Usair 1 Final
Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall’, 2010, HDV / single screen projection

While the summer of 2009’s Edinburgh visual art offerings had thematic focus (enlightenment) courtesy Juliana Engberg’s programme curated on behalf of the Edinburgh International Festival, 2010 brings together the city’s arts venues under the EAF umbrella to present exhibitions which reflect the particular commitments of each organisation, rather than an overarching agenda.

Visitors to this third year of the festival can choose from, among many others: the latest phase of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s re-hang, canonical surrealist works in Another World at the Dean Gallery, new work by Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth at the Observatory on Calton Hill, Edward Weston at the re-opened City Arts Centre, or an exhibition of artists’ books and ‘exhibitions in print’ at Edinburgh College of Art, curated by JaAliceKlarr (Kate Andrews and Louise Briggs).

Further afield, year two of Jupiter Artland’s ambitious programme of commissions adds work by Jim Lambie and Cornelia Parker, as well as ‘In Memory’, a major new outdoor installation by Nathan Coley. Featuring the eerie and most unusual of found objects, tombstones, Coley’s work investigates the social dimensions of conceptual art and of belief, boldly juxtaposing readymade aesthetics with sentimental and religious responses to death and grief.

Wall paintings figure prominently in the festival—presumably coincidentally. Iran do Espirito Santo at Ingleby presents ‘En Passant 5’, a large four-part grayscale painting. As elsewhere in the exhibition, the minimalist aesthetic brings to this piece a shaded and decorous tastefulness. The artist suggests that the sculptural work on show functions to ‘dignify the most banal of shapes (light bulbs, a water glass, pencils) into idealised objects’. Unfortunately, this produces too little tension between the gallery space and the work to make either come alive.

Wall painting features too in Martin Creed’s Down Over Up at the Fruitmarket, but the new and recent work included here scrupulously avoids dignifying or idealising anything. Creed speaks of the comfort of repetition, and of his work as an effort at presenting a clarified, ordered, manageable world. It achieves this aim, doing so out of the very stuff of our confused, disordered world. In Down Over Up chairs, planks, cardboard boxes, nails, cacti, lego bricks are arranged according to size; paintings constructed from an inventory of marks made by a set of differently sized brushes; sheets of A4 filled in (by others) with coloured pen. All this is soundtracked, wonderfully, by the sound of visitors ascending and descending the Fruitmarket’s inner staircase, which Creed makes function as a keyboard playing the chromatic scale. In the lift, meanwhile, a choir of voices marks the journey in rising notes. It is hard not to take all this as a satire on the idea that art offers an ascent to a higher level. In Creed’s art, any such expectations are defeated by his genius for the simple, incremental gesture. In the 2007 film work ‘Orson and Sparky’, a big dog and a little dog cross the space in several permutations. So too does Creed, framing his own directorial activity within the work and showing us exactly how the piece was made. Tellingly, one photographic work presents the artist silhouetted against a corny, romantic sunset, with a thought bubble offering us the insight his mind is contemplating ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’. Such seemingly simple thought processes have proved capable of generating compelling art, music, and dance too, as evidenced by the presentation of Work No. 1020: Ballet, presented at the Traverse theatre in August, and originally at Sadlers Wells, London. Coinciding with the publication of a new Thames and Hudson book on Creed’s work, the show and related events offer a welcome chance to evaluate an important and increasingly multi-faceted practice.

Richard Wright, 'Stairwell Project', 2010, acrylic on wall. Courtesy the artist and the Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd
Richard Wright, ‘Stairwell Project’, 2010, acrylic on wall. Courtesy the artist and the Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd

A pity then that the Scotsman Steps, Creed’s Edinburgh Art Festival commission, which will clothe this historic city centre link from North Bridge to Market Street in marbles from around the world, will not see light of day until December this year owing to planning hold-ups.

