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Blinky Palermo painting Blau/gelb/weiss/rot in the stairwell of Edinburgh College of Art, August 1970

Thirty-five years ago, between 23 August and 12 September, 1970, the celebrated German artist Blinky Palermo executed a wall painting, ‘Blue/yellow/white/red’, comprising a horizontal band in four colours, which briefly occupied the main stairwell of Edinburgh College of Art. This work was Palermo’s major contribution to Strategy: Get Arts, an exhibition organised by Richard Demarco in collaboration with the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf as part of that year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The exhibition was designed to showcase innovative work in a range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, performance and film, from a number of prominent artists then based in Düsseldorf. These included Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Imi Knoebel and Daniel Spoerri as well as Palermo.

Since his premature death in 1977, aged 33, Palermo’s reputation and influence have continued to grow, as evidenced most recently by a major retrospective in 2003 at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Shortly after the 1970 exhibition ended, the college authorities decided to paint over Palermo’s work. Strategy: Get Arts was originally conceived as a temporary artistic intervention. Yet the show’s organiser, Richard Demarco, appears to have been one of the few people at the time to voice an objection to the over-painting.

In the years since the work’s erasure, however, the possibility of somehow reinstating it has been discussed on many occasions. Now it seems that Edinburgh College of Art is seriously examining the various options for restoration or reconstruction. Rescuing the hidden work was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, given that the acrylic paint Palermo used was water-based, and is therefore unlikely to survive the removal of many layers of subsequent over-painting. The option of remaking the work on the same wall has also, of course, been considerably complicated by the artist’s death.

At a meeting held at the college earlier this year to discuss the technical, legal, historical and ethical arguments for and against restoration or reconstruction, it was agreed that further research needed to be undertaken before any decision was made. The Historic Scotland Conservation Centre has since agreed to undertake an architectural paint analysis in the college stairwell, which will provide valuable information for the decision-making process. In formulating an appropriate response to this significant cultural legacy the college obviously feels obliged to investigate both the technical problems of restoration and more general questions regarding the nature of permanent and impermanent artworks.

Les Edge installing 'Sentences' by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Inverleith House, July 2005 
Les Edge installing ‘Sentences’ by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Inverleith House, July 2005

Any discussion of such matters in a British context might usefully take account of the heated arguments generated by Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’, 1993-4, one of the most controversial public artworks of recent times. Whiteread’s monumental concrete cast of a terraced Victorian house in Bow in London’s East End, which had been scheduled for demolition, was one of an ambitious series of public artworks commissioned by Artangel during the early 1990s. It sparked a lively debate in the national media, during which it was acclaimed by many of its champions as a powerful and poignant monument to the changing face of contemporary Britain, and dismissed by its detractors as an eyesore. As the battle lines were drawn there was an unfortunate tendency to reduce the debate to an argument between two entrenched camps: those who campaigned for its preservation for posterity versus those who argued for its immediate demolition. The liveliness of the debate itself suggested that a stay of execution might at least be in order, if only to allow more people to experience the work for themselves and come to a more informed opinion as to its fate. This was duly granted and the work was eventually demolished on 11 January, 1994.

Yet a truly informed opinion would also have to register the fact, all too easily overlooked in the heat of the controversy, that ‘House’ was always intended to be a temporary artwork and that its temporary nature might therefore be considered an important aspect of its original meaning and ultimate effect. As Artangel director James Lingwood has since noted: ‘No visible sign now remains, but the sculpture continues to “exist”, as the best of ephemeral art exists, in addition to its copious documentation, in individual and collective memory far beyond the confines of the art world.’

Narrowing the focus to a consideration of the status and fate of artworks presented temporarily on permanent supports, it should be noted that Palermo’s wall painting is by no means unique in the recent exhibition history of contemporary art in Scotland. In fact, one public gallery alone, Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens, can boast a veritable parade of impermanent works intermittently executed on its walls by leading artists over the past 15 years or so. These include site-specific or site-responsive works by herman de vries, 1992, Alan Johnston, 1995, Richard Wright, 1999 and Lawrence Weiner, 2000. This year’s Festival exhibition at Inverleith House by Ian Hamilton Finlay once again features the installation of temporary text-works on the gallery’s walls, as does a concurrent exhibition by the same artist at the Ingleby Gallery. Of course, in these days of a carefully monitored if currently overheated art market, the conditions under which artworks such as these may be circulated, sold or reproduced are likely to be far more strictly controlled than they were when Palermo came to Edinburgh in 1970.

The ‘Palermo Restore’ project, as it has been named, is organising a two-day conference exploring these questions and other ideas and debates surrounding the project. It will be held at the Edinburgh College of Art, in collaboration with Visual Arts Research Institute Edinburgh (VARIE), a consortium that includes the college, University of Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums of Scotland. ‘Palermo Restore’ is also being supported by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Talbot Rice Gallery, the University of Edinburgh and the Demarco European Art Foundation, as well as the Kunstmuseum and the Kunsthistorisches Institut der UniversitŠt in Bonn.

In addition to a discussion of Palermo’s work and its specific historical contexts, the conference will explore wider issues concerning relationships between art and architecture, visibility and invisibility within contemporary art, and the ramifying legacy of Palermo among contemporary artists. A number of related exhibitions are also scheduled to open in October. The Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh will exhibit a selection of works from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bonn, including Palermo’s own drawings and photographs of ‘Blue/yellow/white/red’, while the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which houses the Richard Demarco Archive, will present an exhibition examining the impact of Strategy: Get Arts, and illustrating Palermo’s practice in its historical context.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic, author and lecturer at University College, Dublin