The saddest thing I saw in Edinburgh was a couple of young men with placards labelled “Stop all imigration now”, and I hope the reader won’t find me too pretentious if I feel obliged to add, in square brackets, “[sic]”. The temptation to tell them how to spell “immigration” was almost insurmountable, as was the temptation to inform that if they wanted to live in the country they should learn the language. But it would have been as unfair coming from me as it would from them, and anyway, there was the small but real possibility that this was some kind of publicity stunt for a fringe show, so I ignored them and went on my way.
My way was to the “art kiosk” for the guided tour of the art festival. While I was waiting I was able to look round the exhibition inside, which was by an artist called Antonia Banados. There was no information on it, but it seemed to consist of “rocks” arranged in cabinets and collections, as if they were part of a Victorian geological or fossil collection. The “rocks” had very artificial shapes though, and strongly reminded me of something that I couldn’t put my finger on - possibly car parts. I later learnt that they were polystyrene packaging from white goods, thereby making transient objects into near-eternal ones. Clever stuff, I rather liked it.
This was just as well for two reasons; Antonia was the tour guide, and I was the only person who had turned up. When I realised this, my first thought was to leg it. This was not the first time this had happened to me. When I first arrived at university in 1987 I went for a guided tour of the Sainsbury Centre, imagining that I might meet a few new people with an interest in contemporary art. Instead I found myself following two blokes round the gallery at a time when I was almost incapable of speech without having a drink first, and was completely devoid of any kind of intelligent comment or question. I found the whole experience so embarrassing that it was nearly ten years before I went back.
But I stuck with it, and had one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve ever had in Edinburgh. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide, I very quickly lost any sense of awkwardness and Antonia took me to some really interesting places. First off was SING SIGN by Hanna Tuulikki, a film of a live performance that had taken place in an alley off the Royal Mile, which was being shown in an unnecessarily dark room in an unnecessarily old building up some unnecessarily steep steps (I have a theory that Edinburgh was originally flat but had to be reshaped due to an overproduction of steps\). The work was an attempt to depict the Royal Mile, and the various buildings and alleys along it, partly through costume (the two performers appeared to be wearing a list of places along the road, through song (a hocket that was based in some way upon the topography) and finally through movement, using gestures, miming and good honest British Sign Language to illustrate the route. I was never able to link up what was happening with the street itself - at least one building appeared to be exploding - but the whole effect was captivating.
From there we headed to Trinity Apse to see Holoturian by Ariel Guzik. Unfortunately I wasn’t part of his target audience, because I’m not a whale. Guzik has apparently decided that the only people worth talking to are cetaceans, and has therefore devoted his life to designing methods of doing so. The centrepiece of this exhibition was a capsule designed to be sent down to the whales, containing electromagnetically-played strings that made a soothing whalesong-type sound, and a living object - a cactus. The point of this was that the cactus needs its dangerous spikes because below them it’s so fragile, and so, o whales, are we. Too little too late I reckon, and the whole project is as mad as a moose, but there’s no denying that it was an extraordinarily beautiful object, and its setting, a vaulted gothic church building, made me feel as if we were already underwater.
Next we had a quick peek at Work No 1059 by Martin Creed. This was the renovation of some steps off Market Street, in a stairwell that Antonia told me had become run down and was being used as a toilet. The steps were now slabs of marble, each in a different colour and pattern. Steps somehow struck me as being the most apt medium for an Edinburgh installation, and by now I was frankly glad that I only had to look at them rather than climb them. And it was clearly still being used as a toilet, making it one of the more interactive artworks I saw this week.
We then found ourselves at Waverley Station for Tree No 5 by Charles Avery. For the past eleven years Avery has been making pictures of a fictional island called Onomatopeia, and now seems to have the unsettling habit of creating real objects that were originally only present in the two-dimensional world, a point that was more noticeable when Antonia took me to the larger exhibition of his work at the Ingleby Gallery. This colourful artificial tree was originally a meeting-place in the fictional world, and was now in reality in the meeting-place at the station, where it didn’t seem at all out of place. In the meantime, posters being worn in the pictures were reincarnated as real posters, some of the monstrous animals were lying around in boxes, and if anyone had had the wit to make a real version of the “unicorn” t-shirt, I would be wearing it now. It was all a little disorienting, and completely won me over. It’s just a shame that the tree can’t stay there permanently.
One final trek and we made it to Emma Finn’s Double Mountain, a bizarre film narrated by a mountain and depicted in such a stylised manner as almost to be a cartoon. Although there was a definite story there, few of the characters seemed to interact with each other, with only the mountain having any real personality.
All told it had been a wonderful tour. All the works I saw were thought-provoking, and Antonia had been the best of eggs and gone well beyond the extra mile. And, as someone who’d come to this country from Chile, was exactly the kind of thing that our friends with the missing “m” were trying to ban. Screw them, I know who contributed more to the world this afternoon. And although my tastes aren’t everyone’s, and I’m sure they enjoyed their placard waving, I think I beat them at being alive on this occasion.
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