Frantic at the Fringe – Part I

20 Aug

I have a tendency to overdo it when I go to Edinburgh for the Fringe.  As soon as the Fringe Guide is released in June, I plan our schedule and come August we’re raring to go.

This year we only had three days in which to ‘do’ the Fringe and I managed to timetable 12 productions and 10 galleries plus nice restaurants in which to give our feet a break and our bodies a cocktail or two (or three).  Tempting as it is, I’m not going to mention the theatre side of the Fringe after this very brief paragraph.  Suffice to say it was fantastic.  Highlights were Out of the Blue (an amazing Oxford all-male a cappella group), 2401 Objects (Analogue Productions’ remarkable story of the world’s most famous amnesiac patient), Manscaping by Russell Kane (a comic genius who had us in stitches for an hour), Steven Berkoff’s Oedipus (an exciting modern rendition of Sophocles’ play), Fat Kitten vs the World (a brilliant improvised comedy group and one to watch for future years), Audience – Ontroend Goed (one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Fringe) and Ten Plagues (telling one man’s struggle through a city in dire crisis).  But, I had to start with seeing some art…

Audience – Ontroend Goed. Image via http://utopiaparkway.wordpress.com

Anish Kapoor’s Flashback at the Edinburgh College of Art features two works – his early seminal pigment piece, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982), and the new Untitled, a self-generating wax sculpture, exhibited here for the first time in the UK.  In White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers Kapoor places a strong emphasis on the relationships between the forms, presenting contrasts and similarities between these initially highly varied sculptures.

Anish Kapoor, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers, 1982. Own photograph.

Untitled recalls his two crimson wax-works that were so popular at last year’s Royal Academy retrospective.  Here, a large steel-cutter journeys around a circular track, maintaining the blood-red bell sculpture that stands over 5 metres tall.  The journey is relentless yet almost invisible.  Those of you familiar with the girolle that shaves tête de moine cheese will understand the principle.  In the Classical setting of the ECA, Untitled resembles a memorial monument – the bell suggesting pain and death, the stillness presenting a solemnity.  From a distance, the bell appears smooth and lifeless.  Moving closer, the wax is blemished and damaged, stuck to the edge of the steel.  The sculpture is both beautiful and horrific, playful yet serious.  This was a wonderful start to the Edinburgh Art Festival and I was ready for more.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2010. Own photograph.

In the same building is Body Bags: Simonides, an exhibition that incorporates the ECA’s famous collection of Classical sculpture.  The Greek poet, Simonides, is famous for his epitaphs for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae.  Here, his poetic fragments are translated by Robert Crawford and juxtaposed with photographs by Norman McBeath that provoke a contemplation on loss.

Body Bags: Simonides. Own photograph.

Next, it was time for one of the Fringe blockbusters and to see the work of a Scottish artist.  David Mach’s Precious Light is a revelation (excuse the pun).  I know Mach from his amazing assembled postcard-collage portraits but beyond those, I wasn’t that familiar with the rest of his oeuvre and how far his collage genius extends.

This is the biggest exhibition Mach has ever staged.  The works tell the story of the Bible (no wonder it took him 10 years to plan and four years to execute), focusing on the King James Bible, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year and was the first Bible to be produced en masse.  In the entrance and free for all to see is Mach’s Golgotha, three crucified figures screaming with pain, nails impaling them at every conceivable point.  Regardless of your religious beliefs and how you connect with these works, they provoke immediate reaction – awe, disgust, bewilderment, fear…  The strength of Golgotha overpowers some of the sculpture in the upper galleries such as his matchstick head of Jesus which cannot compete.

David Mach, Golgotha, 2011. Own photograph.

We are more used to seeing Biblical subjects depicted in darkened oils by the Old Masters yet Mach’s dynamic collages have a raw edge.  Collage is an incredibly time-consuming medium with which to work and the intricacy of his detail is superb.   It’s easy to get lost in Mach’s world, fascinated by his characters, their actions and behaviour.  The works are serious but playful, commenting not only on religious history but the disparities in today’s worldwide cultures.  Hell is ironically depicted in Paris, Tokyo, Dublin, Disneyland (here overrun by riots, fighting, religious animosity and disaster) while Heaven is shown through simple and innocent pleasures across the four seasons.  Autumn is particularly luminescent and Mach’s use of colour radiates across the room.  The works require close inspection as well as viewing from a distance.  Money Lenders, hung alongside the escalator, does allow you to soak up the detail but fails to offer adequate space to see the work as a whole.

David Mach, Hell – Paris. Image via www.oranges-and-apples.com

Mach’s London Studio has temporarily relocated to the third floor of the City Art Centre for visitors to watch the final exhibition work being created.  This monumental piece, The Last Supper, will be unveiled on 20th September.  It is fascinating to watch the work in progress and it also breaks up the exhibition nicely.  The fourth floor is given over to the history and language of the Bible itself but, to be honest, I was exhausted by the time I reached this level.  As you journey through the building, the volume of work lessens.   Rather than the initial overload, it would have been better if the works were more spread out.  This is a huge exhibition, spread over five floors and, if anything, it is too big.  As I was conscious of the time, it was impossible for me to spend as much time with each piece as I would have liked.  This exhibition is a tour de force, a powerful portrayal of our modern world in Mach’s own inimitable style.

David Mach, Noah and the Ark. Image via www.davidmach.com

Time was ticking by and I crossed the road to the Fruitmarket Gallery, one of my favourite Edinburgh spaces.  I had never before heard of the American artist, Ingrid Calame who finds a unique visual vocabulary in the ground, tracing individual stains, cracks and markings from specific sites and turning them into artworks.  On first glance, I thought these were just pretty coloured patterns but when you learn of the principle behind these works, they are fascinating, transposing the ground we are walking on into art.  Her constellations (as she calls the layered patterns) move the ground to the wall.

Ingrid Calame. Own photograph.

Her wall drawing, L.A. River at Clearwater Street 2006-8, has been specially made for this exhibition.  Working in a slightly different style to her other pieces, Calame has pricked tiny holes through what is effectively a large transfer drawing, leaving pure pigment on the wall.  It focuses on the graffiti at one site and how it has changed and developed over a two-year period.  The works are about collecting evidence.  What first appear to be pretty pictures are actually full of an unimaginable depth about society’s imprint on the world.

Ingrid Calame, L.A. River at Clearwater Street 2006-8, 2011. Own photograph.

Whenever I now walk up the Fruitmarket staircase I think of last year’s exhibition where Martin Creed had transformed the stairs into a musical scale.  As you walked onto each stair, a note sounded.  The higher you ascended, the higher the note and the larger your smile.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1061, 2010. Own photograph.

Creed is never far away in Edinburgh and, to make up for my disappointment that the musical stairs have disappeared, I went to visit his Work No. 1059 at The Scotsman Steps just across the road.  Creed has re-generated these 104 steps; every stair is now a different kind and colour of marble and a leaflet produced by Fruitmarket Gallery, who commissioned the work in a bid to help restore this dilapidated staircase, lists all the different marbles and their origins.  The staircase is fit for royalty and yet the city rushes up and down it without even noticing the spectacular beauty beneath their feet.  Perhaps this is the charm of the work. It is so beautifully integrated into Edinburgh that it is easy to miss, yet when you spot it, you just have to stop and stare at the stairs.  Creed lives in Italy where it is not at all unusual to have marble underfoot and he has brought a piece of this Italian luxury to Edinburgh, to a staircase that acts as a thoroughfare in the centre of a busy city right next to Waverley station, linking the old and the new towns.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1059, 2011. Own photograph.

Walking back up Cockburn Street, I popped into Stills who are showing works by Stephen Sutcliffe, an artist fascinated with the idea of high culture and its representation in film and on television, and then into Collective, who have an installation entitled Remains of the Day by Hans Schabus.  This exhibition was met with derisory comments by my Fringe buddy who thought the work looked like a larger version of her recycling pile on a Sunday evening.  Yes, she’s not that far off as the work is an accumulation of rubbish by the artist and his family during one calendar year that has been installed, cleaned and displayed linearly along the gallery space.  The work is visible from outside or you can go inside and climb over the mounds of rubbish to fully explore the space.  Through his installation, Schabus questions the spatial layout of the gallery and subverts the standard exhibition experience.  He asks us to consider our relationship to the goods we use and the scarcity of certain products.  This is a good and interesting exhibition for a quick peek, either from the street or inside if you’ve got the time.

Hans Schabus, Remains of the Day, 2011. Own photograph.

And that’s a morning at the Fringe.  We slowly ambled back up the Mile to the Witchery for my favourite fish pie in Edinburgh.  By now you’ve probably realised that this trip necessitated a fair bit of walking. Sticking to my guns though, I wore skater boots for my first day of adventures over the cobbles.  Up and down various staircases, climbing hills, around galleries, running to venues – I was practically crippled by the end of Day One.  But it was worth it!

At the Edinburgh College of Art, Anish Kapoor, Flashback is on until 9th October 2011 and Body Bags: Simonides  is on until 9th September 2011, www.eca.ac.uk.  David Mach, Precious Light, is at the City Art Centre until 16th October 2011, www.edinburghmuseums.org.ukIngrid Calame is at the Fruitmarket Gallery until 9th October 2011, www.fruitmarket.co.uk.  Martin Creed, Work No. 1059 is a permanent installation at The Scotsman Steps, www.martincreed.com.  Stephen Sutcliffe: Runaway, Success is at Stills until 30th October 2011, www.stills.orgHans Schabus: Remains of the Day is at Collective Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.collectivegallery.net.

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