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August 16 2012

Scent of a kitten: the 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival

1. Face theory

Research suggests that human beings spend 48.6% of their lives decoding facial communication, so a big draw for a potential book buyer will be the familiarity of a face. The cover of Nick Hornby's Otherwise Pandemonium, for example, uses a cassette tape to create the image of a face.

2. Association theory

Human beings make a connection with a given stimulus that leads to how they respond to something they see. The image on the cover of Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent uses the familiar image of the Chanel No 5 perfume label to help the reader respond to the idea that the book is about scent.

3. Zen theory

This theory presents a challenge to the human mind that some will accept and some won't. A zen theory cover mainly involves text with few images, telling the reader little about the book other than the name of the author. This is often used for books from well-known authors, such as Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, who will attract readers with their name alone.

4. Type as image theory

This theory uses original or customised typefaces to create images and ideas. The type often becomes the image, such as on the cover for Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing.

5. Textual plasticity theory

The human mind reads words as a whole not individual letters. If a letter is missing, the brain will still understand the word. The design for James Gleick's Faster has all the vowels missing from the author's name and title on the cover, but is still readable.

6. Overdetermination theory

The image on a cover using Overdetermination theory suggests the beginning or snapshot of a narrative rather than an overall end result.

7. Ringfence theory

The difference between positive and negative space can determine what the reader sees. The Rubin vase is a good example, where some people see two faces and others see a vase. In this cover, the iPod headphones shape a womb and two lovers' faces.

8. Zoom theory

Zooming in can give a taster of a narrative without giving too much away, while zooming out creates a bigger picture, depending on what is required. The pen nib on the cover of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado is an example of close zoom.


9. Encapsulation theory

Typeface and image combine to create one unified image for the reader. Unity is more attractive to humans, as making connections doesn't require as much effort. The cover of Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has a picture of a tractor and the word "tractor".

10. Molecular theory

Layers of symbols that make up a whole, understandable theme define molecular theory. The cover of Karen Maitland's The Company of Liars uses skull symbols inside a silhouette of a dog to symbolise that this is "a novel of the plague".

11. Unheimlich theory

This theory takes a familiar image or symbol and makes it strange or unsettling. One cover of Lolita uses the image of a girl's bedroom wall to represent a girl's legs and underwear.


12. Absent presence theory

A gap is left on the cover, a missing image or text, that implies something. By having this space, the reader is forced to fill the gap with their imagination in order to understand the meaning.

13. Ju Jitsu theory

The opponent, the cover, forces a view or conception upon the defender, the reader, such as the bloody, violent implications on the cover of Anthony McGowan's love story Stag Hunt.

14. Toy theory

A fixed image allows the reader to remain passive and distance themselves from a cover. A fluid image, like the one on William Boyd's Fascination requires the reader to actively explore the cover and become curious about the content.

15. Obfuscation theory

If something is hidden it suddenly becomes more interesting to the curious nature of the human mind. The cover of an edition of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day obscures the image that depicts the content with white lines and text.

16. Combination theory

Because a book is static, two ideas can be presented at once to create a doubly effective but meaningful image to the reader. Moses Isegawa's novel Abyssinian Chronicles is about modern Africa, and the cover uses old books to create the shape of the continent.

17. Navigation

The eye is deliberately led via an understandable pattern; left to right, bottom to top, to create an easily recognisable overall image. Hannah Holmes's Quirk depicts the brain through a mind map.

18. Turd theory

A single, unsightly object can be seen as repulsive. Multiply the image and use bright colours, and it can become attractive. Usually used in series design, the effects can be seen in a sequence of Georges Simenon books designed by Keenan.

19. Maximisation

Everything is huge and thrown on to the cover. Bigger images and text can catch a reader's eye in a sea of detailed designs. The cover for Zadie Smith's new book, NW, is a good example of maximisation.

20. Fluffy kitten theory

Nothing draws a reader to a book like a picture of a fluffy kitten.


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August 10 2012

Edinburgh festival: art comes out of the gallery

A haunting sonic work, a pub crawl and films projected on to the walls of a department store – this year visual art at the Edinburgh festival is coming into the open. Karen Wright reports

In past years, the visual arts have always appeared to take a back seat during the Edinburgh international festival. Perhaps it seemed impossible to compete with the cacophony of the main festival, the fringe and the book festival. Sorcha Carey, director of the art festival, has decided to redress the balance with Festival Promenade, a series of works intended to bring the visual arts out of the galleries and into the places where people will be gathering for events. This "magical playground" will feature commissions allowing the artist "to create works that interrogate their spaces". To quote one participating artist, Anthony Schrag, "art is the thing that allows us to ask interesting questions about your life".

Carey's first commission as director of the arts festival in 2011 was a permanent "legacy" installation, Martin Creed's Work number 1059. The work, 104 outdoor steps clad in differently coloured marbles, accompanied Creed's retrospective show at the Fruitmarket Gallery. This year, with a commissioning budget of £250,000, she has turned away from permanent installations and chosen instead to commission a daring set of new interactive works, declaring that the choice is "unabashedly about showcasing Scottish artists". While the ambitious list includes some well-known artists, including Susan Philipsz, the 2010 Turner prize winner, and Callum Innes, a 1995 Turner prize nominee, it also embraces recent graduates of Scotland's art schools.

Carey says her chief aim is "to establish the delicate but important balance between the permanent and temporary in this massive World Heritage Site". I first met her during the opening week of dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, where she introduced me to Philipsz, whose Study for Strings, a sound piece responding to the history of the Hauptbahnhof, was one of the most affecting works for many visitors.

Philipsz confessed that when she made her first site visit to Edinburgh she did not really know the city. As a child growing up in a large Catholic family in Glasgow, she spent little time in Edinburgh, later studying in Belfast and New York and eventually settling in Berlin. She says her inspiration for Timeline, her Edinburgh work, was the spectacular view spread out below Nelson's Monument, and the tradition of the daily one o'clock gun in Edinburgh Castle, which was originally connected by a mile-long cable to the ball-drop on Cable Hill for sailors at sea to set their chronometers.

Philipsz's work will replace the long-removed cable, her sung tripartite chord being taken down the hill through seven individual speakers in a kind of domino effect. The work is a homage to Edinburgh resident John Robinson, who invented the siren, and to the sirens from Homer's Odyssey who lured sailors on to the rocks with the devastating beauty of their sound. Philipsz plays me the chord, simple and pure, which sounds to her, she says, "somewhat like a train". Its magic in Edinburgh will be its fleetingness, under a minute in all, and the mystery of where the sound is coming from.

Philipsz's sound trajectory will finish near the gun itself, in the gardens beneath the castle, where Edinburgh College of Art graduate Emily Speed will stage a one-off performance of Human Castle. The work will be composed of 10 "acro-balancers" in cardboard costumes, counterbalancing to form a castle-like shape before dismounting. Carey observes that Speed "draws out fragility in something that we often think of as solid and immovable by making them animate".

This is Speed's first performance back in Edinburgh, having left the city in 2002 to live and work in Japan before settling in Liverpool, and will be the first time she has not taken part. Instead she will assume the role of director: "It's quite strange to lose control of the work," she says. "It's terrifying but exciting working with the acrobats and I know that people will ask if it is acrobatics or a piece of art."

She describes the commission as "an act of faith", saying Carey "is not scared to take risks." When I speak to Speed she is in the midst of making the costumes. "I won't know if it works until they do it," she says. "I am asking the acrobats to do something they have never done before: counterbalance." There will be only one performance lasting a few minutes, but it will be filmed and screened throughout the festival.

In her determination to integrate the programme into the city, Carey identified Rose Street, a short road dominated at one junction by a brutish modernist BHS, as an ideal location for works. The Rose Street film programme will include Speed's film and will show on small screens in shop windows along the street in daylight, while at night films will be screened on BHS's large external wall.

Rose Street will also be the location for Kevin Harman's work 24/7. Carey first saw the work of Edinburgh native Harman in his degree show. She says his work is "engaging people about the world and the art, 24/7," and her ambitions for the festival as a whole seem to be summed up in the way she describes his piece as a "facilitation of dialogue".

