I am spending a lot of time in Edinburgh this month. When I return I hope to visit all the National Galleries but for my first trip my somewhat ambitious plan was to see all the galleries in the Edinburgh Art Festival programme – over 45 exhibitions spread across the city. I’m not quite sure what prompted this absurd idea but, needless to say, it didn’t happen – I was in Edinburgh working and also seeing a large amount of theatre. Plus, when I arrived, the Art Festival hadn’t actually started as I found out the hard way (some things never change).
However, this didn’t stop me from seeing a few brilliant shows.
Edinburgh. Own photograph.
The Fruitmarket Gallery is one of my favourite art spaces in Edinburgh. As well as having a fabulous art programme, they have a brilliant café. So, it’s practically compulsory to be standing on their doorstep when they open at 10am to start the day with a bacon butty and a cup of piping hot tea. This done, I was ready to see their current exhibition of Dieter Roth’s Diaries. This exhibition is the first to focus on Roth’s diaries which he used not only to record appointments, addresses, etc., but also to note his ideas and drawings. His diaries help us to understand his work and the thinking behind it. They were an integral part of his life; he even had his suits altered in order that the diaries would fit comfortably in the pockets.
Dieter Roth’s diary. Own photograph.
Many of Roth’s works are presented as visual metaphors of diaries – Flat Waste records a year in his life in rubbish that is less than 1cm thick (I’ve read a fair few different comments on the actual measurements of the rubbish but 1cm is stated in the Fruitmarket bumph that accompanies the exhibition) and Solo Scenes records on 128 video monitors the last year of the artist’s life.
Dieter Roth, Flat Waste. Own photograph.
The rubbish in Flat Waste is presented in 623 ringbinders that together form an archive, housed in specially designed shelving units. Between each cabinet, a lectern allows visitors to browse a selection of the binders in more detail to appreciate fully the anal precision of this task. Roth didn’t censor his life and plastic wallets in the ringbinders are filled with random everyday items including orange peel, used tissues and toilet paper (don’t ask!). There are some anomalies in the dates because a number of the volumes from the original year (1975-6) went missing and Roth decided to replace them with binders of rubbish from the same day in later years. The folders are labelled in an compulsively consistent pattern. Using rubbish to make a portrait of his life, Roth is without the forerunner of many artists who consider themselves to be radical.
Dieter Roth, Flat Waste. Own photograph.
Video art has never been my favourite medium but Solo Scenes is incredible, a gripping look at Roth going about his day-to-day activities: getting out of bed, cooking, eating, and even sitting on the toilet, in his homes and studios in Iceland, Switzerland and Germany. Nowadays, we are familiar with the concept of a video diary but it was far less common when Roth first began experimenting with the idea. Although many of the activities that Roth carries out are mundane and don’t differ much from our own routines, they allow us to monitor him in an obsessive fashion blurring the boundaries between life and art. Yet, despite witnessing Roth at such personal moments, he says we don’t necessarily come any closer to understanding him as ‘who knows what people think?’. The work only came to an end when Roth died of a heart attack – this is a truthful and honest portrayal.
Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes. Own photograph.
As with Flat Waste, Roth hides nothing from us and poignantly shows us the reality of his life – the good, the bad and the ugly. The exhibition also includes some of Roth’s copybooks and actual diaries. Roth was never an orthodox or predictable artist; this is an amazing exhibition, showing that everything he did fed into his art. Indeed his whole life was a voyage, creating diaries that fulfilled his need for constant artistic production. This was the first exhibition that I saw in Edinburgh and I already knew it was to be a highlight. It stayed with me for days.
Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes. Own photograph.
Next, I crossed the road to City Art Centre who are showing an exhibition of works by Leslie Hunter. Hunter was part of The Scottish Colourists who, although they never worked together as a foursome, are brought together by their love of bold colour that revitalised Scottish art – the influence of which can still be seen in the work of artists in Scotland today.
With over 50 works, the exhibition really allows us to get a feel for Hunter’s oeuvre but, having just experienced the moving poignancy of Roth’s work, this exhibition did nothing for me. Hunter is obviously a good painter but he didn’t excite me.
Leslie Hunter, Peonies in a Chinese Vase, 1925. Image via www.theskinny.co.uk.
Upstairs, is a complementary exhibition entitled The Scottish Colourists which shows Hunter’s influences and the work of those who have been influenced by him. On the top floor is Human Race which I thought would require very little time – I was wrong. Human Race celebrates pioneering developments in medical imagery, surgery and sports training in the last 200 years. The exhibition uses intriguing objects from Scottish collections that date as far back as to the Bronze Age and is split into themes; there is an 1820s Hobby Horse, films, drawings and photographs, bone and muscle specimens, a St John’s Ambulance first aid kit from the 1950s and specimen jars used in modern-day anti-doping tests. The objects could not be more diverse or informative without being overbearing. There are also a number of commissioned artworks that take inspiration from objects in the exhibition and explore the many tensions that exist in sports and medicine.
Human Race at the City Art Centre. Own photograph.
Heading up the road to Stills, I discovered the gallery wasn’t yet open and it was at this point I found out that the EAF didn’t officially start for a couple of days. Hmm… Some people never learn and perhaps that’s me. Collective, however, had opened so recently that it was still possible to smell the fresh paint in the gallery. Sadly, this may be their last exhibition in their current Cockburn Street space as they are moving to the City Observatory later this year. Lying and Liars is a site-specific installation that explores the conflict between storytelling and formal experimentation by mixing different sculptural and architectural forms. This is a beautiful gallery and its large glass frontage offers multiple perspectives on the unusual exhibitions they mount.
Lying and Liars at Collective. Own photograph.
The next morning I headed to St Andrew’s Square to see another EAF commission; Andrew Miller’s The Waiting Place is this year’s pavilion and is a playful reinterpretation of a summerhouse in one of the busiest areas of the city. The building is designed to show off an ambitious and ambiguous architectural form. The title comes from Dr Seuss’s Oh! The Places You’ll Go where the protagonist finds himself in The Waiting Place, ‘a most useless place … for people just waiting’ for a variety of different things to happen. The pavilion doesn’t have any particular function but can fulfil whatever the visitor needs: ‘Waiting for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a plane to go, or the mail to come, or the rain to go, or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow, or waiting around for a Yes or a No, or waiting for their hair to grow…’. Even a tree makes use of the pavilion as it erupts from its roof.
Andrew Miller’s The Waiting Place. Own photograph.
Stills was still shut (!) so I climbed the Scotsman Steps, where Martin Creed’s Work No. 1059 is a permanent installation. Creed re-generated these 104 steps so that every stair is now a different kind and colour of marble. Last year, I observed that although the staircase is fit for royalty, the city rushes up and down without even noticing its spectacular beauty. I am more and more convinced that 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. Continuing further into town, I headed to the Talbot Rice Gallery which hadn’t yet opened either. I began to think that theatre may be easier (my tweets will allow you to track what I saw) and stored my art map in my bag for my next trip.
Martin Creed, Work No. 1059 at the Scotsman Steps. Own photograph.
I never quite managed to be in one of the set spots at 1pm to hear Susan Philipsz’ Timeline but I’ll try again next week. The work, in response to the One O’Clock Gun makes use of the artist’s own voice to call out across the city every day. I’ve heard recordings and it’s wonderful.
The Art Festival really must be praised for not only the Guide that they produce but also the map. This year it has been produced by renowned illustrator Peter Arkle – it’s helpful, comical and beautiful and I’ll carry on working my way through galleries on my return when, hopefully, they’ll be open.
Dieter Roth: Diaries is at The Fruitmarket Gallery until 14th October 2012, www.fruitmarket.co.uk. Leslie Hunter: A Life in Colour is at City Art Centre until 14th October 2012 and Human Race: Inside the History of Sports Medicine is at City Art Centre until 9th September 2012, www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venues/city-art-centre.aspx. Mick Peter and B.S. Johnson: Lying and Liars is at Collective until 30th September 2012, www.collectivegallery.net. Andrew Miller: The Waiting Place is in St. Andrew Square, www.edinburghartfestival.com. Martin Creed, Work No. 1059 is a permanent installation at The Scotsman Steps, www.martincreed.com. Susan Philipsz: Timeline can be heard daily at 1pm outside Nelson’s Monument on Calton Hill, at Old Calton Cemetery, on North Bridge, on Waverley Bridge, behind the National Gallery of Scotland on The Mound and in West Princes Street Gardens.