Edinburgh art festival review – ugly beauty in the Jekyll and Hyde city

Darkness has descended on Scotland’s capital, with monstrous statues, robot babies and macabre examinations of the human soul. Go and be corrupted

Calton Hill in Edinburgh is, architecturally, the sanest place in Britain. This deliberate recreation of the Acropolis of ancient Athens is graced with early 19th-century classical temples that express a belief in science, philosophy and education, embodying the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment when thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith led Europe towards a future of sweet reason.

Jonathan Owen with his untitled chained figure in Edinburgh’s Burns Monument.
Jonathan Owen with his untitled chained figure in Edinburgh’s Burns Monument. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

The Burns Monument is one of its loveliest designs, a small, round temple commanding stupendous views of the wild heathery hills just outside the city. As I enter, I admire a marble nymph whose graceful form perfectly mirrors the elegance of its dome. But wait. Something is wrong. Her slender body is harmonious enough to please the most Enlightened philosopher, but her throat is missing. It has been replaced by massive chains carved out of marble.

Closer up, the horror and disturbance grow. It’s not that the statue has had chains added to it; they have actually been carved out of the original stone. This is a real 19th-century statue, and someone has very patiently, very cruelly gone at it with a chisel to reduce the neck and shoulders, leaving her head to hang like that of a murder victim.

Who has been here: Burke and Hare? The infamous grave robbers and murderers did operate in the cemetery nearby, but this is the work of Scottish artist Jonathan Owen, who has form for attacking statues in this way. He says he’s exposing their patriarchy – revealing the chains in which the beauty myth binds women – and yes, I see that. But the result is troubling, surreal and, to be frank, utterly bonkers.

He’s done it again at the Ingleby gallery down the road, this time taking the face out of a marble bust of a woman who wears a cross round her neck and is got up like Mary Queen of Scots. Like the Chapman brothers, Owen purchases real works of art – he bid for these neoclassical sculptures at Christie’s – just to have his way with them. His art is grotesque, violent, and utterly fascinating.

Utterly fascinating … Jonathan Owen’s statue Untitled, 2016.
Utterly fascinating … Jonathan Owen’s statue Untitled, 2016. Photograph: John McKenzie

It is an irrational stain spreading across the sensible stones of Calton Hill, as if the unconscious was seeping out of its lairs in Edinburgh’s Old Town to pollute the classicism of the New Town. No city mirrors the divided nature of the human psyche as marvellously as Edinburgh. Its 18th-century squares and classical monuments assert the Enlightenment. Yet its older, gothic, shadowy side speaks of evil and madness. This is a Jekyll and Hyde city.

This year’s Edinburgh art festival proves Scottish art thrives on the same duality engraved in the topography of its capital. I found myself following the opposite thread to the one Theseus followed to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth. My journey through the art festival led me ever deeper into unreason.

Shaken by Owen’s shocking violence against statues, I rested a moment in another classical building on Calton Hill to hear a piece of sound art by Bani Abidi that recreates the lost voices of men from the Punjab who fought in the first world war – and the women who pleaded with them not to go. Cast in song, their dialogue plays on speakers in this debating chamber. It’s lyrical, yet fails to be sculptural or dynamise the space. It’s like listening to an album in a big empty room.

Into the netherworld … Graham Fagen’s A Drama in Time.
Into the netherworld … Graham Fagen’s A Drama in Time. Photograph: Publicity image

Descending a precarious staircase called Jacob’s Ladder down the steep side of Calton Hill, you plummet into the netherworld, or anyway, under a railway bridge where it’s probably not a good idea to linger. Stay just long enough (about a minute) to take in Graham Fagen’s neon installation of a skeleton flanked by two sailing ships and two tropical islands. It looks like a beacon for a pirate-themed bar and glows, feeling appropriate in this shady underside of the city. We’re down in Mr Hyde’s world now.

Following his trail into the Old Town, the darkness accumulates nicely. Afternoon idlers dot the sinister Cowgate. Inside St Patrick’s Church, some old soul is going on and on about the Easter Rising. No wait, this is the historian Owen Dudley Edwards, filmed by Roderick Buchanan, in an extended, indeed quite possibly endless, discussion of socialism, nationalism and the Irish leader James Connolly, who was actually born in Edinburgh. Not a lot of people know that.

A stone’s throw – or a knife thrust – from the Cowgate you’ll find my favourite exhibition of this year’s festival, something anyone interested in modern Scottish art must see. The Scottish Endarkenment at Dovecot explores “Art and Unreason” in Scotland since 1945. One of Owen’s grisly statues is here. So is Douglas Gordon’s self-portrait as a Jekyll and Hyde character. On the left, Gordon looks at you calmly and sensibly. He might be a young Edinburgh lawyer. In the righthand picture, he has taped up his features to turn himself into a brutal monster. It’s just a stunt, yet somehow the effect is genuinely scary. Which is the real, inner face? Evil is just a roll of Sellotape away.

Detail from Christine Borland’s video SimBaby, 2009.
Detail from Christine Borland’s video SimBaby, 2009. Photograph: © Christine Borland 2009

Christine Borland’s video SimBaby manages to be even more unsettling. Borland has filmed a robot baby designed for medical training. As it twitches its plastic hand, its clicking digital heart slows down. Help the poor baby, for God’s sake! The android infant just lies there, needing to be loved. It’s a macabre masterpiece and what Scottish artists do best.

The new Scottish art first grabbed attention in the 1990s when Gordon slowed down Hitchcock’s Psycho and Borland studied the legacy of Josef Mengele. This exhibition shows that Scotland’s art scene is now mature enough to sustain rich historical scrutiny. A couple of years ago, the mega art show Generation hyperbolically celebrated contemporary art as a Scottish asset. The Scottish Endarkenment is much more intelligent because it offers an interpretation of what makes this art so special, laying claim as it does to the uncanny heritage of Robert Louis Stevenson and of James Hogg’s gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It also takes a big historical view of modern Scottish art, with chunky expressionist paintings alongside the video and photography.

Portrait of Joseph Beuys, 1980 by Andy Warhol.
Portrait of Joseph Beuys, 1980 by Andy Warhol. Photograph: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Best of all there is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s classical relief carved in stone that takes the madness right back to the classical heights of Calton Hill. Just as this Edinburgh landmark recreates the painted landscapes of Claude and Poussin, Hamilton Finlay’s headstone pays homage to Poussin’s painting Et In Arcadia Ego. It is death that implicitly haunts Poussin’s classical landscape. Hamilton Finlay makes death more tangible and violent. He personifies it as a Panzer tank.

Did this poet and artist ever meet Joseph Beuys, who regularly appeared at the Edinburgh festival in the 1970s? While the Scot was fascinated by Panzers, the German visionary sculptor, draughtsman, performer and radical politician was haunted by a Stuka crash in the second world war that nearly killed him.

In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s powerful Beuys survey, archive photos and film show the burn scars Beuys tried to conceal under the hat he always wore. He was saved by a Siberian shaman, he said, and in the great drawings at the heart of this exhibition, Beuys sketches shaman figures along with whales, witches and sensual women, summoning up all the powers of myth. Leda, the Greek nymph seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan, is a recurring presence. So are fat and felt, the substances in which Beuys was swaddled by his Siberian saviours and that he appropriated as images of life, death, salvation and hope.

Above all, his drawings are dominated by great thick abstract expanses of Braunkreuz, a paint traditionally used on German rural houses. Its matt colour is at once earth brown and the fading red of a dried wound. This colour of blood and earth speaks of sex, death and the endless metamorphoses of life. Beuys tried to save the world. He certainly saved art. At a time when it was becoming a toy of the postwar consumer society he revealed its darker, deeper, grander powers. Beuys clearly loved the closes of old Edinburgh where he kept coming back to perform and campaign. The irrational is not just destructive, and that’s why you’ll find more people in the bars down on Cowgate than contemplating reason on Calton Hill.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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