Harman stole 210 of his neighbours' doormats from three enormous tenement buildings, leaving notes that they could be reclaimed at his degree show, where they were arranged as a giant work of art. The work sought to bring the community together in an unexpected way. Harman says he "comes to an environment open to the ideas of the viewer". He chooses not to talk about details of his festival project, saying: "If I think too much about the project it becomes too contrived."

The contribution of artist Anthony Schrag – a pub crawl tour – is bound to be popular. It too will take place on Rose Street and is part of Carey's aim to "encourage people to broaden their idea of what art can be". Although Schrag is currently based in the city, he is billed as the Edinburgh "Tourist in Residence", reflecting his interest in the changing landscape of his beloved city. He will take small groups around Edinburgh on unusual outings ranging from an early morning walk to a blindfold tour and a communal nap in a park, as well as the Rose Street pub crawl. Although the majority of Schrag's work has been produced outside the gallery context, he does not see himself as a performance artist. He observes that "unlike in performance art, the viewer takes equal part in the creation of the work". Rather than the city's beauty spots, his tours will explore the dark alleyways, turning away from the idea that "art looks at beautiful things".

Of all the artists participating in Festival Promenade, Callum Innes, an Edinburgh resident who shows with a local gallery, could be called the most traditional, with his paintings unashamedly exploring pure abstraction. But for the first time, he works here in light: in his installation The Regent Bridge, two "paintings" made of light will change colour with random variations. He says he wanted to "bring attention and to re-emphasise" the structure and beauty of the Regent Bridge. "This is such a dark part of Edinburgh, behind the station, that the changes have to be quick. It's a work of art, not a Georgian project," he says firmly. Like many others, Innes felt that the "festival has always deserved a good visual arts festival", so he donated his fee and says nervously, as he has not seen the finished work yet, "it challenged me and works for the city".

The Glasgow-based artist Andrew Miller provides the seeming centre of the installations with The Waiting Place, a temporary structure that will provide shelter from the elements, a starting point for Schrag's tours, and information including artist Peter Arkle's fantastical yet useful map of the festival. Miller has been exploring the interplay between design and art for years. I tell him that his piece seems the most imposing, in a sense, and he laughs. "It's hard to find – you have to go off the path and go into the trees, and after the festival it will disappear unless someone comes and decides to buy it and they have both space and a tree to put it round." I point out how different this seems from the more grandiose Serpentine Pavilions. Miller admits that he had a "quite generous budget, but the structure, while it is temporary, is robust. This is a cross between an Alvar Aalto summerhouse and a Trinidadian shack." The Waiting Place appears to be more of a whimsical summerhouse, and is appropriately named after a line from Dr Seuss: it offers a space "in which you're welcome to simply enjoy the act of waiting for something to happen". Miller says "it will keep you dry, but it is well ventilated deliberately, as it is about looking out. People animate it."

In Edinburgh, Carey is channelling artists' energy to act outside the cossetted space of the white cube. But if interactive work is not your thing, there are promising shows of Dieter Roth, Philip Guston, John Bellany and the blockbuster Picasso and Modern British Art, recently at Tate Britain, in Edinburgh museums. For me, though, I imagine Susan Philipsz's haunting sounds will hang in the air long after the festival, encouraging tourists to retrace the mile-long journey of her lost chord. After all, the definition of "promenade" is to walk with pleasure.

Edinburgh Art festival runs until 2 September www.edinburghartfestival.com


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Edinburgh sees the light in show that will run and run

Speed of Light, an art project that sees volunteers in light suits dashing around Arthur's Seat, will illuminate the festival city

It will put some in mind of constellations forming and reforming. Others will think of sea creatures unspooling across the inky ocean floor, or of strings of delicate fairy lights shivering in the breeze. A higher than usual percentage of late-night Edinburgh revellers – 5am closing times are permitted during the festival – will presumably wonder what exactly is dancing before their eyes.

Speed of Light, a major new art project that marks this weekend's opening of the Edinburgh international festival, defies categorisation: a vast community-created spectacle that crossbreeds high-tech digital light show with ancient land art, robotic choreography with eerie sound installation. Appropriately enough for an event designed to coincide with the closing weekend of the Olympics 400 miles south in London, it also has more than a hint of endurance athletics.

Employing some 4,000 volunteer digital-light-wearing runners and walkers, for 20 nights Speed of Light is occupying one of the most dramatic spaces in this most dramatic of cityscapes: Arthur's Seat, the craggy extinct volcano that lours over Edinburgh's graceful classical buildings like a reminder of a more primitive and brutal age.

Although fragments of the show can be glimpsed from the city down below, reportedly from as far as three miles away on a clear night, the best views are reserved for those who ascend the peak on one of the nightly guided walking tours – a minor feat of endurance itself, given that Arthur's Seat is 250 metres above sea level.

Yet the challenge of being in the audience pales alongside that being taken on by the runners, according to the project's creative director, Angus Farquhar. He said: "There are 29 run leaders leading the groups each night, running 50-odd miles, ascending a total of 35,000ft over the 20 nights of the project, the equivalent of going higher than Everest."

He added: "It's public art in the truest sense. The work is made by everyone who takes part."

Farquhar has dreamed of doing a project like this for the past 25 years, but only recently perfected the technology – and found the six-figure sum – required to make it reality. Each of the runners wears a specially constructed suit studded with lights, each of which is controlled remotely. Sometimes they flash green, or red; sometimes they appear multicoloured, or throb pure white, like electricity pulsing along a cable. Their bodies dappled with these chameleonic patterns, the runners are choreographed to follow a range of moves on the dark hillside – spinning slowly around in wobbly ellipses, clustering tightly in nodes, racing together to a single point then emitting outwards like a burst of energy into black space.

"The timing requirements are meticulous," said Farquhar. "Our choreographer Litza Bixler, who works in Hollywood, said it's the hardest job she's done."

The one thing that cannot be rehearsed, naturally, is the Scottish weather: although final rehearsals have taken place in ideal conditions, the runners ascending in dusky light against coral-coloured, tranquil skies, much of the previous training has taken place in this summer's sheeting rain. More challenging still is Edinburgh's notorious haar, the easterly fog that races in from the Firth and blankets the city like soggy cotton wool.

But the international festival's artistic director, Jonathan Mills, insisted that the work's responsiveness to the environment was very much the point: "You'll experience something no matter what the weather conditions are. In fog the sound appears at a lower altitude. Even in extreme weather conditions you'll still see the light."

Speed of Light is a risk, and not just for those taking part – never before has the festival done community-led art on this scale. During the six years of Mills's stewardship it has attempted to loosen its strait-laced and somewhat starchy reputation. Two years ago the theme was the New World ; last year, Asia loomed large. This year's festival is experimenting with something its anarchic, sometimes delinquent offspring, the fringe festival, does as a matter of course: popping up where audiences least expect.

"A festival is nothing but a pop-up, in a way," said Mills. "But we're trying to do it on a large scale with some of the finest, most important and innovative artists in the world. We're constantly asking ourselves what the festival can be, who it's for."

Also new is the decision to spend nearly half a million pounds constructing three temporary, custom-made theatre spaces in an exhibition hall at Ingliston, next to Edinburgh airport. Festival audiences will be bussed out for three spectacular, immersive shows – one of which, performed by the much-garlanded French troupe Theatre du Soleil, is a genuine coup for Mills. The company's director, Ariane Mnouchkine, is regularly described as one of the world's leading theatre directors; despite travelling widely elsewhere, this is their first time in the UK for 20 years.

Another Ingliston production, a cinematic-scale version of Macbeth by the young Polish company TR Warszawa, will be live-streamed on the Guardian website on Monday – also a first. Other highlights include the arrival of the renowned Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki and a three-part visit by groundbreaking French company Ballet Preljocaj.

At the final rehearsals for Speed of Light, though, Farquhar's runners were simply concentrating on where exactly they were planting their feet on the treacherous hillside. Emma Davidson, 36, a who is running later in the week, was upbeat: "It'll look absolutely amazing, I think. As long as we don't fall over."

