A vision of bright reeds shimmers across the lake on the tiny island. Each is tied with a label and capped with a ceramic bell. Simple strips of Perspex, these labels appear white, then silver, then barely visible in the breeze, resembling the leaves of the willow tree above. The silvery music of the bells is the sonic equivalent of the shivering labels.
It is a beautiful sight, a son et lumiere for the Lothian landscape that doubles as a commemoration of the limitless dead. For Animitas, by the great French artist Christian Boltanski, takes its title from the Chilean roadside shrines honouring ancestral souls. Boltanski’s labels are nameless, however, as if to embrace all the dead of the world. His installation murmurs now in the Scottish air, releasing its song, but those currents pass freely all over the globe.
Inside, at Jupiter Artland, you can watch one of his peep shows – pale skeletons dancing in the darkness of a shadow theatre – or transmit your own heartbeat to an island off Japan, part of a project to preserve the world’s heartbeats to the last syllable of recorded time. Boltanski is always trying to catch death by the tail, and perhaps even undermine it. These heartbeats are a futile but utopian project that will only end with the artist’s demise – an impossible yet touching dream.
Boltanski is one of several international names at this year’s Edinburgh art festival. Another is the Mexican sculptor Damián Ortega, who has made new works about, and with, clay for the Fruitmarket Gallery. On the floor sits a kiln-shaped chunk of clay out of which have emerged, as it seems, dough balls, cannonballs and even curious heads, as if the clay had given birth (how did he scoop them out?). Dangling from the ceiling, tiny clay pebbles descend from delicate threads – one version a deluge, the other a refined chandelier. Torn and wrenched, great hanks of terracotta make an oceanic sequence of roiling waves.
Who would have thought it possible to show the geological effects of time simply by adapting a pile of terracotta bricks? Five floor pieces show the erosion of land by water. A bough-shaped rivulet in the first heap deepens in the second, and so on until the erosion becomes a gulch, then a grand canyon and finally a red mesa in the desert, as it beautifully seems. This story of how water altered the earth is made, of course, with fired earth.
A succession of Abrasive Objects – axes, knives, saws and even scalpels – is reprised in unfired clay, weightless and pale, imitating the very tools used to cut it. And then, painted white and aquamarine, the stuff sheers up into towering icebergs. That clay from baking Mexico could make icebergs is fanciful enough, let alone torrential downpours or breaking waves. But this same substance from which we make our daily crockery can also give us new ideas – ancient earth turned into contemporary sculpture.
This festival’s art takes you in all sorts of unexpected directions. Ciara Phillips’s dazzle ship lies moored in a Victorian dock down by the Ocean Terminal shopping centre; its pink and blue post-pop camouflage encodes a message about women’s work in the first world war that shines even by night. The Pakistani artist Bani Abidi fills the dusty chamber of the disused Royal High school with songs of protest and lament – Sikh soldiers describing the horrors of the front, Punjabi women pleading with their men not to sign up for the war. And the Edinburgh-based artist Jonathan Owen unleashes a startling surprise in the equally extraordinary Burns Monument.
A neo-Greek temple to Robert Burns, opened in 1831 but abandoned for decades, this circular building sits high on a mound by the Old Calton burial ground. It used to house a massive statue of the poet; now it contains another white marble figure. At first sight, she seems to be one of those mourning nymphs you see on Victorian tombs, head hung low in sorrow. But in fact her head is lolling from a muckle chain – instead of a spine, this woman has marble manacles. The shackles of slavery, Edinburgh’s sugar trade links, Blake’s mind-forged manacles: so many histories are embodied in this poor broken nude. But what unites them is Owen’s mordant double-take: you cannot help seeing the statue simultaneously as ideal and deformed.
The most beautiful gallery in Edinburgh – if not Britain – is Inverleith House in the botanic gardens, celebrating its 30th anniversary with a group exhibition featuring many of the stars who have shown here since 1986. I Still Believe in Miracles has something of an outdoor theme. Here is Louise Bourgeois’s pink marble woman turning into a frond-headed plant, and one of Raoul de Keyser’s most airy blue abstracts; here is Karla Black’s cellophane cloud hanging in one of the high Georgian windows, bearing green traces of the gardens beyond, and a thicket of marvellous historic paintings from the gardens’ collection, showing palms and peonies to semi-abstract perfection. A plaster model of a Venus flytrap from 1833, 10 times larger than life, looks like nothing so much as a surrealist object.
Paul Nesbitt, the gallery’s curator, has mounted many superb shows on a shoestring, often by American artists. I won’t forget seeing the painters Agnes Martin and Joan Mitchell here (the latter’s only British show), or the drawings of Philip Guston. The first and best William Eggleston show in Britain was at Inverleith House. Nesbitt has never wavered in his loyalty to the gallery; this show is testimony to his taste and devotion.
The American painter Alice Neel, near contemporary of Bourgeois, remains without precedent as a portraitist of marvellously awkward insights. The gathering of paintings and drawings at Talbot Rice Gallery shows her radical New York milieu to uneasy perfection: the left-wing film-maker Sam Brody with his haunted eyes (he was one of the lovers who betrayed her); the art dealer Charlie with his sweat-sheened brow trying to overcome an absurdly tight suit; Neel’s son Hartley, mismatched in collar, tie and beret, tensely controlling his own child on an uncomfortable knee.
Neel’s trademark blue outline darts and loops around each figure, holding the contours, registering the gauche pose or flaccid anatomy. Hands are claw-like, flesh sags, people coexist uncomfortably with their bodies. Her method, Neel said, was to chat until her sitters unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose, revealing “what the world had done to them, and their retaliation”. Perhaps even what the world might do next.
The most potent of all the paintings in this show feature young people in the 1970s. Neel’s daughter-in-law, downcast with exhaustion, tries to corral the almost frighteningly dynamic toddler in her lap, a child who would not be contained. A girl in a cafe is turning the deep red of her wine. And Ian and Mary might look like the perfect 70s couple – she barefoot in cheesecloth, Madonna hair drooping over a pale and fragile face; he with long, curly tresses, legs widely spread in tight denim – but how long have they got? Their hands may be tightly entwined but their eyes tell the future: his dopily cheerful, hers glumly aggressive.
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