Prior to the inception of the Edinburgh Art Festival (EAF) in 2004, the city’s galleries would raise their game a little in August, seeking to lure folk away from the other festivals. Now, with the EAF in its second year, they do much the same, each playing to their strengths—whether that’s Stills Gallery’s knack for collating memorable group shows from an overlooked corner of the art world or the Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art’s flair for mounting thorough—and thoroughly accessible—retrospectives.
So what is the EAF ? Since it does not have a hand in programming exhibitions and events, does not seek to add Edinburgh to the ever-expanding rosta of biennales and—to judge from the low profile maintained this year—does not serve as a marketing body for the galleries under its aegis, it is rather hard to fathom the organisation’s purpose.
It has, however had a practical impact. First, money. With £15,000 of Scottish Arts Council cash earmarked for visual art projects, EAF was able to fund Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘Black Rainbow’, a murky explosion of darkness over Edinburgh Castle, Ken Kageyama’s sculptural piece, made from 10,000 disposable chopsticks, and Kate Owens’ charming assembly of pop bottles, ‘Gates of Ades’.
Secondly, the EAF provided the opportunity for some grassroots opposition to a newly-established establishment. The Annuale was an artist-run fringe to the art festival proper, co-ordinated by The Embassy gallery. Cheekily positioning itself as an alternative to both the high-profile bi-and triennials—at which cities play host to visiting artists rather than promoting their own—and a bottom-up alternative to the top-down approach the EAF would take (if it were more than a waving banner with a wallet) the Annuale offered an array of events, exhibitions and publications. Even here, though, the EAF’s role was muddied, with Annuale events listed, rather confusingly, as part of the EAF itself.
The EAF, then, could be damned for failing to make a mark, or it could be damned with faint praise for keeping its nose out of gallery business and stumping up a few quid. But given the wealth and standard of work on show in Edinburgh in August, it seems almost churlish to attack the organisation as it finds its role, or lack thereof. The flagship shows were hits, and deservedly so. Francis Bacon: Portraits And Heads at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was something of a revelation, freshening eyes jaded by over-exposure to Bacon’s best-known work by focusing on portraiture. Across the road at the Dean Gallery, the Henri Cartier-Bresson show was simply a vast compendium of ‘decisive moments’, packing together some 200 photographs.
Passing over the oddities and failures—a sycophantic showing of watercolours owned by the late Queen Mum at Holyrood; the dreary collection of Tsarist tat at the Royal Museum; the disservice done to Paula Rego’s prints by hanging them higgledy-piggledy in the Talbot Rice Gallery—and we come to the real meat of the EAF, the smaller galleries. The Collective played host to Daria Martin’s filmic explorations of modernism, ‘Man and Mask’, and hosted ‘Oreo’, Kate Owens’ biscuitthemed companion piece to her ‘Gates of Ades’. The Stills show Low-fi was a wonderful look at work made with networked technologies, rubbishing the assumption that net art belongs on the net, not in the gallery. Finally, the Fruitmarket became a grove of banana palms planted by Cai Guo-Qiang alongside his gunpowder portraits of Scottish luminaries, linked by alchemy, the occult and ultimately death.
And so to the Annuale, a festival that felt truly like a festival, thanks to its fast, freewheeling pace. Total Kunst, a one-room gallery tacked on the side of a café, led the way here, mounting new shows and performances daily which—despite labouring under a dreadful pun of a title, Mullets Against The Fringe —set the overall high standard. Aurora, at the Cell 77 project space, played host to sound experiments by the Found collective, and a drawing workshop. The Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop threw open its doors to Magazine 05, a show that made use of every available space to present a vast group show by the workshop’s members and others, from Scott Laverie and Colin Parker’s huge shed-like structure to the minutiae of Elaine Allison’s boxed collections of ‘Little Precious Things’.
In the spirit of the Annuale, The Embassy presented Teaming, a show devoted to art made collaboratively, including a live performance by art-rockabilly group Uncle John & Whitelock and archive footage of a 1965 Boyle Family performance, ‘Oh What A Lovely Whore’, which saw the audience run amok, gleefully smashing pianos after the late Mark Boyle opened proceedings with the words, ‘If you want an event, you’ll have to do it yourselves’.
And in those words is the key to understanding the impact of the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Annuale. The latter revelled in the opportunities presented by a million-strong temporary audience of the arts-inclined, building an atmosphere of experimentation, foregrounding live events and performance work, and providing a platform for Edinburgh artists—one that might well serve to draw the city’s scene out from under shadow cast by Glasgow, its rival to the west. The former, in short, did none of these things, sticking fast to the status quo. It remains to be seen how the EAF fares in its third year, but on the evidence of this year’s outing, smart eyes will be looking to the artists doing it themselves.
Jack Mottram is a Glasgow-based arts writer