Five fringe and international festival highlights

• Mies Julie, Assembly Mound, until 27 August

Yael Farber's gut-wrenchingly fierce adaptation transposes Strindberg's class-ridden classic to the bitter realities of contemporary South Africa

• 2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, Saturday night until 18 August

TR Warszawa's cinematic, militarised version doesn't hold on the videogame horror. Live-streamed on the Guardian's Culture site on Monday night

• Caesarian Section – Essays on Suicide, Summerhall, until 20 August

Polyphonic singing, broken glass, howling despair – what more could you want from the fringe?

• Will Franken, Just the Tonic at the Caves until 26 August

San Francisco-based fringe rookie offers sharp-clawed standup on US culture and liberal piety.

• Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores), Royal Highland Centre, 23–28 August

Parisian collective Théâtre du Soleil are one of the world's most revered companies; this spectacular seaborne version of a posthumous novel by Jules Verne captures the 20th century on the cusp of modernity.


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August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer.


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Edinburgh festival diary: news and gossip

Valentina makes tea, comics pose with pets and a man plays dead for a month

T stands for tedium

Bravest performer at this year's fringe? Early shout for Valentina Ceschi, one half of the duo who perform the offbeat play Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice (Underbelly). For at least 10 minutes Ceschi mimes the role of an absent-minded, tea-making elderly lady. She slowly turns on a kettle, opens cupboard doors, closes them, turns on the kettle again… It goes on and on. In opening week it's fair to say the audience were restless. Some fell to giggles and a few, inevitably, walked out. Ceschi never once flinched. Bravo!

Live on stage? Well, dead actually

A different type of commitment is being shown this month by a supporting player in Matthew Osborn's Shopping Centre at the Gilded Balloon. A man plays dead on stage for the show's entire 55-minute running time. That'll require roughly 1,500 minutes of deadness over the course of the festival. Double bravo!

Pets win prizes

It isn't looking like a vintage year for comedians' promo posters in Edinburgh (and not just because Richard Herring, in a recent broadside against the commercialisation of the fringe, likened festival poster campaigns to "atomic warfare"). There seems to be an unexpected minor vogue for portraits of standups clutching pets: Tania Edwards holds a restless cat, Jim Jeffries a sleepy-eyed dog. Pete Johansson goes for shock, smoking a crack pipe. Loretta Maine, meanwhile, illustrates her show Bipolar with a picture of two polar bears. Mm.

Does that ring a bell?

Verbatim sporting play The Prize (Underbelly) bravely teases the Olympic bother-police by putting circular award crests on its posters. This seems to suggest, from a distance, the famous rings. If we see any stage invasions of The Prize by uniformed IOC strong-arms, you'll know why.

Hooray for Harry's hobby

As well as trialling material for his forthcoming UK tour over the first few days of the fringe, Harry Hill is also showcasing his artistic talents in his first public exhibition of paintings and sculptures, My Hobby, which opened on Friday at White Stuff and runs until 2 September. Characteristically surreal, it features celebrities depicted as you've never seen them – including Philip Schofield as Munch's The Scream (it really suits him), and Britpop stars painted on coconuts. There's also a specially commissioned interview between Hill and cult artist David Shrigley.


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August 02 2012

Edinburgh art festival - in pictures

From Mickey and Minnie tapestries to movie screenings for monkeys, Edinburgh art festival has the lot. Plus, new and rare works by Susan Philipsz, Vincent van Gogh, David Hockney and Dieter Roth





August 01 2012

Dieter Roth: the video-diary Rembrandt

Dieter Roth chronicled the stuff of life with a poetic, sarcastic eye. He also filmed his death in meticulous, heartbreaking detail. Jonathan Jones on the standout show of this year's Edinburgh art festival

Dieter Roth sits at his desk, wearing a silk dressing gown and a soft cap. A lamp casts a warm glow as he studies a sheet of paper in front of him. Elsewhere, on another screen, we see the German-born artist watering his plants. He turns the camera so that it catches him walking outdoors where, in pallid sunlight, he pours nutrient-enriched water into a watering can. Soon he will be dead.

Dieter Roth made Solo Scenes in 1998, the final year of his life, thanks to an illness caused by alcoholism. At this time of all times, he chose to put himself under surveillance by setting up cameras throughout his house and studios in Germany, Switzerland and Iceland, filming himself going about his daily activities. On screen after screen, 128 in all, the sick artist, born in 1930, draws, makes notes, and just sits at his desk thinking. He looks busy, but it is hard to tell if he is creating new works or simply cataloguing old ones. Cameras catch him pottering about, even sitting on the toilet. Again and again, Roth's face peers in concentration at his work. His body in the dressing gown is large, his beard noble.

As I watch Solo Scenes, on show at the Fruitmarket gallery as part of this year's Edinburgh art festival, I start to feel as if I'm looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait reimagined as a video diary. Throughout his life, the 17th-century Dutch artist painted himself, scrutinising his face from every angle, posing as a knight in armour or the Prodigal Son. Then, in old age, he showed himself with a harrowing dignity. Those final self-portraits look back at us with a terrible truth: we age, we die.

Roth must have known he looked like old Rembrandt in his farewell video. The anglepoise lamps that light his nocturnal labours give him the twilight colours of Rembrandt's kindly brush. Roth bows out with dignity, even when we see him on the loo – because, even there, he is reading, thinking.

What would you do if you had a year to live? Roth worked on. In almost every scene, he is intent on his art. Even when he is not producing, he is thinking about producing. Thinking, thinking. It is his dedication and his seriousness that come across. Once you know what he was facing, this autumnal kaleidoscope of flickering screens becomes an emotional tidal wave. Solo Scenes is about what we do in the face of death – and what Roth does is insist on life. From scribbling on a pad to caring for his plants, he clings to its everyday beauty.

People video themselves in every moment, every embarrassment, these days. Art needs structure. Roth was more controlled. Cameras are placed at carefully chosen positions to capture powerful shots of this private world. The formal composition lends this intimate work grandeur, the sense of planning and order adding to the feeling of self-discipline in the face of disaster. It's what makes this such a harrowing encounter with the big things.

Who was Dieter Roth that his passing was so special? He was one of the most elusive and brilliant artists of the late 20th century. His works, the fragments of his sprawling creativity that can be seen in museums or tracked in private collections, include an old zinc bathtub filled with chocolate-covered busts of Beethoven; and an installation called Bar 2, a fully functioning bar complete with overflowing ashtrays.

Roth, from that generation of redemptive Germanic artists who emerged in the 1960s, looked at the stuff of modern life with a sarcastic, poetic eye. He kept diaries in which he worked out all his ideas and sketched out all his fantasies. In this exhibition, his diaries are shown as works of art in their own right, allowing us a glimpse into his reeky creative mind. One series of drawings seems to show his own head exploding into cosmic squiggles and monstrous caricatures. Another, sketched on a visit to Chicago, depicts his guardian angel.

Although an extraordinary draughtsman, Roth was not interested in turning that skill into something he could sell. His attitude to money, success and the consumer society is summed up in Flat Waste, his most stupefying diary of all. On rows of tidy shelves sit scores of files, each containing a month's worth of waste from his studio (anything that was less than 5mm thick). Plastic binders hold the detritus. Scrap paper. More scrap paper. A Gauloises cigarette pack. A Marlboro cigarette pack. Hotel stationary. A torn-up bill. The stuff of life, the stuff of death.

Few artists so fulfilled the great 20th-century tradition of art, begun with Dada, that spurns all self-indulgence, ultimately becoming identical to real life. The fact that he kept his beauty for his diaries, and rigorously avoided summing up his achievement in any saleable, elegant form, makes Roth, after his death, a monumental human archive – one that's just beginning to be opened up in this important, heartbreaking exhibition.

As an intense and inward artist from northern Europe, Roth would have warmed to the spooky fjords and winter suns in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape, at the Scottish National Gallery (also part of the festival). In the late 19th century, artists began to look at the world through spectacles tinged absinthe green and suicidal black. Symbolism rejected outward appearances in favour of inner truth. The world is shown in shockingly subjective ways: mountains became nightmarish symbols of death, the sea a phantom.

