.

Weight adapts the script of John Read’s 1961 documentary about Barbara Hepworth, which, while keeping the period aesthetic, replaces the references to art with references to housework and childcare. What does it mean to hear a woman talking about housework as a sculptor would talk about their art, about textures and surfaces, weight and form, as an avenue for imagination and self-expression? What does it mean to see a bucket and scrubbing brush exhibited, with the camera panning around it, like a work of art? It’s clever satire, certainly, but also a profound and necessary polemic on an important subject.

Charity, Davis’ new film made as a result of the Margaret Tait Award, covers similar ground but in a gentler way. Over a slideshow of images from the history of art of women breastfeeding, a first person monologue read by actress Gerda Stevenson adapts sections from a range of texts (including some by Tait herself), reflecting on a job for which there is no contract, union or designated hours, but which is also “fascinating” and “collaborative” and “a pleasure”. It ends with a blistering aside which nails all those who would dismiss this kind of nuanced, impressionistic reflection as the rantings of a hormonal woman, and asserts its place in the discourse about work and life.

Ross Little’s film, The Heavy of Your Body Parts and the Cool Air of the Air Condition, at Collective, deals with the subject of work from a different perspective. The first half of the film was made on board a cruise ship, contrasting a group of “digital nomads” who work while they travel, with the largely invisible army of workers who keep the ship afloat. In this segregated above- and below-stairs world, the international context brings one group freedom, while the other – out of sight, not allowed to speak – experiences a lack of employment regulation and workers’ rights.

The second part of the film goes on to deconstruct this world, literally, in the ship-breaking yards of Alang, India, where ocean liners and cargo vessels are broken apart, one panel at a time, and every nut and bolt is recycled into the local economy. Here, there are no interviews, and Little had to pose as a natural science student to film there. One suspects workers rights aren’t great here either, but the film is not directly about that; filmed, occasionally disjointedly, in a range of different techniques, it’s a thoughtful, impressionistic reflection on the nature of globalised labour.

Another artist working predominantly in film is Glasgow-based Stephen Sutcliffe, having one of his biggest shows to date at Talbot Rice Gallery, including a brand new commission, Casting Through/Scenes from Radcliffe, inspired by the archive of Lindsay Anderson which is held at the University of Edinburgh. Casting Through draws on Anderson’s diaries and letters, and deals with his repression of his sexuality, particularly his difficult working relationship with actor Richard Harris. Filmed live in the gallery using actors – a new technique for Sutcliffe – it’s a study in pent-up tension, sexual and creative, the themes compounded by scenes (using the same actors) from David Storey’s novel Radcliffe, about unrequited homosexual love across the class divide.

The film is shown in the context of material both from the Lindsay Anderson archive and from Sutcliffe’s own collection of books, magazines and video tapes, as well as a reel of his earlier film work. His 2016 film, Twixt Cup and Lip, shown in the Georgian Gallery, references Storey’s 1969 play The Contractor, and covers not dissimilar ground of class tension and repressed emotion. Made from collaged television footage from the 1960s and 1970s, it is distant to those who don’t recognise immediately the faces involved and, while its conversation about class tension also feels like a thing of the past, one wonders uneasily if, given today’s political context, it might be with us again soon.

This is in the third year of Platform, EAF’s showcase of emerging artists, this year selected by festival director Sorcha Carey in collaboration with artists Graham Fagen and Jackie Donachie. The four artists, showing in the old fire station on Lauriston Place, have been chosen to reflect a range of practices. The most immediately engaging is Uist Corrigan, who has built a bell on a scaffold and erected it in a range of locations around Scotland. A ringing bell, it turns out, is immediately evocative. Put it next to a ruined church, or on a deserted beach, and you have a haunting sense of human habitation and absence.

Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte draws on a proposal made in the 1920s by a diplomat in her native Lithuania to move the entire nation to a new location by leasing land in another continent (suggestions included Quebec, Madagascar and the Bahamas). She responds to it in objects, photo etchings and film, but it’s hard for any work to be as compelling as the original, crazily ambitious idea.

Adam Quinn’s version of a concrete brutalist sculpture, not unlike those unloved relics of the 1950s and 
1960s which crop up around modern cities, is a reflection on failed idealism, while Rebecca Howard’s film installation about objects invested with special powers is immaculately made but hard to engage with. However, all are significant bodies of work in a great space, and Platform continues a vitally important strand in what the Art Festival is here to do.

Kate Davis until 8 October; Ross Little until 10 September; Stephen Sutcliffe until 30 September; Platform until 27 August; edinburghartfestival.com