Scotland on Sunday: Touch of class

Posted on Friday 19th August, 2011

North West @ The Edinburgh Art Festival
by Moira Jeffrey
Scotland on Sunday
14th August 2011

From the weird vantage of a bastion of privilege a guided tour of art for all leaves unsettling questions about public and private creativity.

Often, and this is the principle of Doors Open Day, you’re meant to feel a flush of excitement and gratitude when the front door of a building that you can’t usually enter, through external rules or just plain intenral fear, suddenly creaks open for you.

Visiting Fettes College during the Edinburgh Art Festival last week, rather than these emotions I was taken aback to discover that my main feeling was one of overwhelming sadness.

Fettes is a Disneyfied tower with such green, spacious grounds and lofty views that it feels as though the city that surrounds it is not a real place but some Marie Antoinette fantasy conjured up to keep its pupils mildly entertained. The school is, of course, famous for educating Tony Blair.

But climbing its stone stairs I didn’t feel like I’d conquered the citadel, couldn’t feel self-righteously angry, just weirdly heartbroken. It wasn’t that the place was so extraordinarily different from the perfectly pleasant classrooms that I and my children have encountered throughout our lives; more that it was so close, so recognisable, yet somehow so implacably distant.

I was in Fettes for The Indirect Exchange Of Uncertain Value, a symposium and an exhibition by the artists Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan for the Collective Gallery. You can’t simply roll up to see the show. You must book a guided tour of the normally inacessible buildings, and therein lies the beginnings of a complex meditation on the nature of public and private, inside and out, institutionalised space, choice and meaning.

The symposium was expertly constructed like one of those compartmentalised jewellery boxes: an opening out of big ideas and small gems. From a poetry reading by Tom Leonard, staking out a sense of freedom on the page and in the mind, to architecture writer Owen Hatherley’s blistering attack on Blair-era housing policy, fantastically reminiscent of a 1970s polytechnic lecturer still unafraid to use the words “social housing” out loud.

But the creative thrust was not for some tub-thumping call for “access” or simple answers about the complex notions of art. The show itself is admirably terse, from the giant Trojan kitten that contains a Chris Evans sculpture you might never see, to a boot-shaped sculpture that turns out to be a soundproofed cinema. Inside is Elizabeth Price‘s new film Choir if you hurry you can catch her work in Glasgow too at the British Art Show).

Price is an artist on a roll at the moment, and Choir is an absolutely riveting ten minutes. It brings together archival images and texts: detailed exploration of medieval church architecture with a cleverly constructed soundtrack, a gospel and soul mash-up, in a way that might seem incongruous but isn’t. A choir is both an actual place in a church as well as a word for collective voices.

The film is an examination of score and voice, call and response, anda metaphor for the way we construct all kinds of instituions in our streets, on our computers and in our heads. But if that sounds boring, Choir is emphatically not. Price is a brilliant, authoritative orchestrator of complex elements: when the screening room resounds with a hand-clap-like thunder, you find yourself snapping to attention.

When talking about her work, Price is eloquent on a complicated point: in the digital world, any amount of editing doesn’t get rid of or even rearrange the source material she uses, her research simply sqauts in her computer’s cache. In other words, these days there is no cutting room floor – stuff you gather up never really disappears, and can be made and remade at will.

It’s a point that has resonance for another Collective show that deals with archives: the Viennese artist Hans Schabus‘s Remains Of The Day. At the streetfront galery he has assembled all the waste that he and his family have produced in a year, cleaned it, categorised it and marshalled it into an undulating sculpture that snakes through the gallery and is best viewed, at first, from the street. It’s a one-liner, this show, but none the worse for it.

This is not the aesthetics of dirt – the material has been cleaned in processes that seem to have made even nappies and sanitary towels pristine – nor is it overtly a hectoring message on recycling or waste. It seems close to a family portrait: what goes in, what comes out, what is left. You imagine a family communing round the table, the passage of time and the turn of the year.

You are mildly shocked by how much there is, and then you realise there is actually not that much at all and are impressed by how ordered it all seems. There is the withered Christmas tree, the broken coffee maker. But largely it is ranks and ranks of fruit juice Tetra Paks cleaned and folded neatly, jars of pickles and a surprising number of empty tins of butter beans. other than a clear addiction to diet cola, his family diet seems pretty healthy.

David Mach‘s Precious Light at the City Art Centre is the very definition of excessive, from the massive wire crucifixion sculpture Golgotha, to the collaged crowd scenes: it’s clearly a Cecil B DeMille version of the Bible, never using one extra when a thousand will do, and like Blake’s Jerusalem it imagines biblical narratives on home turf. It is an enormous undertaking, but Mahs’s own position on belief is unclear and his ability to touch the heart seems eroded. The King James Version of the Bible, which the exhibition marks, was a landmark in the Ebglish language. perhaps all mach is saying is that it has since presented us with hundreds of stories, rather than “the greatest story ever told.”

Belief of sorts is also the theme at the Ingleby Gallery, where Mystics Or Rationalists is a potted history of recent conceptual art strategies, touching on both the dry and rigorous and the possibly divine, and a very persistent interaction between the two. These are works concerned with the history of art and ideas, by artists who sue beauty and concision as well as brains.

This is an elegant show, with a lovely mix between more senior figures and a new generation. There is Simon Starling‘s circular 2006 work, Autoxylopyrocycloboros, commissioned by Cove Park, in which a small wooden steamer is sawn up and the wood fed into its own boiler; the artist finally falling into the chilly waters of Loch Long. The artist Katie Paterson‘s work with the light bulb manufacturer Osram to manufacture a moonlight bulb and her attempts to measure out an average adult life through the lifes[an of these bilbs signal a bright young talent.

Susan Hiller‘s internet-culled images of levitating figures at the Ingleby tap into the internet’s ability to develop and nourish subcultures. there has long been a fashion for art that examines such subcultures: the kind of immersive work that appears to show a culture viewed from within, or the kind of cool sociological eye that can be very entertaining for the audience and rather brutal towards its subject. Katri Walker‘s show North West for Peacock Visual Arts, in The Old Ambulance Depot, falls between the two.

The Making of Three Guns for a Kllling is the story of a group of pals in Aberdeenshire making a cowboy movie in the back garden that one fo them has turned into a movie set settlement named Tranquility. The saloon and the sheriff’s office are barely disguised garden sheds. Boot Hill Cemetery is created from bits of old crate and street signs.

Walker’s very beautiful film North West shows the near lunar landscape of Assynt, with the mountains of Quinag and Suilven rising from the deforested desert. The conceit is that it re-imagines rural Scotland, not so much as an untouched Wild West wilderness, but the moral landscape of John Ford, a place of action and consequence.

Perhaps, on reflection, that may also be a clue to undertsanding the impact of the beautiful, insulated world of Fettes College.