This excellent survey excels at setting the titans of the age – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Monet – alongside the less well known and sometimes wickedly eccentric artists. With its radiating sea and sky captured in unreal colours, Albert Trachsel's The Island of Blossoming Trees (Dream Picture) looks like a psychedelic album cover, yet it was painted around 1912. And if you thought The Killing was an eerie journey into Scandinavian bleakness, take a look at Eugene Jansson's 1899 painting of Riddarfjärden: the Stockholm lake is transformed into a pool of midnight darkness strangely illuminated by phosphorescent sea creatures, with a horizon tinted blood-red.

It is enough to send you running to the nearest comedy venue.

• Both shows end 14 October. Details: edinburghartfestival.com


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July 27 2012

Susan Philipsz guns for glory at Edinburgh festival – the week in art

The Turner prizewinner's voice will ring out across the city in response to Edinburgh Castle's One O'Clock Gun. And did we heed Martin Creed's Olympic bell-ringing cry? – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week

Susan Philipsz
The One O'Clock Gun is fired nearly every day from Edinburgh Castle in a tradition dating from 1861. It once had a practical function as a message to shipping. At this year's Edinburgh festival, it becomes the focus for a meeting of the city's cheerful tourist side and coolest artistic ambitions as Turner prizewinner Susan Philipsz installs sound works around the city that respond to the gun at 1pm daily. Her voice replying to the gun can be heard by Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill, in Old Calton Cemetery, on North Bridge, Waverley Bridge, next to the National Gallery on The Mound, and in West Princes Street Gardens.
Edinburgh art festival, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September

Other exhibitions this week

Callum Innes
This Edinburgh painter works with light to illuminate the underside of a beautiful bridge.
• Regent Bridge, Calton Road, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September.

Dieter Roth
An intimate encounter with a fascinating European artist.
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 14 October

Catherine the Great
This great patron of the 18th-century Enlightenment is celebrated with treasures from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until 21 October

Ian Hamilton Finlay
The poet and artist whose garden is a national treasure gets a welcome showing in the Edinburgh art festival.
• Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 27 October

Masterpiece of the week

Goya, El Médico (The Doctor)

This shadowy vision of the human predicament is one of the most haunting paintings in Edinburgh's greatest art collection.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How a 10km-long computer "cemetery" in Ghana provides an income for many of the people living there – and how photographer Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo is bringing its health risks to light

That Diana Athill remembers a London when Kew was exotic, Selfridges was vulgar and all men wore bowler hats

Why Tino Sehgal's work at Tate Modern is the most difficult and dangerous project director Chris Dercon has ever put in the museum

That more and more people are creating DIY photobooks, spawning a collection that celebrates "naughty pics"

That Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

That two men have been charged with stealing a Henry Moore sundial

And finally

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter

Are you the person the Contemporary Art Society are looking for?


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August 13 2011

The week in review

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Scottish National Gallery; Fruitmarket Gallery, all Edinburgh

There is a photograph so mysterious at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that I still do not know quite what I saw. Even the format is strange. Large as life and brown as a Rembrandt, the picture hangs in a weighty frame as if it were itself an old master: a portrait of a woman in crinoline and ringlets reminiscent of Florence Nightingale.

The closer one gets, the more this woman vanishes into vagueness. And distance does nothing to sharpen the image. Just behind her, what is more, an intruder seems to pass across the scene so spectrally that it is impossible to identify or grasp. Is it a man, and is he (was he) actually black?

Even if you do not know the story of the photographs in Hiroshi Sugimoto's new show, you will sense their strangeness right away. These are relics recovered from oblivion by this artist-archaeologist like the treasures from a prehistoric site. A leaf suspended in an ocean of dark air, a fern remote and pale as the moon behind inky rack: they are not simply records of botanical specimens but images of phenomena far beyond reach. Which might stand as the definition of any photograph, of course – a picture of what is not physically present – except that in this case the pictures' content is partly that very distance itself. The lady dissolves, the Victorian lace fades, the scene is nearly indecipherable. Viewing is slowed to the point where the viewer becomes aware of staring deep into the picture, a phrase we often use of painting, much less of photography. But that depth is exactly what Sugimoto achieves with these massive photographs.

Or found photographs: Sugimoto acquired some rare negatives made by Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s. Tiny and dark, it was almost impossible to see if they contained anything at all, and it seems that Fox Talbot never saw them developed. What Sugimoto has retrieved through an intensely fragile process looks remarkably like Plato's shadows in the cave: the origins of an idea, the birth of an art form. What his enlargements reveal, above all, is time past transmitted through old shadows, light brought back to light.

A second series in Edinburgh also returns to the dawn of photography. Sugimoto, probably best known for luminous seascapes made at first or last light with an immense box camera, found that static electricity often blighted the results. Using a Van de Graaff generator to release electrical charges on to photosensitive paper, he has reproduced this accident to advantage.

What you see looks spectacularly like the very thing itself: frozen lightning. The points fissure into something like leaves, peacock tails, deltas, tendrils, nerve ends, so that it seems as though nature is drawing itself. These split-second images, blooming and sparking in the darkness, describe the action of electricity but also the essence of photography: light captured and magically held.

Hiroshi Sugimoto puts in an unexpected appearance as a very plausible Elizabeth II in The Queen: Art and Image at the Scottish National Gallery, demonstrating two aspects of Her Majesty's appearance: her intense familiarity, so that even a Japanese man can slip into something very like her with minimal make-up, and the abetting anonymity of her face.

Any fear that this might be a pious homage to the monarch is swiftly relieved. The posters on Princes Street show Chris Levine's holographic Queen with her eyes closed, as if trying to rise above the woes of office, or shut out the world. Inside, Gilbert and George, Lucian Freud and Gerhard Richter balance the emollient photography of Lichfield and Snowdon. Richter's queen, in particular, her features almost unrecognisable in the delicate miasma of his grey lithograph, remains unknowable and private despite her global fame – just the exiguous after-image of a zillion news shots.

The Queen's six-decade reign (and this show) runs all the way from the age of deference to the era of celebrity. She eludes almost everyone en route. Few of the painted portraits attempt any sense of inner being, notably Pietro Annigoni's notoriously dreadful painting of a lizard-faced doll in an obliterating red cloak. Warhol fails to turn her into a Warhol in the 1980s because she was patently too fixed an icon to be transformed by his silkscreen treatment.

The Queen herself ceases to be the point, in the end, and portraiture itself becomes the issue. The latest image of Elizabeth and Prince Philip by the German art-photographer Thomas Struth is almost life-sized and intensely detailed as to decor, furniture and clothes; welcome to Her Royal World. But the Queen's eyes, weary yet dignified, are resistant to Struth's lens.

Upstairs, the SNG has a beautifully selected retrospective for the Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder. At 80, Blackadder has enjoyed long affection for her large-scale watercolours of irises, tulips, fans and cats carefully arrayed across the white space of the page. It is this meditative composition, perhaps more than the rich colour or the fetching subject matter, which make her paintings distinctive.

But this survey downplays the charm to present an edgier and more international artist, influenced by Hockney as much as Japanese watercolour and a keen student of Bonnard and Vuillard. She tries out the Williams Gillies and MacTaggart, great teachers at Edinburgh College of Art; she travels to India and Japan, practising drawing as a form of religion almost. She strips away background, distance, context, anything at all that might come between her and the cherished objects she paints.

But you see this devotion and humility, so apparent in the filmed interview, above all in the shy self-portraits hidden among the more popular works. A tiny figure, diffident, almost faceless, Blackadder sits in the corner of a room dominated by an immense lacquer table, its redness described in slow glazes as an act of painstaking praise.

The discovery of the Edinburgh art festival, for me at least, is the Los Angeles artist Ingrid Calame, whose show at the Fruitmarket Gallery presents a floating world in the form of delicate drawings made in coloured pencil on vast sheets of paper. At first sight they resemble the world as viewed from satellite height: tremulous patterns of rivers, seas and archipelagos from which one might deduce whole continents in microcosm.