To the north of the city, Inverleith House presents the first UK retrospective of Joan Mitchell’s paintings. The hang is remarkably spare, with a total of 12 works on show throughout ground and first floor galleries. In Victoria Morton’s recent show there, painting seemed to exceed, cover, or entirely abandon its frame, shifting scale without losing intensity and generally running riot through the gallery. By contrast, Mitchell’s use of the medium seems much more contained; it’s nonetheless obvious that she was an audacious painter in her day. Her role as a major figure within the second wave of abstract expressionism is confirmed by the selection of works here, and at times the gallery’s lush setting, and the natural light it offers, frame and illuminate the paintings wonderfully. The de Kooning-ish palette of ‘Garden Party, 1960–61 is shown across from 1964’s ‘First Cypress with its array of greens and khakis to great effect; this simple juxtaposition setting out key parameters of the artist’s trajectory in abstract painting. Any plausible critical approach to this body of work would surely have to pass through Clement Greenberg’s criticism of the early 1960s. Greenberg argued that colour and openness were the two qualities, which could save painterliness from its own excesses, from becoming a ‘set of mannerisms’ (by which he meant to indict ‘gestural’ painting such as Mitchell’s). Mitchell claimed her own career had suffered as a direct result of Greenberg’s distaste for her work. The best pictures here, however, make one wonder what could have been so objectionable about paintings that are as open and colourful as one could hope for.

At Stills, a retrospective of the work of Alexander and Susan Maris offers marvellous, intense photographs and plenty of speculation on memory and looking back. Questions of archaeology (and perhaps of mourning) seem to underpin much of the work, from Beuysian vitrines (which are like reliquaries of his near-mythic visit to Rannoch Moor), to the 2007 film ‘Silentium’’s emotional (and emotive) landscapes, soundtracked by Arvo Pärt’s breathtaking ‘Tabula Rasa’. The landscape in that film is anything but a blank slate, overlaid as it is by WG Sebald’s account of it in The Rings of Saturn, and by its biographical links to Benjamin Britten’s life in Snape and Aldeburgh. These layers of meaning are central to the film, and historical or mythic narratives pervade the landscapes pictured throughout the exhibition. Time embedded in actual geographical strata offers particularly rich resources to the Marises’ practice, while future-orientated projects such as Redrawn, due to be completed in 2021, yield less aesthetic or intellectual reward. Time will tell, of course, how these projects will come to look in a future retrospective.

Two small grey canvases in the Marises’ retrospective (one apparently made from the acrylic mixed with the ashes of an unread copy of Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, the other from a copy which had been read), make it clear that theirs is a practice informed by deconstruction, and by an acknowledgement that, as Derrida contends in that book, what is outside the work (including all its framing devices and narratives) is always already inside it too.

This kind of criticality is most pointedly put to use in Hito Steyerl’s brilliant film ‘In Free Fall’, 2010, shown as part of her exhibition at Collective. Ostensibly a history of the Boeing 707-700 4X-JYI airplane, Steyerl’s film is also an exploration of the conventions of documentary. Continually revealing its own artifice, its blue-screen deceit and actors playing experts, the piece comes across as a Brechtian, self-reflexive take on the heady mix of kitsch found footage and spectacular violence with which Johan Grimonprez made his name. Steyerl’s dialectical history more than holds its own against ‘Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y . The film pivots on a discussion of the reality effect achieved by digitally including a screen within the screen being watched—a device Steyerl uses and abuses throughout. If any thematic agenda could be retrospectively projected onto the festival, issues of framing in the broadest sense would be as fitting as any; Steyerl dealt with these with wit and lucidity.

At the Dean Gallery, one of the three Edinburgh Art Festival commissions (Coleman / Hogarth’s work and the Creed Scotsman Steps being the other two) Richard Wright’s Stairwell Project pulls off the impressive feat of both echoing the decorative programme of the building and seriously messing with the rationality of its architecture, warping its frame, as it were. Sol LeWitt wrote in 1967 that in conceptual art ‘decisions are made beforehand and execution is a perfunctory affair’. Nothing could seem further from Wright’s painstaking process of working by hand. But the Stairwell Project perhaps resonates with LeWitt’s 1969 conjecture that, ‘conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They jump to conclusions which logic cannot reach’.

Like LeWitt’s wall drawings, Wright’s best works oscillate and shimmer in
the space between the two seemingly contradictory principles of the conceptual / programmatic and the lyrical, painterly and beautiful. Both Edinburgh Art Festival and NGS have pulled off a great coup in getting permission to make this work
a permanent installation, and it should be a highlight of many festivals to come.

Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow