Edinburgh art festival review – a plodding, poor relation of the fringe

Various venues, Edinburgh
Tacita Dean and Emil Nolde provide respite from a disappointing mix that includes a badly acted sci-fi

Orson Welles’s boot slumps in a heap of soft black leather in the oddest and saddest art exhibition in Edinburgh this summer. It is an object of great melancholy, a charity-shop image of failure and waste. The same entropic aura clings to his drawings, paintings and doodles.

The visual art of Orson Welles has never been exhibited before, and that’s because it isn’t really art. Welles did caricatures of himself, landscape sketches of the many places his film-making adventures took him, and made his own Christmas cards. These disparate daubs and jokes communicate the titanic personality of the man but also the frustration of his creative life. You get the impression he had too much doodling time. The exhibition smells of dead cigars and lonely hotel rooms.

Though it is a pathetic affair, Summerhall’s homage to Welles is one of the most memorable art exhibitions in Edinburgh this summer. This is the place and time to get drunk and see standup comics, or perhaps even a play. Art at the Edinburgh festivals is an afterthought and the city’s official art festival a very poor relation of the fringe.

Tramping the sun-scorched Old and New Towns in search of decent art I am teased by a seemingly infinite number of posters for every kind of comedy and play. Where’s the wild spirit of spontaneity that makes performance at Edinburgh so special in the plodding art festival?

Part of the Dead Images project.
A collection of skulls from the Dead Images project Photograph: Edinburgh art festival

After the desperate-looking sandwich board signs that announce art festival venues, I find myself deep inside the Edinburgh College of Art. Past the casts of classical statues, I find Dead Images, an exhibition about the history, ethics and politics of European skull collections. Curated by a team of academics, it features videos of talking heads pondering the rights and wrongs of anthropology departments still owning non-European skulls collected in the 19th century.

There is even a trigger warning before seeing a wall-length photograph of Edinburgh University’s skull collection. When did the city of Burke and Hare get so squeamish? The university’s skull collection is debatable, but ethical hand-wringing is not art.

Melanie Gilligan’s interactive video soap opera, The Common Sense, is art, I suppose. Anyway, it has been bought by Edinburgh University’s Contemporary Art Research Collection. Even allowing for the fussy technology – there’s a headset that is supposed to synchronise automatically as the wearer walks from one screen to another to see the next episode in the story, but it didn’t work smoothly for me – Gilligan’s science-fiction drama about a future of digital surveillance is badly acted and banal. Why put yourself through it when you could be watching Black Mirror instead?

Of course, there are much better things in the art festival. It technically includes Rembrandt and Emil Nolde at the National Galleries as well as a superb mini-retrospective by Tacita Dean at the Fruitmarket that is a powerful afterword to her recent London mega-show. If you want to see great modern art in Edinburgh this summer just make a beeline for Nolde and Dean. Yet shouldn’t a festival be more than a way of branding a lot of unrelated art exhibitions that happen to be on in the same city at the same time?

Emil Nolde’s Paradise Lost, 1921.
Emil Nolde’s Paradise Lost, 1921. Photograph: Nolde Stiftung Seebüll Museum/Emil Nolde

I do find a theme of sorts as I walk in glorious sunshine over the city’s hills and through its mysterious valleys. Edinburgh is a city where nature is uniquely close, where a rugged urban vista can suddenly reveal Arthur’s Seat or the sea beyond Leith. In Talbot Rice Gallery, pages from 19th-century books that illustrate ferns and seaweed fronds are exhibited among sculptures that translate organic forms into slate, bronze, steel, or clay. Lucy Skaer is fascinated by alchemical transformations. Her exhibition, The Green Man, is an entrancing journey through natural form and the ways art can change it into the stuff of dreams.

That same feel for nature takes on a cosmic mystery at Ingleby Gallery, whose skylit chapel in the Georgian New Town is the perfect setting for a survey of art’s fascination with astronomy. Katie Paterson shows a sculpture that she made with meteorite metal. There are photographs by the Apollo astronauts, mesmerising astral drawings by Vija Celmins, a photograph in which Garry Fabian Miller distils the essence of the night sky. It is a beautiful show that opens your mind to the universe.

Magic – but the art festival lacks the messy exuberance that makes the fringe so unpredictable and alive. At least Summerhall, which is not part of the official art festival, seems to know that. It is nurturing the seed of a much better event.

As well as its wacky Welles exhibition, it has Free the Pussy!, a raw homage to the Russian rebels Pussy Riot. The punk veteran Jamie Reid has created a collage of Putin as a Pussy Rioter. There are paintings that one of the group’s daughters made when her mother was in prison, and “slut chairs” to enthrone the feminist heroes. The British artist Hayley Newman exhibits Pussy Riot-style masks made from dishcloths and there’s a furious poem by Yoko Ono that asks why we make ourselves a hell in paradise.

The most amazing thing here is a video by radical Russian art group Voina, in which a woman goes around Moscow kissing as many policewomen as possible. There seem to be an awful lot of officers around. Yet kissing them by surprise seems to leave them wondering what to do. Will they see the light and join Pussy Riot?

The figurative painter John Keane shows a picture of Pussy Riot in action. He has also got his own show at Summerhall, a madcap blast of rage at war and injustice. It ranges from his paintings of the first Gulf war, when he was an official war artist, to his anything-but-official more recent images of Iraq bomb victims, blasts at Tony Blair and denunciations of torture. It is a kind of samizdat retrospective.

Summerhall’s shows have the fun and shock I expect from Edinburgh at festival time. If the city’s “proper” galleries could get off their prissy lecturing podiums and embrace its chaos, there might actually be an Edinburgh art festival worthy of the name.

• This article was amended on 30 July 2018 because an earlier version misspelled Hayley Newman’s first name as Haley.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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