But these millions of intricate forms turn out to be a record of reality at point-blank range: literally, the ground beneath one's feet. Calame makes one-to-one tracings of the earth's surface, mostly in California, always urban. Her pencil registers every kind of incident: gouges, graffiti, stains, cracks, skidmarks on the Indianapolis Speedway

These traceries are then combined, superimposed and retraced in pencil, enamel and, more recently, oil paint, some parts eliminated, others emphasised but always with one foot, as it were, in the urban location. It is an equal tension between abstract beauty and pedestrian reality – a number might appear, or a readable tyre mark. These are narratives that the viewer reads.

The Fruitmarket has an immense wall drawing pricked out in the manner of a Raphael cartoon that looks as soft as ice-cream in places, and as sharply defined as a map in others. It is wondrous to look at, as evocative of a Scottish rockpool as of the LA riverbed and vividly unusual: I think Calame may have invented a new process in art.


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August 04 2011

It's rubbish all right. But is it art?

Hans Schabus's junkwork in Edinburgh may seem wacky, but has its roots in a time-honoured tradition favoured by Picasso

Hans Schabus is certain to turn heads – and noses – at the Edinburgh festival this year with his exhibition of refuse at the Collective Gallery. The Vienna-based artist has collected all the rubbish that he and his family created in a year, sorted it and bagged it and is displaying it in the heart of the city. Actually, to be fair, I should point out that he has also cleaned it.

Schabus seems to be making a point about the enormity of modern waste and its terrifying impact on the planet. Yet there is also an art history of rubbish (and don't forget, facetious remarks are welcome on this blog). The earliest rubbish-related works of art I know about are 18th-century engravings that use Rococo decoration and Hogarthian depictions of London life to advertise "nightsoil men" (that is, poo removers) in the days before sewers. The cards show men in wigs and elegant clothes discreetly carrying away sacks of excrement from Georgian townhouses in the middle of the night.

Human waste was problematic in premodern societies – but at least it was organic, and had its uses: it became fertiliser. When French soldiers were stranded outside Rome one winter in the 16th century, they lay on the city's dunghills to soak up warmth from the fermenting matter.

These days excrement is disposed of by proper sewerage; but inorganic waste, which does not decay, proliferates. And for at least a century, artists have been recycling it. Picasso was the first to stick pages of discarded newspapers, broken chair seats and bits of cloth to his paintings to invent the art of collage. A few years later, Marcel Duchamp asserted that a urinal was art. But actually it is Picasso, not Duchamp, who is the radical of rubbish. Duchamp liked clean, unused, readymade things; Picasso pioneered the artistic use of the secondhand, the old, the broken. His sculpture of a bull's head made from bits of an old bike finds a new use – and meaning – for junk.

Artists after the second world war picked up on Picasso's passion for trash. Arman started making his "poubelle" works in 1959, using actual refuse. His piece Condition of Woman (1960) in the Tate is a container full of waste on top of an antique pedestal. While Arman was brutally direct in his imagery of waste, American artists were more poetic. The old dolls that Joseph Cornell arranged in fairytale tableaux, and the junkshop items that Robert Rauschenberg incorporated in his Combines, conjure nostalgic, surreal meanings – they are more redemptive than Arman's bleak portrait of consumer society.

Today it is the example of Arman that seems more political, and more urgent. Hans Schabus's creations are clearly in the Arman tradition. Rubbish is part of the modern condition and it was artists who were the first to see it. But the poetry of rubbish seems a luxury now. The horror of waste has overwhelmed its beauty.


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August 01 2011

Stairway to heaven

Martin Creed has paved an Edinburgh thoroughfare with richly coloured marble, bringing a splash of Italy to the city. It's the highlight of this year's art festival

The best art at this year's Edinburgh festival is not in a gallery. It is under your feet. You walk up and down it and you may, if you like, look at it as a work of art; but no one is forcing you to experience it that way.

In fact, it is a bit embarrassing to stand on the Scotsman Steps, an enclosed public staircase that leads from a spot near Waverley Station up to the heights of Edinburgh's Old Town, examining the aesthetic beauty of the 104 stairs while people rush from A to B. They wonder why you are loitering in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare. Martin Creed has created a work of art so perfectly integrated into the world that you feel a bit of a fool for making a fuss over it.

Creed was commissioned by the Fruitmarket Gallery to transform these formerly dingy stairs into a work of pedestrian art. Titled Work No 1059, it was meant to open in time for 2010's festival, but wasn't completed until June this year. No wonder it was tricky to bring together, for it makes use of a spectacular and luxurious variety of coloured marble slabs. Every step is made of a different kind. We think marble means white shiny stone, but there are blue marbles, orange, green, red marbles – and they are all here, meticulously shaped and precisely installed, to create a staircase fit for kings.

This is a visionary and utopian work of art. An exhibition at the Fruitmarket last year, filling the gap created by the public work's delay, irritatingly made Creed look like an artist obsessed with numbers and clever-clever plays on pattern. In reality, he is a social artist; the true magic of his work lies in the way it interacts with people and places. Here, he has given a gift of imagination to the city. Why should public spaces be shoddy, uncared for, mean? The Scotsman Steps in their new marble incarnation accuse every compromised civic scheme. Here is a set of steps lots of people use every day, going to work, or coming back from the pub. Why not make that climb a moment of beauty?

Creed, who lives on Alicudi, an island north of Sicily, has brought a bit of Italian visual glory into the heart of Edinburgh. Italian cities have been decorated with rich marble for centuries, and have always treated public spaces as special, dramatic stages for life. You could almost say this is a Catholic work of art infiltrated into a Calvinist city: the coloured richness of stone is the sort of extravagance you expect to find in the Vatican, but now lies in a place associated with the Reformation. Then again, the Scotsman Steps possess a no-nonsense, practical, modest quality, thanks to Creed's streak of sober restraint – the streak that makes him a minimalist. From the top of the steps, you get a wonderful panoramic view over the city. All human life is there, down in the station and crowding the streets, and up here with you. This is a model of what public art ought to be: not a pompous statue but a contribution to living in the world.

The work's radicalism would surely have delighted Robert Rauschenberg, the great American artist who died in 2008. His paint-spattered assemblages of everyday objects and found images – a photograph of his son next to a stuffed American eagle, his own bed smeared with fleshly colours – transformed art in the 1950s. Rauschenberg once said that neither art nor life can be made: "I try to act in the gap between the two." Creed's steps occupy the mysterious, enchanting space in which Rauschenberg strove to act; the borderland between art and life.

Rauschenberg himself is remembered this year in a show at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden. In the 50s he was a revolutionary; for perhaps a decade after that he made deeply moving and evocative works. But you won't find any of those masterpieces at Inverleith House. Instead, this exhibition drags out of gallery storerooms and flabby collections his late works, from the 1980s onwards. Nothing can redeem these sad sacks of exhausted ideas. Rauschenberg in his later years descended into self-pastiche. His gold and blue silkscreen pictures, reused Florida street signs and junk that seems carefully selected for him by assistants, have the manner of his early work but little of its intensity or passion. It is a bitter encounter, because I believe Rauschenberg still has a lot to teach and show, but he is ill-served by this misconceived wallow in his years of decline.

In the gardens, people stumble over clumps of hardened goo and marvel at what looks like a storm-ravaged fallen tree trunk, but turns out to be pair of giant legs and a headless torso. Its surface is engraved like rough bark, as if a tree god were slumbering on the lawn. This is a bronze sculpture by the young British artist Thomas Houseago whose works, scattered under the trees, provide a better reason to trek to the Botanic Garden. Rauschenberg's art seems a dead thing in Edinburgh, but his words live on, as young artists reveal new ways for art to be part of life. Creed does that, Houseago does it, too – as does American painter Ingrid Calame, whose ethereal wall drawing in the Fruitmarket gallery is based on tracings she made of Los Angeles graffiti. Words float out of the gracious veil of pallid, delicate colour she has transferred to a gallery surface: outside brought inside, street art memorialised, an abstract painting as a documentary photograph.

