Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Edinburgh Art Festival - The Improbable City

There was a moment during the 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival when festival director
Sorcha Carey found herself sitting above the city's old Royal High School, where
work by Amar Kanwar and Shilpa Gupta was being shown inside and outside
architect Thomas Hamilton's neo-classical Greek Doric creation built between
1826 and 1929. Indian curator Vidya Shivadas, who was standing beside Carey,
looked out at the city's panoramic view.

“Sorcha,” Carey remembers Shivadas saying. “You live in a picture postcard.”

This confirmed something Carey had always thought.

“Edinburgh as a city has a vocabulary of the
imagination,” she says. “There's something profoundly fairytaleish about it.
There's a magic castle and at times it looks like a dark kingdom.”

Out of
this has come The Improbable City, a series of seven public art commissions for
this year's Edinburgh Art Festival featuring brand new interventions by artists
including Charles Avery and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, and set to be situated in some
of the city's more interesting locales.

The initiative was inspired too by
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino's 1972 volume, in which explorer Marco Polo
describes a series of fifty-five cities to ageing emperor Kubla Khan. As the men
talk, it becomes clear that the cities Polo is describing are imaginary, with
each brief prose poem categorised in the book into eleven groups. Where Dorothea
and Anastasia come under Cities & Desire, Melania and Adelma are collected under
Cities & the Dead. Others are Thin Cities, Continuous Cities and Hidden
Cities.

All of which sounds tailor-made for Avery, whose entire practice is
focused on a fictional island.
“The capital city, port and gateway to
this imagined world is called Onomatopoeia,” he explains. “The project I have in
mind could be read as an export from that territory, a specimen from that city,
the meaning of which is to illuminate and articulate the urban environment. A
gift from the great Khan of Onomatopoeia to Edinburgh.

“The space that
we hope to situate the work in has unique properties in terms of the type of
building it is, and is ideally suited to what I want to bring about. It
represents a challenge, which initially I was reticent about, but which I have
now embraced, and I hope the work will too. But this thing is an export from
another imagined culture. It is not specifically reactive to the city of
Edinburgh but it will engage with its environment, rather like a recently landed
alien spacecraft involved in a period of pre contact surveillance. By the end of
the festival dogs will be lifting their legs on it.”

Edinburgh Art
Festival's previous commissions have already left a permanent mark on the city,
from the multi-hued marble of Martin Creed's Work 1059, a Fruitmarket Gallery
commission which that revitalised the Scotsman Steps in 2011, to The Regent
Bridge, Callum Innes' light-based work commissioned by EAF and the Ingleby
Gallery in 2012. Based beneath Archibald Elliot's bridge designed in 1814 to
create an entrance to Edinburgh where London Road met the New Town, Innes' piece
flooded the normally dark tunnel on Calton Road with light that exposed its
architectural beauty, and the installation has remained in place ever
since.

Carey points too to Christine Borland and Brody Condon's 2013
commission, daughters of Decayed Tradesmen, which was housed in the burnt out
watchtower of New Calton Burial Ground.

“We had to clear out the entire
building and put a roof on it to make it safe,” Carey explains. “So even though
the artwork wasn't permanent, the fact that we had to do that has left its
mark.”

The Improbable City comes at a time when the shape of the real life
Edinburgh, along with other cities, is undoubtedly changing. With property
developers having already bulldozed away significant artistic landmarks and
places where the imagination could run riot such as the original multi-purpose
Bongo Club on New Street, which has left a gap site for more than a decade, such
changes haven't always been a good thing.

The Old Royal High School
itself, where the idea for The Improbable City was partly hatched, and which was
once mooted to house the Scottish Parliament, has come under scrutiny following
proposals by developers to convert it into a luxury hotel. This has been
followed by a less destructive counter proposal from St Mary's Music School to
become its new premises. Urban regeneration, however, is not in The Improbable
City's blueprint.

“I hope the over-riding legacy of The Improbable City is
to engage the present with the past,” says Carey. “We think of history as being
in the past, but for the next generation to keep hold of that history, and to
connect the past, present and future, you have to find a meaning for that
history in the present that we live in. I hope that by inviting contemporary
artists in to create new work in the city like this, that we can go some way
towards doing that.”

The Improbable City runs as part of Edinburgh Art
Festival at various venues, July 30th-August 30th. Charles Avery will also have
a solo exhibition on at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, July 30th-September
26th.

www.edinburghartfestival.com

Scottish Art News, May 2015

ends


No comments: