Galleries: Art festival tour gives us a taste of what we have all been missing

The Edinburgh Art Festival is upon us, and how lovely it is to be able to say that, given that this time last year, despite all best efforts to provide an online and small real-world presence, the Art Festival itself, like all other festivals both in Edinburgh and around the country, had been cancelled. This year, masks donned, jabs in qualifying arms, we are back to real-world events around the city, alongside online back-up, with very slick covid-secure precautions at all the very friendly venues I have visited so far. And it is wonderful to be able to plan an artistic meander around the city between venues as diverse as the Burns Monument on the edge of Calton Hill, where Emeka Ogboh has sited an evocative sound installation, and the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, a lovely coast downhill to Newhaven on the bike, once you get past the terrifying gyratory system that stands between you and the leafy off-road paths of North Edinburgh.

Emeka Ogboh, born in Nigeria and now based in Berlin, commissioned by the city’s Talbot Rice Gallery and EAF, first found his theme for “Song of the Union” when standing by the Burns Monument some 12 days after the UK had left the European Union, recalling how the MEPs had sung Auld Lang Syne in the European Parliament on the day that the withdrawal agreement was agreed. Finding the experience moving, he and Talbot Rice searched for singers in Scotland from each of the EU member states – many of whom did not have right to vote in the Brexit referendum – to sing and record the song in their own languages.

There is a great poignancy in this multi-speaker sound installation, not just in the resonance of the song itself, but as the different languages segue in and out of each other, sometimes singing all at once, sometimes just a lone voice or joined, sometimes in harmony, sometimes off-rhythm, the sense of different peoples communicating through one shared medium is very moving, expressing somewhat sadly, the common humanity behind the political posturing and ostracising.

Humanity, too – and in fact monuments – is what Dublin-based artist Sean Lynch hunts for in his shifting EAF commission at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, an investigation of Edinburgh’s numerous statues and memorials – prescient of course in this year of reckoning with the monuments of our past – and the materials that make them, the fictions and non-fictions of memory and decay. The installation is in one of the ground floor sculpture studios next to the cafe, arrayed with moulds from Lynch and the ESW technicians’ experiments with Coade stone, the artificial stone made indispensable to monumentalists by the eponymous Mrs Coade in the 18th century and beloved of architects from Robert Adam to John Soane.

Centre stage is a half hour film, narrated as if a documentary, in putative exploration of the role of the monument, small or large, in public life. Lynch clearly has much interest in the dichotomies of history and memorialisation, the materials we use to laud men’s achievements (and here it is always men, given we are very much looking back to the age of Empire), and less so in the aesthetics of the monuments themselves, although the sophisticated glories (and duplicity) of Coade stone moulding are certainly explored.

But the style of the film oscillates frustratingly, shaped to deliberately wrongfoot the viewer, to pull out the rug. The narrator, in heightened style, is teeth-grindingly didactic and aggressively over-simplistic at times, and at others wildly dramatic and story-telling. There is a moment in which ESW technicians stare motionless in to a lighted kiln as their Coade stone amalgam is fired – it takes four days – and the narrator simultaneously tells us that they are staring motionless in to a lighted kiln, which suddenly made me feel as if Jacques Cousteau had been reincarnated as a forgotten employee in a small and neglected regional museum (usually my favourite kind). Likewise, sudden voluminous flights of fancy amidst serious intimations of the heavy history of monuments such as that to Henry Dundas in the city centre, erected on a plinth so tall noone can yet touch him, despite being responsible for delaying the abolition of slavery by some 15 years, jar when we are suddenly presented with a free-flight sequence in which neolithic stone balls roll in to shot, called to speed the slow, climate-induced destruction of the towering sandstone monument, as a lustful Satyr from the mediaeval Aberdeen Bestiary is transplanted on to the stone face of Dundas and an Edinburgh Everyman attaches a bag of clay to his bottom and takes a surreptitious mould of the monument’s base to somehow – how? – siphon off some of the historical evil. Perhaps the bottoms – I’m going to shoe-horn in my own wild fancy flight, now – were a reference to the irreverent depictions of bare-bottomed peasants and clerics, waggling their posteriors at the Dundas-ish hoi poloi from the margins of mediaeval manuscripts, but it didn’t work for me. Others may find a different resonance in this deliberately manipulative journey.

Edinburgh Art Festival Commissions Programme,

Song of the Union/Emeka Ogboh, Burns Monument, Regent Road, Edinburgh, 0131 226 6558, Until 29 Aug, Daily 10am – 5pm, Free, advance booking advised via website but drop-ins welcome.

Tak’ Tent O’ Time Ere Time Be Tint/Sean Lynch, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, 21 Hawthornvale, Edinburgh, 0131 551 4490, Until 29 Aug, Daily 11am – 5pm, Free, Drop-in.

Critic’s Choice

If birdsong has become less evident now than it was a few months ago in the heady days – if you’re a bird – of spring, then it is still a joy to see and hear the different species and calls that frequent our woodlands, coasts and hillsides in summer, whether the screaming of a group of swifts or the song of the skylark. Down on the Forth and Clyde Canal, the diversity of birdlife is being celebrated this month with a series of abstract sculptures by artists Yulia Kovanova and Lars Koens, who have created sculptures based on the colours and shapes of the constituent parts of 20 species which frequent the canal.

“When it came to installing the sculptures we were guided by the local and visiting birds alighting on the trees or the canal nearby,” says Kovanova, who found herself becoming more attuned to the wildlife of the canal as the project progressed, working alongside ecologist Olivia Lassiere and treehouse specialist Patrick Fulton. “I had to look more intently than I would normally do: to search for the birds, to spot the right trees, to find the best match. For me, the sculptures evoke more consideration of our surroundings. In order to observe those bird species that live along the canal, you must have that kind of attentiveness, or else they simply drift into the background.”

The sculptures can be found along the walking/cycling path in the four mile section of the canal between the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel, strung up in the trees as if observing us from their perches.

Chroma Calls, Forth & Clyde Canal Walkway from The Kelpies to Falkirk Wheel. For further information visit Until 29 Aug

Don’t Miss

The ongoing celebrations for the centenary of the brilliant twentieth century painter Joan Eardley gather pace this summer, Scotland-wide. The Scottish Gallery, who represented Eardley in her lifetime and beyond, have mounted a major exhibition as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, and amongst the early evocative sketches and paintings, the iconic landscapes and startling portraits, a newly commissioned tapestry interpretation of one of Eardley’s much-loved Catterline landscapes by Dovecot Tapestry Studio weaver Naomi Robertson.

Joan Eardley Centenary, The Scottish Gallery, 16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, 0131 558 1200, Jul – 28 Aug, Tues – Fri, 11am – 5pm; Sat 11am – 2pm.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992