Faces in a restless universe

I find these artists more memorable than the British sculptor Tony Cragg, who has a survey of two decades of ambitious work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It feels sacrilegious to say this. Cragg makes extraordinarily energetic, spiralling, skewed forms, like melted chessmen. At first sight, his tottering towers of spun discs, or unbalanced stacks of plates, seem totally abstract; but in this exhibition, his drawings reveal their figurative origins and send you back to look again and notice the distorted faces, like people trapped in the warped material, that spookily populate his restless universe.

Cragg has formal originality, explosive creativity, and depth. His art is surely a reflection of modern science, an evocation of the warped fabric of space and time. His spectral faces, fused with the shuddering cosmos, suggest the human predicament in these stormy times. I suppose.

Yet the conventional presentation of his art as just that – Art, on plinths and with drawings to back up its seriousness – traps Cragg in a universe slightly askew to the one that interests me. This is art that sits on its pedestal and waits for life to come and admire it. Rauschenberg was right to say that what matters in art is a relationship with life; it is the way art inhabits the world that makes it powerful or weak, unforgettable or irrelevant. This is a good ethos for art at the Edinburgh festival, which is all about the moment of connection between artist and audience. And it forces me to say that, for all its strengths, Cragg's art just does not have what Creed's has: it does not speak in the world in the same unforced, open way. It is just some stuff in a gallery. Outside the museum, Creed's neon text glows with reassurance: Everything Is Going to Be Alright. Art is going to fuse with life. Both will be better for it.

• Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville is at Inverleith House until 2 October. Thomas Houseago: The Beat of the Show is there until 21 June. Ingrid Calame is at the Fruitmaket Gallery, Thursday until 9 October. Tony Cragg is at National Galleries of Scotland until 6 November. Full details: 0131-226 6558, edinburghartfestival.com


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August 23 2010

Staged

The Collective Gallery, Edinburgh

There could hardly be a more appropriate venue for the latest collaboration between artists Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth than Edinburgh's City Observatory. Perched on the summit of Calton Hill, the Observatory offers an ideal vantage point from which to survey a place under siege.

Timed to coincide with the Edinburgh international festival and awarded one of three Expo commissions, Staged sets out – at least on paper – to explore "the complex relationship the city has with performance". A mixture of live and pre-recorded CCTV footage, the multichannel video installation styles itself as a "digital camera obscura", not unlike the ones often found in royal observatories.

This is somewhat misleading. Once inside the narrow confines of William Playfair's elegant neoclassical structure, originally built to house a telescope, you are not plunged into complete darkness; nor are any of the shifting images projected on to the white walls inverted. It is more of a camera lucida, then, lit up from within like a magic lantern.

There is indeed something magical about the projected images of the surrounding city that flicker in and out of view, coming sharply into focus only to fade away the next moment. The use of selective focus makes for unsettling viewing, as the eye is constantly forced to adjust to varying depths of field. Each of the five screens, fitted around doors and framed by stark Doric columns, has its own pool of images. The immediate surroundings of the Observatory captured in live footage are juxtaposed with a seemingly random selection of more or less iconic, more or less easily recognisable public spaces – theatres, pubs, galleries – sourced from CCTV cameras installed around the city.

For a show whose avowed aim is to turn visitors and locals into players on the city's enlarged stage, Coleman and Hogarth's silent video montage is surprisingly, and rather soothingly, devoid of human presence. A foot or the back of a head occasionally peer into view, but these fleeting traces appear merely accidental. Some of the most effective images are closeups of stone pavements glistening in the rain, delicately veined marble surfaces, chequered floor patterns – a fitting reminder that cities are made of stone, none more so than Edinburgh.

Rating: 4/5


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August 18 2010

Edward Weston: greatest US photographer of his generation?

The Chicagoan helped to take photography out of the Victorian age and make it modernist in every sense of the word

There are 100 vintage prints by Edward Weston currently on show at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. A smaller show consisting of just 37 prints made by his son from Weston's original negatives opens in London next month. It seems a good time to look again at the work of a great American photographer who revolutionised the form.

Born in 1886 in Chicago, Weston helped to take photography out of the Victorian age, where it had served as a kind of pictorial addendum to painting, and make it modernist in every sense of the word. Whether photographing elemental landscapes, sculptural nudes or everyday objects, Weston's formal brilliance was allied to a democratic approach to his subject matter. He wanted, he said, "to make the commonplace unusual", a statement that has reverberated through photographic practice to the present day.

Looking at his work now, though, it strikes me that what he actually did, more often than not, was make the commonplace wondrous and beautiful. In Weston's still lives, for instance, the tonal quality of his black-and-white prints imbue everyday objects, both natural and man-made, with a heightened presence that sometimes makes them seem almost unreal. In his journals, he wrote that his aim was to render "the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh". To this end, he photographed seashells that had been collected by his lover, the photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti, and transformed them, in her words, into something "mystical and erotic". (A vintage print of one of his seashells, Nautilus, 1927, sold for $1,082,500 at Sotheby's New York in April.)

When he turned his camera on a humble green pepper, he made it look like a modernist sculpture by Hans Arp. In his journal, he wrote, "It is classic, completely satisfying – a pepper – but more than a pepper: abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter." (I omitted Edward Weston from my recent column on photographers who wrote well; his prose can be ornate and overwritten, but The Daybooks of Edward Weston are nevertheless an illuminating – and, for their time, incredibly honest – insight into the everyday highs and lows of the artistic life.)

The notion of a subject, even one belonging to the natural world like a pepper or a seashell, being "completely outside subject matter" is intriguing. Revealingly, Weston also wrote that something as ordinary and as extraordinary as a pepper "takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind". The question is, do Weston's still lives, in all their tonal beauty, their formal perfection, their technical skill, invest these commonplace objects with a heightened presence, or do they capture something innate? For me, his still lives always hover in that strange hinterland between representation and a kind of formal idealising of the subject. Which is perhaps why I find them easier to admire than to love.

Weston was given a Kodak box camera for his 16th birthday by his father. Within a year, he was photographing the parks in his native city on a 5in by 7in camera, and, aged 18, had the resulting work published in a photographic magazine. His only formal training was a short stint at the Illinois School of Photography. Initially, Weston had been a leading exponent of pictorialism – a kind of arty, romanticised style of portraiture that took its cue from the Victorian painters like Whistler.

In 1913, he met the photographer, Margarethe Mather, a self-styled bohemian and the first of a series of flamboyant women drawn to Weston. She nudged him towards a more radical style that came to full fruition when, in 1922, he photographed the Armco Steelworks in Ohio. The results – tall dark towers rising against a stark white sky – were enough to enshrine Weston as an American modernist master.

It was Tina Modotti, another muse who became his lover, who pushed Weston towards an even more radical way of seeing the world though his camera. Having become lovers after she posed for him, they first travelled to Modotti's native Mexico in 1923 and remained there for five years. In Mexico, Weston made a series of beautifully intimate nudes of Modotti, but, at her prompting, he also turned his camera on the everyday things around him: household objects as well as the flora and fauna of the country's arid landscape. Weston became absorbed by the camera's ability to capture, in arresting close-up, the otherness of the country's plant and vegetable life as well as rock and cloud formations. An aesthetic was born.

On his return to California, he continued to use his camera as a means to express "the very substance and the quintessence of the thing itself", photographing in close-up what he saw around him: an egg-slicer, a toadstool, a cup, a gnarled tree. In 1930, another lover, Sonya Noskowiak, brought him some green peppers to photograph, the most famous of which, Pepper No. 30, he transformed into a sensual object with curves that echo both modernist sculpture and the human form. Here, ultra-realism shades into surrealism.

In 1932, alongside Ansell Adams and Imogen Cunningham, Weston joined Group f/64, a collective of west coast photographers named after the smallest aperture in the large-format cameras that they used. Their aim was to champion what soon came to be known as "straight photography", which, in their manifesto, they defined as "possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other form".

Weston still considered himself a realist, but, as his work shows, his restless imagination could not be contained by labels or movements. His work throughout the 1920s can be read as a record of how photography moved from the pictorial to the modernist and beyond, becoming in the process an art form in and of itself.

For all that, the work he made towards the end of his life has always intrigued me more than his still lives or nudes. From 1938 until his death in 1958, Weston lived in a wooden cabin on Wildcat Hill in Carmel, California, near Point Lobos, a huge stretch of shoreline that he photographed again and again. A rocky outcrop on the edge of the continent, now called the Point Lobos state reserve, it is a beautifully elemental place that remains much as it was in Weston's time. It is a wild place that drew artists, photographers and film-makers long before Weston settled there.

For me, Weston's black and white images of Point Lobos – its angular rocks, tangled seaweed, bent cypress trees, sun-scorched driftwood – possess an almost unearthly beauty that is both austere and sensual, somehow not so "heightened" through technique as his more famous pictures. These images possess presence, but you feel it is captured, not created, by the camera.

Weston's final photographs, made in the years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1946, give off such a profound sense of place that Point Lobos now belongs to Edward Weston in much the same way that the Yosemite national park belongs to Ansel Adams. One of the last photographs he made is called The Dody Rocks, Point Lobos. It is subtitled Something Out of Nothing, a title that says much about how his ever-restless imagination had found yet another way of seeing, and one that perhaps surprised even himself in its rendering of "the very substance and quintessence" of that extraordinary landscape.


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Book festivals bring out the brains in Britons

Turn off the TV, put down the papers, and take a tour of Britain's book festivals. We are a lot more cultured than you think

Book festivals are exceptional events that prove something interesting about modern Britain: that it is a much more cultured place, with a far deeper hunger for knowledge, than you would ever guess by watching television or, a lot of the time, reading the papers.

I've been on a bit of a festival tour this summer, performing at Hay, Ways with Words and most recently Edinburgh. The level of engagement you get with audiences is stunning.

In a way, the success of Edinburgh is the most impressive of all because it takes place as part of this city's famous festival season, in direct competition with the fringe and other festivals. In fact the book festival site is just up the road from the Assembly Rooms on George Street where, for comparison, I saw Richard Herring do standup. He was funny, especially when he imagined being in a bike race with Jesus, but the contrast between the passive audience experience at the Assembly Rooms (laughing as if primed with electrodes, often before the joke) and the question-and-answer, talk-to-the-author electricity of the book festival was telling. There is arguably more real life and energy in the book festival than in other "live" cultural forms – and this goes too, of course, for Hay, where a performance by historian Niall Ferguson was one of the best and funniest one-man shows I have ever seen.

As serious entertainment, as provocation, as a chance to get under the skin of culture as it is made and ideas as they are formed, Britain's book festivals make a mockery of any belief we are getting dumber. They raise the question: is it just the media and politicians who are dumb? For it seems Britain is full of people who want to talk about really interesting stuff.


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August 16 2010

A picture of ourselves offended

In his Edinburgh festival show, the comedian provocatively uses a picture of an art work that has been condemned as child pornography. Is standup the right arena for such a debate?

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Sanderson Jones's comedy show Taking Liberties

"Do you want to see the picture of a naked 10-year-old girl?" comic Sanderson Jones cries. Almost as one, we cheer our assent. Confronted by the sight of Brooke Shields as a child standing nude in a bath and wearing makeup, there is a stunned silence. The man directly behind blurts out: "Oiled." Everyone is thrown by this, including Jones.

We are not a paedophile ring comparing holiday snaps, but an Edinburgh fringe audience watching Jones's standup show Taking Liberties. Jones, formerly the hirsute face of Ikea UK, has assembled an entertaining hour that questions the nature of offence and its impact upon civil liberties, gradually building from petty irritations to jokes about his dead mother, the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, to Guardian readers' ill-informed opinions on Islam. With some live Chat Roulette.

The Shields image, which is unveiled during the closing section of the show, is in fact a copy of artist Richard Prince's work Spiritual America, a photograph of a photograph taken by Garry Gross in 1975 for Playboy with the consent of Shields's mother. Condemned by some as child pornography, the image was removed from London's Tate Modern in October last year after police warned the gallery it might be breaking obscenity laws.

Jones's show contends that Spiritual America is an appropriate image to use in comedy, a catalyst for a debate about freedom of expression. But is standup an appropriate medium to debate the subject in such graphic fashion? There is a warning about an unspecified image at the top of the show. Yet how many in that room felt free to express their unwillingness to see it, whatever it may have been? Jones couldn't reveal his set-piece without undermining its impact, and few people want to be seen walking out of a gig so early.

So much of standup relies upon surprising, sometimes shocking the audience – as in Kim Noble's staggering, shocking 2009 fringe show, in which he projected video of himself masturbating into jars of vaginal cream, which he then seemed to put back on the supermarket shelf.

Unlike an image hanging sedately in the Tate Modern, approached deliberately and contemplatively, live comedy retains that sudden, explosive power – that visceral punch. It provokes honest, instinctive reaction, be that laughter, revulsion or simply a man blurting out "oiled". That makes it the perfect art form to explore offence and freedom of expression without any pre-conceived agendas. I wasn't offended, I was shocked. But I'm grateful standup still affords me freedom to be offended if I choose.

And yes, you might find the number of spoilers in this post offensive. But you haven't seen what Jones does with the image yet.


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Edinburgh's art treasures

Art is the ideal way to recover your equilibrium between festival shows. There are plenty of exhibitions, but don't forget the permanent collections

If you are in Edinburgh and you want to catch some art between comedy acts – it is the perfect hangover cure, the ideal chilled moment amid the hubbub of live performance – there are good exhibitions on, to be sure, but don't forget also to visit the free, permanent collection of the National Gallery between the old and new towns. Edinburgh has a world-class museum of European painting with masterpieces of the highest order.

Visiting to review festival art shows, I popped in for a quiet half-hour. As I had just been in Venice on holiday I naturally gravitated to the Titians. There are more Titian nudes in Edinburgh than in Venice itself, but the painting that peculiarly attracted me on this visit was his great work The Three Ages of Man. I can't get the face of the young woman in this picture, gazing with deep sensitivity at her lover, out of my mind.

In this museum you can also see masterpieces by Raphael and Veronese, in lovely rooms with a serious mood. The perfect escape from the rush, it will send you refreshed to the next play or, indeed, exhibition. But if you do pop in today or tomorrow, don't be surprised if I am there, because I am back in town to speak at the Edinburgh international book festival, in conversation (as it happens) with the director of the Scottish National Galleries about my book The Lost Battles. Not that any of the above is an attempt to curry favour with my interlocutor, I hasten to add: apart from anything else, he sounds as if he may actually know something about the Renaissance. Perhaps it'll turn into the comedy hit of the festival.


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August 04 2010

Prickly customers

Cactii on parade, steps to nowhere, and a vast psychotropic dome . . . Jonathan Jones on the two Turner prize-winning artists who are lighting up this year's Edinburgh art festival

As I walk up the Scotsman Steps, a neglected walkway rising from central Edinburgh to the Old Town, I notice a trickle of urine slowly heading in the opposite direction – down towards the Fruitmarket Gallery. There, appropriately enough, Martin Creed is exhibiting his plans for this sorry thoroughfare. The 2001 Turner prize-winner wants to cover every single step with a different coloured slice of marble from a different part of the world. Sadly, his idea has been much delayed, as a redevelopment scheme has to take place first; in the meantime, visitors must make do with Creed's show at the Fruitmarket instead.

Down Over Up, a series of ruminations on the theme of steps and stairs, gives an insight into the Scotsman Steps project. I go in. I go up. I go down. Yup, this is a staircase. Up. Down. I don't think about it that much. Do I want to? Do I need to? Creed has rigged things so that every step triggers a musical note from speakers on the stairs. It's like walking on a synthesiser. Ping, I step up. Pong, I step down. It is often said, of a certain kind of contemporary art, that it makes you aware of your own body and its position in the world, but I don't feel aware of anything much more than the fact that I'm going up and down. Meanwhile, in the lift, a choir sings angelic scales: up from bass to soprano, down from soprano to bass.

On the ground floor, the artist has painted diagonal black stripes along a wall. This doesn't seem to do anything except accentuate the unshapeliness of the gallery. Maybe that's why he put it there; Creed does like to annoy and confound. His Sick Films (films of people being sick) and Shit Films (do I have to elaborate?) are not shown here. At the top of the stairs, a sculpture soars upwards, tall and thin, like some stiff Giacometti. It's made of Lego. It seems as deliberately shocking as those films, in the gleeful way it invites that remark: "A child could do this." It's a good joke. Yes, Creed seems to be saying, a child could do this; after all, this is a kid's toy, do you have a problem with that? No, no problem, but it doesn't give me any deep satisfaction as art, either.

It's as if Creed wants to make sure his art never becomes respectable, which it easily could: many of the works here are gorgeous drawings and paintings. The sketches explore the spectrum of colours, his blueprints perhaps for the Scotsman Steps. From a distance, they stand apart from each other, like musical notes of intense colour, gracefully varied, yet repeating a minimalist sequence that might have been composed by Steve Reich. Only up close do you discover that they were drawn with a felt-tip pen. They are revelations of how close beauty is to us, if we only knew it.

The paintings are slighter: colourful stairs and ziggurats. They remind me of old 1970s film posters for Italian movies, with their cartoon-like reductive style. One row of drawings is juxtaposed with a row of cactus plants: like many other works here (even a rank of nails) the cactii rise in height, an echo of the musical scale. Again, the absurdity of organising the spiky green plants in this way, giving them a hierarchy, is funny.

Towering above all this are Creed's stacks of chairs and cardboard boxes. These simple sculptures have an instant elegance – each a perfect example of the readymade, of the belief that art can be put together from the ordinary, with only the slightest effort. Throughout this show, Creed's appetite for lumpen reality collides with a longing for harmony, the harmony of the musical scale. Still, taken as a whole, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it's all a contrived, half-serious, half-ironic pose. There is too much of nothing here, too many variations on one idea.

Two ancient Greek artists once competed to draw the thinnest line. The one who got closest to nothing was judged the greatest. In this sense, Creed is made to seem loud and self‑regarding next to Richard Wright's more convincing self-effacement. Before Wright was shortlisted for the Turner prize last year, few people had heard of this Glasgow painter. Then he unveiled a gold wall painting at Tate Britain that dazzled everyone and won the award.

Wright gave up making paintings to sell because he felt "there were too many things". Now he paints on walls, and lets his works be covered over, destroyed even, after a few weeks. But at the Dean Gallery, he has been persuaded to paint something permanent. Called The Stairwell Project, this is a meticulous network of black, flower-like shapes rising into one of the Dean's towers.

Illuminated by natural light from four windows, it seems to change constantly. I saw it on a cloudy day, with creamy clouds glowing in the windows and interacting richly with Wright's design. The work reveals the artist's fascination with perspective. It's as if the glitter was for London, the serious exploration for Edinburgh. Is this wall painting even better than his Turner winner? It certainly lives up to it, and cleverly answers critics who thought his mural was just decorative. Here, Wright achieves an effect just as powerful, through the creation of illusory space; he deploys the same understanding of design that let Renaissance artists and fresco painters make landscapes and clouds seem real.

This is no 3D gimmick, but a subtle, shimmering and richly ambiguous mist of marks. Wright has calculated complex patterns that lead your eye into warped, receding dips of fictional space. A divide seems to open in the pale air and your mind slips through, in an almost psychotropic state. How does he do it? With interfoldings of flecks and spots that echo one of his painter heroes, Titian. Just as Titian used brief, dappled brushstrokes to create a smoke of colour, so Wright deploys fragmentary marks to enchant the light.

His means are ancient, his sources historical, but Wright's art is profoundly of our time. Its theme is intoxication, ecstasy: 1960s psychedelic album covers fire his imagination alongside Titian. Here is painting remade as a drug. These two exhibitions offer two models for art in this century. Creed is the hero of an art that seems to inhabit the perpetual now, while Wright creates something very new from the very old. I hope Wright's triumphant work is the future of art.

Down Over Up is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131-225 2383), until 31 October. The Stairwell Project is at the Dean Gallery (0131-624 6200).


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March 17 2010

Edinburgh festival will reflect clash of cultures

Europe's colonisation of New World is central theme of 'exuberant' 64th event

The troubled history of Europe's colonisation of the New World and the survival of vibrant, flamboyant cultures across the Americas and the Pacific will be the core themes for the next Edinburgh international festival, organisers revealed.

This year's event, the 64th annual festival, will combine shows that boast exuberant dance alongside dark and troubling works exploring Europe's destruction of the Aztec civilisation.

Jonathan Mills, the festival's Australian director, said the 2010 festival would be a "conversation" between the old world of Europe and the new world of Australasia, the Pacific and the Americas.

Among the major productions will be the European premiere of an Australian opera by Brett Dean based on Bliss, the sardonic novel by Peter Carey about the life of a "prolapsed" advertising executive. It opened last week at Sydney Opera House

The festival will also feature work from Samoa, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, the US and New Zealand alongside a wide repertoire of work from Europe. Caledonia, a new satirical play about one of Scotland's greatest humiliations, the ill-fated attempt in 1698 to establish a colony at Darien in Panama, will be among those featured.

"If the 2008 festival was political in its dimensions and 2009 more philosophical in its ambitions, then 2010 is a festival about sensuality, texture, flamboyance — with a very important, serious message embedded in it," Mills said.

He said there was an important bridge which needed to be made between the old and new worlds.

"The New World wasn't new to the people who lived there but it was new to the European explorers who came there. So it has a kind of double-edge to it, some of it optimistic and some of it slightly dark," he said.

Despite its ambitions the festival has had to fight hard to secure its funding, with public grants and private sponsorship under intense pressure after the recession, said Mills and the leader of Edinburgh city council, Jenny Dawes.

Dawes had fought against a "mob" within the council, she said, who complained about having to cut money on schools and services while giving the festival a multimillion pound grant.

The festival had survived, but had to accept a cut of more than £10,000.

Mills said several new commercial backers had emerged, including the property company Arup and the Prudential. He had struck a series of deals with festivals abroad to co-produce new work including one of the major shows this year, Carl Heinrich Gruan's opera, Montezuma.

A co-production with partners in Germany, Mexico and Spain, it tells the story of the conquistadors' obliteration of the Aztecs.

"It's a story of the New World speaking back, poignantly, passionately, deplorably to the old world," he said.

He described the dance company Grupo Corpo, which is bringing two productions to the festival from the Brazilian Amazon region, as a "group with their bounces in all the right places".

"They're as sexy as all get-out, they're high-octane and energetic."

Mills disclosed that a major broadcasting deal with the BBC was imminent. He complained last year that the BBC had ignored the festival, particularly in its Scottish programming. BBC Radio 3 has agreed to record 28 concerts for later broadcast.

He confirmed that last year's festival had sold slightly fewer tickets than in 2008. The Edinburgh Fringe festival reported record ticket sales last year, while the book festival also hit a new high. But breaking records was not his objective, he insisted.

"My primary focus is on creating a great event, with great companies, great artists, great shows," he said. "As long as our audiences stand up in terms of numbers and are robust, and as long as the central idea is attractive enough, that's what really matters."

The director added that he had decided to extend his initial five-year contract for a further 12 months, continuing as director until 2012.

This year's opening concert will be El Nino, an oratorio by John Adams set "in a nowhere land" on the California-Mexico border which retells the nativity with a heavy Latin-American influence.

The American theme is underlined by the world premiere of work by New York's Elevator Repair Group, performances by the avant garde Meredith Monk, and an exuberant gospel version of the Gospel at Colonus featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama. Another world premiere will be by the Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company who will perform Quimeras.

The environmental theme will be captured by Mau, a Samoan dance company expert in indigenous rituals from across the Pacific ocean. Their production, Birds with Skymirrors, refers to the vast island of plastic waste circulating in the mid-Pacific, which poisons and kills seabirds; if the seabirds survive to line their nests with tiny shards of plastic debris their nests can be a "glittering jewel".

"It's a parable for the times we live in," said Mills.


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